All film genres generally boil down to a matter of personal taste. Most general filmgoers probably don’t prefer westerns for their simmering runtimes while others still like to see some dirt getting kicked up on the big screen. Sci-fi is certainly picking up some slack as of lately and is becoming more mainstream every year. While both have been around as far back as movies have been made, they usually don’t cross their streams. I generally prefer the western to sci-fi if only because they tend to be more fun and don’t take themselves as seriously as most sci-fi tend to, but alas it was bound to happen that eventually the two would marry for a summer blockbuster as it now has with Jon Favreau’s Cowboys & Aliens.
To make a list of the heavy hitters involved is quite impressive. In the producer’s chairs you’ve got Favreau himself, along with Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, and Steven Spielberg. In the writer category you’ve also got three of the credited screenwriters in Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Damon Lindelof (all three also producing), best known as a trio of J.J. Abrams’ personal cronies. Then when you consider it stars James Bond (Daniel Craig) and Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), you can’t help but take a deep breath to prepare yourself for what you’re about to partake of.
However, the two additional writers (Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby) have worked with Favreau before on the first Iron Man. While they are credited with the story and co-writing, it would appear that the Abrams crew was possibly brought in to polish things up. How much is left of Scott Mitchell Rosenberg’s original story is unknown to me. I tried to read it and could only get through the first ten pages of his graphic novel. It is awful. Let’s just say that there’s aliens, there’s cowboys, and that’s probably all that remains the same and it’s all for our better.
In Cowboys & Aliens, things could get summed up rather quickly. A man (Craig) with no name (because he can’t remember it) awakens in the Arizona desert with a bloody slit in his side, a photo, and some sort of device attached to his wrist. After violently taking out three armed men, he heads into Absolution where all he wants to do is get a drink and be left alone. A woman named Ella (Olivia Wilde) seems to know who he is and soon enough, Sheriff John Taggart (Keith Carradine) recognizes him as Jake Lonergan, wanted for lots of things, most importantly the murder of Alice (Abigail Spencer), seen only in flashback, naturally.
Soon enough, we find out the thing on Jake’s wrist is some kind of extraterrestrial boomstick when alien ships whiz through town picking up a few townsfolk along the way. Including, but not limited to, Taggert, local saloon owner Doc’s (Sam Rockwell) wife Maria (Ana de la Reguera), and Woodrow Dolarhyde’s (Ford) son Percy (Paul Dano). Now, a posse sets out to chase after the “demon” visitors including Jake, Ella, Doc, and Dolarhyde, along with Dolarhyde’s surrogate American Indian son Nat (Adam Beach), a dog, and Taggart’s grandson Emmett (Noah Ringer). It’s not long before we finally learn why the aliens are here and what they want with and from us.
While most will be heading in with a certain expectation since Universal’s marketing department is trumpeting the film as “From the director of Iron Man,” which, of course, it is; don’t be expecting this to be a western/alien themed version of that. This film has a whole tone of its own and, while it is able to sneak in a few one-liners, it’s nowhere near as jokey as you’d think coming from a comic book adaptation. The comic book takes itself way too seriously, and while the film doesn’t exactly float on the fluffy side, make no mistake that this is one wild ride.
It also can’t be ignored that while none of the writers were involved with this summer’s (and so far year’s) best film Super 8, Spielberg was, so it should come as little surprise that some of the aliens here bear a slight resemblance to that film’s own “Cooper.” But these aliens are far from just wanting to phone home. They are malicious and pretty scary. Some of Favreau’s choices of shots even make you wonder if he filmed with a 3-D conversion in mind as a precaution. But thankfully the film never went that direction. A lot of this film is dark, and we all know those cursed glasses act more like wearing sunglasses which would just make sitting through most of the film unbearable.
On a side note, it was also nice to see a summer blockbuster featuring a “special makeup and animatronics” credit for a change. Yes, a lot of what you see during the big action scenes were obviously done with a computer, but a lot of what makes the aliens here work so well is the use of good ol’ fashioned men in suits. There’s something far creepier about actual alien appendages coming at you than just another CGI effect. So while the dust may be settling from this summer’s two biggest money makers (Transformers 3 and HP 7.2), there’s still time left for these Cowboys & Aliens to kick up a little more.
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