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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Cowboys & Aliens

When Cowboys Meet Sci Fi

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Is Cowboys & Aliens the first of its kind—a science-fiction western? Something tells me a few low budget C-movies of that ilk might have been made in the 1930s and '40s, but C&A is a major motion picture pitting six shooters against death rays with an A-List cast. The new generation James Bond, Daniel Craig, plays an outlaw who awakens in the familiar sagebrush country of a thousand westerns with his memory erased and an alien metal bracelet on his wrist. Harrison Ford pushes his acting into the evil mode as a homicidal, tyrannical cattle baron with a heart—well, make that a corpuscle of gold buried deep. The movie's director, Jon Favreau, began his career with a smart indie film (Swingers) before devolving into big spectacle summer blockbusters (Iron Man).

C&A
was long in gestation. The concept has been bumping around since 1997, the brainchild of Malibu Comics' Scott Mitchell Rosenberg. He published it as a graphic novel in 2006, even as the lunch meetings over its cinematic fate continued in Hollywood. Probably as the result of the concept's migration between studios, directors and screenwriters, C&A has some gaps in logic—if one wants to analyze the storyline. However, it is a modestly entertaining two hours of rooting for the good guys, even though (or because) most of them aren't all that good, as they try to defeat an advance guard of E.T.s whose slimy snarling features have been seen many times since the first Alien film.

Favreau, or somebody, was aiming for the tone of those '60s Sergio Leone-Clint Eastwood "spaghetti westerns." The brutality is terse and the protagonist laconic. At first, Craig plays a man with no name—because the amnesia induced by his alien abduction (revealed later in flashbacks) caused him to forget. But once the nimble jet fighters of the E.T.s appear on the horizon, shooting up a dry gulch town for kicks (or to drive the uncertain plot), C&A slips into the mode of a contemporary Hollywood action picture in western garb. Olivia Wilde plays a mysterious woman with a six-gun strapped to her gingham dress and an interest in our handsome outlaw protagonist, fixing an intent female gaze at upon his chiseled visage. She appears to be decoration for the male audience, but a plot twist as the movie rides to its climactic shootout gives meaning to her presence.

Aliens in the Old West? Rosenberg was probably aware of strange newspaper stories from the late 19th century of "airships" over America's heartland in an era when balloons afforded humankind its only access to the sky. Whatever C&A's sources and however the plot may have been mangled on its slow trek from green light to silver screen, it keys in on the emotional satisfaction most of us derive from stories about antagonists banding together against a common foe. In Cowboys & Aliens, the outlaw and the cattle baron (who despise each other) and sundry bandits, townsfolk and—finally—Indian warriors join forces against the monsters from beyond the stars. It's no spoiler to mention that spears and tomahawks prove at least as effective against the aliens as bullets.
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