A galactic battle at home on the range
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, July 29, 2011
As an exercise in chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter mash-ups, the concept of cowboys fighting aliens joins cars that turn into robots and snakes on a plane as either the best idea ever or so-bad-it's-good kitsch.
"Cowboys & Aliens," Jon Favreau's inspired adaptation of the comic book of the same name, could teach Reese's a few things about how to do it right. A loving throwback to the classic westerns and sci-fi adventures of yore, this celebration of two of cinema's most revered genres doesn't stint in lavishing their most cherished conventions with even-handed affection and respect. Whether it's the loner riding into a desolate, dusty town or an E.T.'s squishier, scarier brother disembarking from a huge spaceship, "Cowboys & Aliens" gets both vernaculars exactly right.
Of course, Favreau found a pretty good loner. Daniel Craig plays Jake Lonergan, who as the movie opens wakes up alone in the desert with a mysterious injury and a heavy metal bracelet around his wrist. When he rides into nearby Absolution, he immediately makes his presence felt, swatting down a bully named Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano), whose father, Woodrow (Harrison Ford), owns a huge cattle ranch nearby. When strange lights appear in the sky and some of the townsfolk are sucked into hovering vehicles overhead, the taciturn Lonergan and the crustily misanthropic Woodrow Dolarhyde join forces to track down the interstellar outlaws and bring their people home. Eventually they're joined in their quest by some local Apache tribesmen, an alliance even more subversive than the notion of Outer Space in the New Mexico Territory circa 1875.
They're also helped by a beautiful woman named Ella Swenson, played by the gorgeous Olivia Wilde with the same brisk professionalism everyone else brings to the enterprise. (Terrific supporting players include Dano, Sam Rockwell as the town saloon owner and Keith Carradine as the sheriff.) With a concept so ripe for overkill and excess, "Cowboys & Aliens" keeps the story and visual approach remarkably plain-spoken and simple.
For the most part, it's a western with dashes of anachronistic weirdness, an aesthetic clash that Favreau (best known for his "Iron Man" films) handles well. With the exception of those slippery Creatures from the Intergalactic Lagoon that have inexplicably invaded 19th-century Earth, most of the sci-fi accoutrements don't look all that out of place, including Lonergan's manacle, which fits right in with the chains and handcuffs he also occasionally wears, or the spaceship that looks like a soaring, exotically carved mesa.
There are moments of startling, brutal violence in "Cowboys & Aliens," which with its grim mission and truly terrifying monsters isn't strictly kid stuff. Still, when the wonderfully grumpy, still Indy-fit Ford socks Craig on the jaw and Craig hits back even harder, it feels like a baton is being passed. ("Cowboys & Aliens" was produced by Steven Spielberg, who between this and "Super 8" seems refreshingly un-self-effacing about financing oblique and not-so-oblique tributes to himself.)
Between "Super 8," "X Men" and "Captain America," of course, "Cowboys & Aliens" risks being greeted with indifference by an exhausted audience. It may be two treats in one, but for an audience that's pigged out on spectacle all summer, that might be two treats too many.