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Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

by on 2012/04/14

“I don’t know much about boats, but I’d say that one is upside down.”

* * *

As I set out to write what my co-blogger Gru assures me is our six hundredth review, I’m slightly more concerned with how I’m going to tackle my prepared stack of videos in a month where I’m running unusually late.

I’ve tried to imagine Cowboys & Aliens as an ideal commemorative subject, a mashup of gothic western with the geekiness of science fiction. The truth is, perhaps appropriately, it’s merely representative, not for exceptional quality, but for being fairly average.

Not that it doesn’t try hard . . . perhaps a little too hard.

It begins with the rousing of Jake Lonergan (current James Bond, Daniel Craig). Nearly completely amnesiac, he is nonetheless exceptionally attuned to his surroundings. He soon finds he’s familiar with combat, tactics, and weaponry. Unfortunately he also seems to be a wanted criminal.

Particularly desperate to see his comeuppance is Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (forever Han Solo and Indy, Harrison Ford). Before the two can settle old scores, they’re attacked by a group of demons . . . or so they mistakenly assume. Their reckoning must wait until they’ve rescued kith and kin.

They may be the stars, yet they’re not very accessible, sullen and grouchy throughout, with almost incomprehensibly guttural voices. Ironically, in a rather significant way, this movie is Olivia Wilde’s. Despite my having seen her once before in Tron: Legacy, she stood out less for familiarity than for her striking, distinctly non-frontiersman appearance. In fact, there were times when I suspected she and Craig were cast in part for their piercing gazes.

Joining them in more conventional roles are genre favourites Clancy Brown (Highlander and Starship Troopers) and Sam Rockwell (Everybody’s Fine and Moon), as well as Canadian stalwart Adam Beach (Flags of Our Fathers) and Walton Goggins (Justified).

Now, at this point I need to shift gears a bit. I probably should have made a clear disclaimer earlier: I’d already read the original comic and, frankly, I didn’t love it. I was sure — or I hoped — I’d prefer the movie. And I do. But . . . gradually I realized I preferred it only marginally.

Let’s start with a couple of compliments first. I like how the aliens aren’t “obvious”, especially early on. We’re shown iron manacles, explosions and fires, and shadowy predators. I also appreciated the filmmakers — among them Jon Favreau, Ron Howard, and Steven Spielberg — delivered the material straight. Though I felt they went overboard later on, I was glad the tone never went campy.

By “overboard later on” I mean when the wild west tips into sci-fi. We see colour-timed footage of a greenish hue, evoking The Matrix and Star Trek: First Contact. Speaking of the latter, many details reminded me of the Next Generation’s Borg, if not the invaders themselves.

The presence of CGI creatures lent even more synthetica to an already-slick approach. Lacking the grit I expect of an oater, the picture is clean and professional to a fault. I wondered how it might have turned out by changing two factors: reducing the budget and showing less of the extra-terrestrial tech.

All the same, I like its ideas, and respect what it tries to do. Why should a western be confined to conventions of location, time, and worldview? Why must aliens only exist from the 1950s on? The trouble with Cowboys & Aliens is it’s doing something unconventional and — if it doesn’t find popular validation — few others will attempt to do likewise.

While it’s not a perfect film, it is worth checking out at least once. It’s an “about time” high concept, with solid production, and a 600th anniversary-worthy cast.

* * *

Rated 14A

118 minutes (theatrical version)

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