Sunday, July 31, 2011

Film Review: Cowboys & Aliens

"Cowboys & Aliens" ** 1\2 (out of ****)

When you hear about a movie called "Cowboys & Aliens" (2011) you tend to review the movie before you even see it. Lets face it, the movie sounds goofy. People are going to judge the quality of the movie based on the title alone. It may in fact work in the film's favor. Some might think "what the heck kind of movie is this going to be" and then they'll head out to see it. Others, will hear this title and say it sounds horrible. I'm somewhere in the middle.

"Cowboys & Aliens" might not be the movie some people are expecting. I don't think this is a spoiler but "Cowboys & Aliens" is not a campy, broad comedy. The film is a western first and foremost, second a science fiction adventure. The film has a set-up and a cast of characters you would find in a typical western film. Director Jon Favreau, his screenwriters and this cast take this material serious. In my opinion that serves as a plus. Still there are those who criticize that move, among them, Wall Street Journal movie critic Joe Morgenstern who wrote, "cowboys versus aliens is a concept that may make you smile in anticipation, but wipe that smile off your face before buying your ticket, because the film takes its subject seriously - deadly seriously".

And you have to hand it to this cast. No one is winking at the camera, no one has a smirk on their face. This cast, starring Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, actually give engaging performances. Their characters are as believable as characters can be in movie called "Cowboys & Aliens". These are characters with a background story. Characters with an objective. They are motivated by emotions. This isn't a shoot 'em up, brain dead action film. There is acting required. That is another plus in the film's favor.

Daniel Craig plays Jake Lonergan. A mysterious man who roams into a town called Absolution. He wakes up one day in an empty field. He has a metal brace attached to his arm. He doesn't know what it is, how it was put on him, where he is or who he is.

He finds himself in trouble after an encounter with the son of a big cattle rancher, Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) and when the local sheriff (Keith Carradine) figures out who he is. A wanted criminal with a reward on his head.

Here we have the set-up of most western. The mysterious stranger who rides into town and confronts the town's local villain. The beautiful woman who brings out the softer side of our anti-hero, in this film's case, Ella (Olivia Wilde). And then these two men must join together when a dangerous gang rides into town. Only in this film's case that dangerous gang is aliens and they ride into town in flying saucers not horses.

Once the aliens start rounding up the townsfolk, in order to study humans, a posse is formed to attack the aliens and get the townsfolk back.

The film is based on a comic book by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg and was adapted by a gang of writers consisting of Roberto Orci and his partner Alex Kurtzman. Together they wrote "Star Trek" (2009) and "Mission:Impossible III" (2006). And the writing team of Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby who worked on Favreau's "Iron Man" (2008), also a comic book adaptation, and "Children of Men" (2006). These men took this project serious and must have studied the western genre. Still Joe Morgenstern may have been on to something when he said the film could have used some light-heartedness.

Jon Favreau is proving himself to be an accomplished mainstream filmmaker. His first "Iron Man" was accepted by fan boys as a worth-while comic book movie and its sequel, while it didn't receive the same glowing reviews, did make a lot of money. And now with "Cowboys & Aliens" which is positioning itself for the number one spot this weekend, with the children's film "Smurfs" (2011) giving it a run for its money ("Smurfs" is not worth watching) Favreau has another hit on his hands.

But part of me just couldn't get over the goofy, absurd nature of the film. Yes, I appreciate the acting and the look of the film but, I couldn't quite accept the blending of these two genres. Though you have to admit the filmmaker and the actors sure give it the ol' college try. But could a film, which blends these two genres have actually worked in the first place? Was the deck stacked against it to begin with? It is difficult to find the right tone for a project such as this.

In a rather smart move, the movie avoids all discussion of how this came to be. The cowboys don't know these are "aliens" at least they never call them that by name. There is no scientific explanation for how these aliens came to invade the old west. The only mis-step is with the Ella character and explanations of her origins, which are never properly explained. I still don't know where she comes from. And I'm not sure it matters.

If it sounds like I'm on the fence about "Cowboys & Aliens" that's because I am. Should you see this movie? Maybe. I will say this is probably going to be the best alien invasion movie of the old west we will see for a while.