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"Cowboys & Aliens": Clever Concept, Too Many Clichés

Updated on August 6, 2011

In the midst of a summer blockbuster season over-populated with comic book heros, it’s a welcomed excuse to have a genuine science fiction/western story inject itself into cineplexes. Based on the graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, “Cowboys & Aliens” is a fresh story that mixes two genres in an entertaining way however gets lost in itself by losing some credibility. Directed by actor-turned-director Jon Favreau (“Iron Man”), Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford team up as former rivals who do battle against menacing aliens.

Set in the 1870s New Mexico territory, Jake Lonergan (Craig), an infamous outlaw stricken with amnesia, awakes in the desert with an odd mechanical contraption strapped to his left wrist. As he strolls into the nearby town, he gets involved in controlling the antics of troublemaker Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano). Upon impressing the local sheriff (Keith Carradine), Lonergan is soon discovered to be wanted dead or alive, unbeknownst to his recovering memory. Lonergan soon meets Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde), a mysterious young woman. Percy happens to be the son of successful cattleman Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford), who holds a grudge against Lonergan for robbing his gold-filled stagecoach. Once Lonergan is imprisoned alongside Percy, they are to be transported to federal authorities. Percy’s father arrives in town to use his influence to free his son. Before matters can be settled, bright lights fill the darkened sky, quickly approaching the small town. As the townsfolk remain stunned, explosions hit the ground and before they know it, people are being snatched up off the ground. Percy, the sheriff, and the wife of the local saloon owner (Sam Rockwell) are abducted while the rest are dumbfounded over what they just witnessed. What were these flying machines? Where did their loved ones go?

That is the appeal of this cinematic concept. Simple folk and outlaws with limited technology are suddenly outnumbered against an advanced species they never could have anticipated. Recent alien invasion films have been smart and original (“District 9”) and dumb and pointless (“Battle: Los Angeles”). Yet they take place in the present. The appeal of “Cowboys & Aliens” is that it blends the classic genre Western with science fiction. The extent of weapons in the 1870s consisted of pistols, shotguns, and dynamite. Oh, and there was no such thing as flying machines, so imagine the townspeople’s bewilderment when small aircraft start snatching them up off the ground. It’s a David vs. Goliath scenario. As Favreau pointed out in an article prior to the film’s release, special efforts were made regarding the story:

"The trick is to do it in a way that's plausible, so that you believe each chess move. And a lot of it has to do with just having a good piece of material and good writing. On this one it's not like we're pulling it out of our ass as we go. It was very well laid out, well planned, and there were a lot of discussions with a lot of actors who called me to task on things that seemed too convenient, so we made sure we earned each step."

Unfortunately, that is where the magic of the film ends. Don’t get me wrong, the filmmakers pay tribute to the western genre with great respects. Classic films such as “Stagecoach” and “The Searchers” show their influence, but after decades of westerns, clichés start becoming noticed. In one particular scene, a young boy who lost his grandfather (the town’s sheriff) in the abduction decides to travel alongside the cowboys and is given a pocket knife by Dolarhyde (a temporary father-figure). Special emphasis is placed on the knife in this exchange. Sure enough, that scared young innocent kid uses the knife in a pivotal scene against the aliens. Further along, the gang is taken hostage by an Apache tribe who blame them for bringing about the alien menace. It isn’t until a mutual understanding of the enemy that the two groups become allies and band together to defeat the aliens.

Don’t get me wrong, “Cowboys & Aliens” is an entertaining flick, ripe for any summer outing. Terrific action sequences with what you would expect from science fiction folklore. Even the top billed actors are worth a watch. Daniel Craig is decent in his biggest film since assuming the role of James Bond. However, Harrison Ford appears more genuine as a character. There’s little indication of using his on-screen presence as a reminder to audiences of his legendary career, which was unjustly exploited in the last Indiana Jones film. “Cowboys & Aliens” is an exceptional film but nothing to write home about. If you’re a fan of westerns and science fiction, this is a good mixture. But don’t expect this to transcend the cross-genre appeal over time.


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