Stories of the Old West and aliens have long fascinated Hollywood studios and filmmakers alike, whether it be classic Westerns, such as “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “The Magnificent Seven,” and those directed by John Ford, “The Searchers” and Sergio Leone, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” to the more modern tale of the animated variety, “Rango,” or sci-fi classics like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Alien,” “E.T.,” “Predator,” “Independence Day,” “District 9” and the recent releases of “Battle: Los Angeles” and the instant-classic “Super 8.”
It comes as no surprise that Hollywood would decide to combine the two and, boy, were they successful. Based on the graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, directed by Jon Favreau (“Iron Man”) from a screenplay by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, “Cowboys & Aliens” marries elements from these two premier genres into one of the most captivating and thrilling movie events of the summer.
The film opens in the year 1875, somewhere in the middle of the enormous New Mexican desert, where a bloodied and beaten man (Daniel Craig) abruptly awakens with a strange shackle on his wrist and a picture of a vaguely familiar woman, unsure of who and where he is.
The man makes his way to a failed mining town known as Absolution, run with an iron fist by Col. Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). Once there, he gets involved in a quarrel with Col. Dolarhyde’s spoiled son, Percy (Paul Dano), ending with Percy carted off to jail.
Soon after, while having a drink at the local saloon, an alluring and mysterious woman named Ella (Olivia Wilde) approaches the man and begins questioning him. Sheriff John Taggart (Keith Carradine) and his deputies then arrive to arrest him. It turns out the man is Jake Lonergan, a wanted felon responsible for a litany of crimes, including robbery and murder.
At nightfall, Lonergan and Percy are loaded onto a stagecoach, awaiting transport to a Federal penitentiary, when Col. Dolarhyde demands for his son and Lonergan to be released into his custody. Moments later, strange beams of light appear in the night sky. These lights, alien spacecrafts, open fire upon the town, lasso the panicked townsfolk as if they were cattle and then disappear with them into the night.
This is where the film takes off, as Lonergan must piece together his past, while assisting Col. Dolarhyde and the remaining townsfolk in an effort to seek out and reclaim their kin.
Favreau and cinematographer Matthew Libatique photograph the film exquisitely, from the opening shot of the expansive desert, the washed out look of the blue and yellow hued flashback scenes to the visuals of the inside of a dark canyon.
Favreau also gets some great nuanced performances from his cast. Craig (“Casino Royale”) does great as a man determined to find answers and get some retribution for what the aliens did to him. Ford (“Star Wars,” “Blade Runner”), no stranger to sci-fi tales, is outstanding as a gruff ex-Army colonel, who deep within his rough exterior harbors a gentle heart. Dano (“There Will Be Blood”) is good as a trigger-happy and drunken young man, who yearns for his father’s acceptance. The reliable Sam Rockwell (“Moon”) is excellent as the kindhearted saloon owner. But it is the astonishingly beautiful Wilde (TV’s “House M.D.”), entrancing as a mystifying woman, who outshines everyone.
Adding to the fine cinematography and nuanced performances is the great CGI work of the effects team. The aliens or “demons” as the townsfolk refer to them, fit right into the Old West and except for the fact that they are clearly not of this planet, never once look out of place.
Complementing the film’s sense of mystery and theme of redemption is Harry Gregson-Williams’ foreboding, intensifying, intrepid and celestial musical score, which simultaneously evokes memories of classic western and sci-fi scores.
“Cowboys & Aliens” combines Western and sci-fi motifs into one appealing package that is sure to bring back fond memories of the Western and sci-fi tales of old.
(“Cowboys & Aliens” is rated PG-13 for violence, language and partial nudity. It can be seen at AMC Loews Jersey Gardens 20 and other nearby theaters.)
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