Friday, July 29, 2011

Cowboys & Aliens: When genres collide

Cowboys & Aliens (2011) • View trailer for Cowboys & Aliens
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, and rather generously, for intense sci-fi action and violence, brief partial nudity and a fleeting crude reference
By Derrick Bang

Scientist and sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke once observed that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Scott Mitchell Rosenberg had plenty of fun with that concept, in the 2006 graphic novel he created and chaperoned with artist Luciano Lima and writers Fred Van Lente and Andrew Foley. The basic premise is so beguiling, that it's amazing nobody else thought of it first: What if, instead of repeatedly bothering post-WWII Earth, extraterrestrials had arrived 100 years earlier?
Having tracked an unknown whatzis to its rather unusual lair, cattle baron
Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford, left) and wanted train robber Jake
Lonergan (Daniel Craig) ponder their next move ... while both men wonder if
the strange gadget on Jake's left wrist will prove helpful.

Surely the average citizens of our Wild West would have believed themselves beset by demons who wielded magic beyond their comprehension.

Director Jon Favreau's big-screen adaptation of Cowboys & Aliens takes numerous liberties with that original graphic novel; a press-gang of six (!) credited writers has shaped this rootin', tootin' saga around its two big-name stars, while also moving the core plot in different directions. But the story's foundation remains the same: How would 19th century folks have reacted to such a threat?

While Favreau sends up hoary film western conventions with a few chuckles here and there — the sort of levity he also brought to his two Iron Man films — Cowboys & Aliens is, at all times, a much grimmer saga (grim enough to test the boundaries of its PG-13 rating). We're quite removed from the cute, inquisitive outer-space visitors of Steven Spielberg's E.T.; the aliens in this tale are brutish, nasty and Up To No Good. They think nothing of kidnapping hapless Earthers and then studying them at great length.

And you can forget about the eyebrow-raising rectal probes discussed with such insistence by obsessed modern "victims" of alien abduction; these extra-terrestrials go straight to vivisection and cellular disintegration. Not nice folks. At all.

But that's getting ahead of things. Favreau's film opens as a man with neither memory nor name (Daniel Craig) wakens one morning, in the sun-blasted land just outside the small New Mexico town of Absolution. It's 1875, and our protagonist hasn't the faintest idea how he got there, or how he wound up with such a peculiar bracelet-type gadget around his left wrist.

The latter won't come off, and its purpose remains hidden.

Shortly after wandering into Absolution — following a brief encounter with three would-be bounty hunters — our stranger learns that he's Jake Lonergan, and that he's wanted for all sorts of crimes. He encounters a young woman — Olivia Wilde, as Ella — who seems unusually interested in him; he also realizes that the entire town is in thrall to local cattle baron Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), whose ne'er-do-well son, Percy (Paul Dano), is an untouchable thorn in everybody's side.

Until Jake touches him, anyway. Quite a solid touch, at that.

But rising problems between Jake, Woodrow and the local sheriff (Keith Carradine) lose importance when the town is invaded by crescent-shaped spaceships that blast through the main street and kidnap panicked citizens via grappling hooks. (Seems to me that every victim's neck would get snapped by such a fast-moving tether, but we'll let that slide.)

The bracelet gizmo on Jake's wrist bursts into life, then bursts into some sort of hard-light weapon. He brings one of the spaceships down, but its pilot — or whatever was inside — gets away. And Ella becomes even more interested in Jake.

The local preacher (Clancy Brown) organizes a posse, the sheriff having been snatched with the others. Most of those who join the posse are motivated by a desire to find loved ones whisked into the sky before their very eyes. Jake ... just wants answers.

The geek-laden joy of what follows owes its allure to the constant juxtaposition of two entirely dissimilar genres, each with its distinct formulaic conventions. Thus, we can grin as Percy unwisely talks trash to Jake — and, it must be said, Craig sports one of the best taciturn, don't-mess-with-me expressions in show biz today — because we know that the young thug is about to get a well-deserved thumping. And the story subsequently builds on this, drawing humor from the fact that (for example) Percy eventually shares an adjoining jail cell ... and still isn't smart enough to keep his mouth shut.

Similarly, it's great fun to watch Ford and Craig stalk each other like rival strutting peacocks, the former with the belligerence of one who has grown accustomed to control through intimidation, the latter with the complacency of one who can't be intimidated. Craig probably wins on presence; when Jake turns his back on a potentially dangerous rival, it's with the certainly that the other guy wouldn't dare draw down on him. And we believe it.

Neither man is a "hero" in the conventional sense, and this moral ambiguity is foreshadowed by an early remark from the preacher: "I've seen good men do bad things, and bad men do good things." Somehow, this crazed common enemy will bring out the best in these two men, each of whom otherwise might be cast as a villain.

But these mildly amusing Western stereotypes are in stark contrast to the story's far more serious sci-fi elements, which are as abrupt and scary as the tripod attacks in Spielberg's recent update of The War of the Worlds. Bad things happen to good people during the course of what follows, and we can't base likely survival on star wattage or screen time.

The pairing of Ford and Craig is as tantalizing as the equally iconic meeting between the previous generation's action heroes, when Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds shared billing both in 1984's City Heat and, several years earlier, on a January 1978 cover of Time magazine. Happily, Cowboys & Aliens is a much better film than City Heat, which squandered the incandescent meeting of macho minds on a numb-nuts Depression-era gangster farce.

Ford has strong scenes with young Noah Ringer, cast as Emmett, the sheriff's grandson. We realize that Dolarhyde's perpetual scowl is only skin-deep, particularly when the cattle baron gruffly explains why the boy needs to "man up" under these dire circumstances.

Adam Beach brings depth to his role as Nat Colorado, a devoted Native American employee of Dolarhyde's, whose relationship to this older man is far more complex than that of ordinary worker to manager. Sam Rockwell does equally well with his understated role as Doc, the town saloonkeeper, a mousy fellow who finds it necessary to man up in his own way.

Wilde is properly mysterious as a femme who turns out to be quite fatale, and Favreau grants Dano just enough screen time to establish him as a petty little bully, without allowing the character to degenerate into two-dimensional comic relief.

Oh, and there's a dog, as well. A pretty cool dog, at that.

Editors Dan Lebental and Jim May help Favreau maintain a vigorous pace that builds to a solid climax, and Harry Gregson-Williams contributes an exhilarating score that makes our hearts pound even faster.

This film's bouillabaisse of writers and producers — 16 of the latter! — gave me pause going in; too many cooks almost always spoil the soup. But maybe Spielberg and Ron Howard, among the numerous producers, kept their eyes on script coherence, or maybe it's just blind luck; whatever the reason, everybody worked well together, and we get the resulting prize.

Quite simply, Cowboys & Aliens is every bit as audaciously clever and entertaining as its deliberately droll title. And that's saying a lot.

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