Tuesday, August 09, 2011

683 - Cowboys and Aliens review

“Cowboys and Aliens” is so high concept that what would normally serve as a pitch to studio executives functions as the title. In it, aliens invade the American West, show little regard for the residents as they kidnap locals for torturous experimentation, and, perhaps even worse, vacuum up all the gold.
Most filmmakers would likely approach this material from a satiric, jokey angle. Director Jon Favreau (helmer of “Iron Man”) actually does the opposite, making a straight-faced amalgam of Western and sci-fi that doesn’t wink at the audience or expect us to laugh. The campiest thing here is the title.

Yet, the serious take on an idea normally reserved for micro-budget TV or home video fare proves to be a wise choice. What would normally be pure kitsch becomes something genuinely entertaining, if not particularly interesting.

Daniel Craig stars as Jake, a gunslinger who awakens in the desert with no memory and a piece of alien machinery attached to his wrist. He dispatches some highwaymen and confiscates a horse, making his way to Absolution, one of those cinematic Western towns populated by a cast of colorful archetypes.

Harrison Ford shows up as Colonel Dolarhyde, a cattleman who runs the town with an iron fist and a steel revolver. Olivia Wilde plays the girl, Ella, both an object of Jake’s affection and the one person around that actually knows what’s going on. And that great character actor Sam Rockwell takes the part of a bitter businessman, that sort of man profoundly uncomfortable with violence whose involvement becomes all the braver for it. Others characters, played by not-quite-name actors like Adam Beach, Clancy Brown, Keith Carradine, Paul Dano, and Walton Goggins further flesh out the world, which feels familiar but not derivative.

The aliens make their presence overt upon kidnapping half the townsfolk, in particular the loved ones of the characters played by more recognizable actors. They’re large, hideous bipedal cave dwellers, a nasty sort of species that has no recognizable culture other than their spaceships and a thirst for gold. They die, alright, but it takes a lot of shooting and stabbing, the kind that makes for a protracted showdown. We’re informed that they consider us to be “insects” too insignificant to even consider defending against. I’ve never seen an ant colony come up with dynamite or constitutional democracy, but when was the last time movie aliens took us humans seriously as a threat to their safety?

Craig’s rugged appearance works as well here as it has anything he’s ever starred in, and he reminds us that he fits this kind of intense, blunt action better than most movie stars from this side of the Atlantic. And Ford, very nearly 70, remains remarkably effective as an actor who can convey the physicality of a man more than competent in his violence.

Favreau keeps things moving at a steady clip, and the special effects are more impressive than usual, with the aliens and their equipment rendered convincingly. His action pushes the PG-13 boundary, but has a cautious respect for the plausible; sure, none of it’s realistic per say, but it never succumbs to cartoonishness the way most mega budget summer movies do. There’s a nagging feel to be had about the subject matter, though, treated seriously in one way, but also presented without much historical or political context. A potentially provocative parallel between the alien invasion and the virtual annihilation of the Native Americans of the West is ignored, even as the white men ally themselves with the Apaches to assault the alien base at the climax.

But I was surprised here, first at the tone, and then at the craftsmanship of story and visuals. These characters might be readily identifiable archetypes, but they’re imbued with weight by a fine cast and a story that treats their actions with meaning. What a pleasant surprise this was, a film that seemed like it could only be a joke but turned out to be one of the best blockbuster experiences of the summer.

3.5 out of 5

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