A movie that can be best be described as “War of the Worlds” meets “The Searchers,” Jon Favreau’s “Cowboys & Aliens,” now playing in Capital District theatres, is a movie that successfully puts two unlikely genres in a blender and comes out with a blockbuster smoothie. Director Jon Favreau already has substantial fanboy cred with two “Iron Man” movies, and this fast-paced, action-filled, highly entertaining exercise in genre cross-dressing ought to shoot it through the roof.
James Bond star Daniel Craig might at first seem like an odd choice to play a gunslinger in the old west, but he’s pretty convincingly American-sounding in this. And God knows he can sell a fight scene. If the idea of the English Craig playing a cowboy seems odd, don’t let it bother you. It used to happen all the time. Errol Flynn did a number of westerns, and after a while they stopped even trying to explain his accent.
Westerns often start with a mysterious stranger riding into town, and “Cowboys & Aliens” almost does. The movie actually opens with a barefoot, wounded Craig coming to in the desert, with alien hardware on his wrist and no memory. The first people he comes across assume he’s an escaped prisoner and try to take him to collect a bounty. They’re actually on the right track, he is a wanted man, but way out of their league. Once he’s polished them off though, he makes his way to the town of Absolution where he immediately makes an enemy out of the pathologically spoiled and stupid son (Paul Dano) of Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford).
This all pretty traditional western stuff and that’s what makes “Cowboys & Aliens” work. Although both the “Cowboys” part and the “Aliens” part trade heavily in archetypes (cliché seems so judgmental), there is more “Cowboy” than “Alien” and that’s to the good. In this day and age it’s the western that’s a novelty, not the alien invasion. The younger viewers have seen plenty of alien invasion movies, but may never have seen a western.
The alien invasion part comes right on cue, as Craig is about to carted off to federal custody, in a beautifully crafted set piece with glowing UFO’s blowing up half the town at night. The townspeople are being snatched (and the shots of them dangling by cables from flying alien vehicles are startling). Much of the alien invasion territory the movie traverses though is also pretty familiar, and that’s the genius of emphasizing the western. Through some sort of cinematic alchemy it makes all the otherwise over-familiar alien invasion stuff seem newer, much as it does to both the townspeople and Apaches who, not having seen “War of the Worlds,” “Independence Day” or “Battle: Los Angeles,” refer to the aliens as “demons.”
Craig, whose metal bracelet turns out to be an alien weapon capable of downing the alien flying machines, ends up joining a search party from Absolution to find the missing townsfolk, shadowed by the mysterious Ella (Olivia Wilde).
Technically a top-drawer production all the way around, “Cowboys & Aliens” boasts handsome cinematography from Matthew Libatique who also shot the “Iron Man” movies, as well as “Black Swan” and Spike Lee’s “The Inside Man.” The special effects are well-done, the aliens a combination of CGI and animatronics. We’ve seen this sort of thing before though, and that’s probably why the script emphasizes the western aspects. Harry Gregson-Williams’ (“The Town,” “Unstoppable”) score occasionally hints at spaghetti westerns, but not too often, and generally goes for a traditional Hollywood sound.
Reportedly, executive producer Steven Spielberg organized a screening of John Ford’s classic western “The Searchers” for the filmmakers before they started shooting. The influence of that film is felt here, but it’s not the only influence. A handlebar-mustached Keith Carradine leaning back in a chair on a wooden sidewalk looks like Henry Fonda’s Wyatt Earp in “My Darling Clementine,” another Ford film. The New Mexico landscape evokes, though doesn’t compete with, Monument Valley, where Ford shot so many westerns. The tension between a gruff old cattle baron and a surrogate son recalls Howard Hawks’and Arthur Rosson’s “Red River.” Sam Rockwell, cast against type as a mild-mannered saloon owner, also seems to have stepped out of any number of vintage westerns, where a quiet man has to master violence to save his family.
Craggy and cantankerous, Harrison Ford looks increasingly looks like he’s spent a lifetime making westerns, and that’s probably part of the reason they cast him. In fact Ford has far more experience with science fiction. His only western features are 1968’s “Journey to Shiloh,” in which he had a small part, and Robert Aldrich’s 1979 western comedy “The Frisco Kid,” in which he co-starred with Gene Wilder. Other than day-player gigs on “Gunsmoke,” “The Virginian” and “Kung Fu,” that’s it.
When Ford was coming up, the western was on the way out. Clint Eastwood, who cut his teeth on westerns, both TV and spaghetti, had pretty much abandoned that perennial genre for more contemporary cops and robbers flicks. The Man With No Name had put on a tie and become Dirty Harry. With that, the western pretty was pretty much gone for good, and the occasional exception proved the rule. But when Craig and Ford saddle up in the desert sunset, you can almost believe it never left.
“Cowboys & Aliens” is now playing at the Bow Tie Cinemas Movieland in Schenectady, the Hollywood Drive-In in Averill Park, the Regal Cinemas Colonie Center Stadium 13, the Regal Cinemas Latham Circle Mall 10, the Regal Cinemas East Greenbush 8 and the Regal Cinemas Crossgates Stadium 18 & !MAX.