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Movie Beat: ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ really just a Western
by Jenniffer Wardell
Aug 04, 2011 | 871 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
It wouldn’t have been quite as catchy, but a more honest title for “Cowboys & Aliens” would have been “A Cowboy Movie That Just Happens to Have Aliens In It.”

That doesn’t mean the movie isn’t good. Directed by Jon Favreau with a lot more seriousness than anyone who had seen his “Iron Man” set might expect, the movie turns out to be a fairly involving neo-Western with two engaging leads and some nice emotional moments sprinkled in among the explosions.

Despite the title, however (a play on “Cowboys & Indians”), the show is nowhere near the genre mash up that led some to hope for anarchic genius and others to cringe in potential dread.

Instead, its sensibility is pretty much entirely Western, from the stoic-eyed acceptance of loss to the mystic Indian plot device to get the writers out of the corner they back themselves into. The aliens are forced to simply adapt to the narrative landscape, serving much the same massive, soulless threat duties as the Indians used to do in old-school Westerns (it’s a slightly smaller, more focused soulless threat than in “Battle: Los Angeles,” which was really a war movie that just happened to have aliens.) There’s even the token kid and loyal dog.

If you go in knowing that “Cowboys” is a Western, there’s plenty to like about it. Daniel Craig is one of those actors that seem pretty much designed to be a cowboy, and he excellently balanced a faintly brutal stoicism with the occasional heart-rending expression that suggests the soft heart beneath the flinty exterior.

Harrison Ford, who starts out as something close to a bad guy before the real bad guys show up, slowly manages to plumb some depth and heroism out of a role where the character notes seemed to consist entirely of “crotchety old man.” When the two do finally team up, they play off each other well.

Olivia Wilde was perfectly decent as the group’s somewhat mysterious lone female, but there’s only so much women are allowed to do in even a neo-Western. They’re either the helpless female or one of the people shooting the guns, which gives them room to show off their action skills but doesn’t allow them much character development unless they’re the lead.

Here, Wilde is one of the people shooting the guns, and fulfills the role admirably enough that I’m willing to believe the plot revelations that come up about her later in the film.

The aliens have been compared to extras from the “Aliens” movies, and though that’s true to a certain extent (their mini-ships look remarkably like huge, flying face-huggers) they’re well-done and menacing enough to work in the movie.

Far more visually engaging to adult viewers will be Olivia Wilde’s chest (clothed, don’t worry) and Craig’s equally clothed backside, which viewers of the relevant gender will find themselves looking at more than once during the movie.

Most dominant, though, is the sheer seriousness that keeps everything grounded so much that it starts to weigh it down. Classic Westerns weren’t really in to quips or one-liners, and though there are a few light chuckles squeezed in here and there the prevailing feeling is one of solemn determination.

People die all the time in westerns, real ones that the writers have paid attention to rather than just convenient cannon-fodder, and the characters seem to know this going in. Even the feeling of victory is tempered, weighed down by the character’s knowledge that they’re just going to have to fight off someone else tomorrow.

These days, of course, that might end up being zombies.

jwardell@davisclipper.com
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