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SAN DIEGO — Fusion is everything in gourmet cuisine these days, so why shouldn’t filmmakers mix and match movie genres no matter how crazy? Cowboys & Aliens — well, the title says it all. Taking the idea from a Platinum Studios graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, this film from Jon Favreau shrewdly blends an alien-invasion movie into a Western. The key to its success lies in the determination by everyone involved to play the damn thing straight. Even the slightest goofiness, the tiniest touch of camp, and the whole thing would blow sky high. But it doesn’t.
If you were to assess the mix, it would be about 70 percent Western paired with 30 percent alien invasion. Which is pretty bold given that aliens are all the rage and the most recent Western to make a lasting impression was probably Clint Eastwood’s 1992 Unforgiven. But that’s where shrewdness comes in: You expect space invasions; a Western is a tricky thing to pull off.
A big hit here at its Comic-Con world premiere, the Universal release looks primed to round up box-office gold with its target audience, all in ample supply this weekend in San Diego. But you suspect this is one monster movie that might even reach older audiences, who would love to slap on chaps and get rough and dirty with a good, old-fashioned Western. Well, here’s that opportunity. Nor does it hurt the movie’s appeal to an older crowd that the film unhesitatingly pairs two mature stars, Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, to go up against the aliens.
Take a look at the credit box for this film, and you’ll see an all-star team of Hollywood producers, exec producers and writers. But such is the overriding intelligence and singular vision in this picture that you have to assume Favreau deserves the credit for keeping things true to both genres. A surprisingly good Western is taking place before those creatures drop down from another planet. True, the Western characters and story are awfully familiar to those who still treasure the genre, but the Western was always a conservative genre that stuck close to its traditions while allowing plenty of room for storytelling.
All good Westerns begin when a stranger rides into town. But this stranger, in 1875 New Mexico territory, suffers from amnesia. Played by Craig, the man awakens in the middle of the desert with a strange shackle on his left wrist and no memory of what happened to him. When he encounters three men who would take advantage of his situation, he quickly learns — as does the audience — he is not a man to be messed with.
The town he rides into, on a horse belonging to one of those unfortunate men, is called Absolution, a name that would give anyone pause. It is ruled by a tyrannical cattle baron, Colonel Dolarhyde, and that would be Ford who lets his face and body sag under the weight of his own ferocious and bitter sense of power. You get the impression he really wants someone to stand up to him.
When the man with no name challenges the colonel’s cowardly son (an amusing Paul Dano), it looks like the colonel has found such a man. But not before a few townsfolk get introduced into the drama — which would include the town’s preacher (Clancy Brown); a stressed saloon-keeper (Sam Rockwell) and his plucky wife (Ana de la Reguera); the colonel’s unappreciated Indian cowhand (Adam Beach); and the beleaguered sheriff (Keith Carradine, evoking his late father’s considerable impact on the Western form) and his eager-to-grow-up grandson (Noah Ringer).
Drifting mysteriously on the periphery but making sure that the stranger stays in town when everyone else is keen to see him gone is a woman, Ella (Olivia Wilde), who might understand his plight and amnesia.
Just as a showdown of epic proportions seems imminent, an even greater showdown explodes in the town in a great WTF moment. Alien spacecrafts strafe the town and abduct a number of its citizens, including the colonel’s son. Equally surprising is how the stranger’s wrist ornament suddenly springs to life as the only successful weapon against these alien forces. The stranger, as strangers always do in Westerns, has demonstrated his usefulness.
Cowboys & Aliens has now reached the crucial juncture that will either make or break this odd admixture of a movie. Had the film given way to this sci-fi onslaught, the whole thing might have turned into the fiasco that was 1999’s Wild Wild West.
But no, Favreau and his legion of screenwriters wisely cling to the Western framework. The clear model for the rest of the movie is John Ford’s The Searchers, about a Comanche abduction of a white girl and her would-be rescuers led by John Wayne’s virulently racist uncle, to whom Indians were on the same level as reptilian space aliens.
Faced with the demise of the planet, all the Western’s warring parties — the cowboys and Indians, cattle barons and downtrodden townsfolk, the stranger and the colonel — suddenly realize they all belong to the same species. So they band together to form a search-and-rescue party to free loved ones and eliminate the alien scourge.
As this posse tracks the aliens down to their lair with some unexpected help from the mysterious Ella, the movie becomes perhaps a tad more conventional. Some of the movie’s niftiest sequences and best character-reveals happen during this rescue, but if there is a weakness here, it’s the aliens themselves.
Thanks to quite a few filmmakers — including Steven Spielberg, one of the many exec producers here — audiences are used to greater detail and more empathy for movie space creatures, even as recently as the one in Super 8. The alien villains here — while ingenious from a CGI standpoint with multilayered malevolence in bodies that pull back endoplasmic surfaces to reveal further weapons of destruction — don’t rate as characters. They are more like moving blobs you shoot at in a video game. Bam — gotcha!
Nonetheless, as the first of undoubtedly a bunch of copycat genre mashups, some of which are bound to be horrendous, Cowboys & Aliens is a solid success. For a tentpole Comic-Con movie, this one devotes a gratifying amount of time to character and achieves most of its success because Favreau has intelligently cast his film and let his actors do their thing. As good as the visual effects are, you walk away from the movie with a memory of actors’ faces, lines of dialogue and actions that speak more to character than to shock and awe.
And another thing: That wrist accessory worn by Craig should be a merchandising stroke of genius.
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