Silver Screen: Cowboys & Aliens ***

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Who:
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Silver Screen: Cowboys & Aliens ***
Bryan Miller

Cowboys & Aliens isn't just a film title, it's a plot summary, a disclaimer, and a philosophy. The name broadly but accurately describes the entire narrative, which undeniably lives up to the title's explicit promise. Moreover, the title encapsulates the self-conscious pop ethos at work behind not just the movie, but an entire approach to entertainment where genre conventions are elevated into special effects unto themselves. It's the weary, vaguely desperate effort of a movie culture that's so mired in remakes and retreads of its own classics that the very movie itself seems to have predicted your own kneejerk disinterest and prepared in advance a knowing wink. (Don't for a minute think someone, somewhere didn't make the argument for the title's more glib ampersand over the dour, utilitarian spelled-out “and.”)

That's just the complicated psychology that leads to the not-so-complicated movie itself, in which badass Brit Daniel Craig does a more-than-respectable job playing a Man with No Name character-riff who wakes up in the desert with no memory of his past. The only clue to his predicament is even more baffling: An unearthly, thick metal bracelet affixed to his right wrist.

After some vaguely westernish shenanigans, he finds himself in a dead-end mining town, accused of being the outlaw Jake Lonergan, who robbed a stagecoach and stole gold from tyrannical cattle rancher Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). The man who may be Lonergan is soon to be shipped off to federal marshals alongside Dolarhyde's petulant, irresponsible son (Paul Dano) when suddenly a horde of brightly lit aircraft descend on the 1870s-era Arizona town and blast it to smithereens with laser guns, then abduct several of the townsfolk, including the younger Dolarhyde. When the aliens arrive, Jake's bracelet beeps and lights up, then returns laser fire itself.

With a new enemy to at least partly distract them from their squabbles, Lonergan and Dolarhyde team up to lead an alien-hunting posse that includes a sensitive barkeep (Sam Rockwell), the town sheriff (Keith Carradine, somewhat recalling his role in Deadwood), a preacher (Clancy Brown), and a mysterious woman from town who claims to have some knowledge of the invading creatures (Oliva Wilde).

Despite the smirk of the title and the frivolity of the concept, director Jon Favreau, working from a committee-written script by the writers of Lost and Iron Man and the director of Ace Ventura II: When Nature Calls, plays the whole thing deadly straight. It's a potentially fatal mistake to take this kind of popcorn-movie fodder seriously, but Favreau, who did such nice work with Iron Man, succeeds in bringing a surprising intensity to the film, which never really indulges in the kind of goofiness the title would suggest.

As a genre mashup, it's a bit disappointing, if only insofar as the movie isn't much of a western. Despite the hats and the horses and the six-shooters, not to mention some inevitable later encounters with outlaws and American Indians, the working template is always the summer action movie. The overblown orchestral score, in lieu of string guitars or iconic Ennio Morricone music, is the first clue. Once the aliens make their first major assault, the whole picture shifts into Independence Day mode. Nothing about the western motif feels even remotely authentic-- the townsfolk don't seem all that shocked to discover aliens, laser guns, and flying machines, especially when they don't even have a train running through-- which feels like a missed opportunity. But Favreau directs the big action setpieces with enough verve to keep them exciting, even if they are just another hot mess of computer-generated chaos.

It's all more blandly satisfying than thrilling, but it's hard to deny that it gets the job done. Cowboys? Check. Aliens? Check. Favreau and company can hardly be accused of false advertising.