It’s a shortcoming of alien movies that the extra-terrestrial visitors invariably land in the year the movie is being made. Why not flying saucers in King Arthur’s court, or crashing into Columbus when he reaches America?
“Cowboys & Aliens” tries to rectify this lack, as the title suggests. We’re in the 1870s, where Western folk are simply trying to go about the business of stealing, rustling and terrorizing the local population, when a force from outside the solar system drops in for a visit.
The movie’s got a marvelous opening half-hour: A cowpoke, played by 007 license-holder Daniel Craig, wakes up in the desert. He’s got no memory of the past and he has a strange metallic bracelet attached to his wrist.
He wanders into a town ruled by a flinty cattle baron (Harrison Ford) and his bratty son (Paul Dano, from “There Will Be Blood”). There’s a collection of citizens cowed by the baron: paid-for sheriff (Keith Carradine), pacifist saloon keeper (Sam Rockwell), mysterious lady (Olivia Wilde).
In other words, a familiar haunt from Western movies. Except that these warring factions are about to get a genre jolt in the form of swooping, ray-zapping spacecraft, which come buzzing through town collecting human specimens for some sort of nasty galactic experiment.
Thus is the stage set for a 21st-century action movie that manages to play within some very sturdy conventions of the Western, a recipe adapted from Scott Mitchell Rosenberg’s comic book.
Jon Favreau, the actor-turned filmmaker who did the “Iron Man” pictures, directed this one.
His gifts are lightweight, but they include his ability to convey the fun of basic movie pleasures; watching “Cowboys & Aliens” you can tell that Favreau is tickled at being able to shoot the classic Western scenes of saloon showdowns and horses galloping against sagebrush deserts.
He has also transformed Daniel Craig into Steve McQueen and gotten Harrison Ford to perk up a bit. Ford is more of a kick than he’s been in years; in retrospect, he could’ve pulled off a credible Rooster Cogburn in the “True Grit” remake.
I can’t pretend the movie amounts to a hill of beans; the premise is totally daffy, and when you see the digitally created aliens scurrying over the mesas and knocking cowboys off their horses, the genre-bending weirdness of it all might make your head spin. Whenever an E.T. would zoom into a scene, I always felt slightly resentful at being jarred out of a good, straight-up Western.
But this is no “Billy the Kid vs. Dracula” (a real movie, folks) when it comes to loony cross-breeding. “Cowboys & Aliens” may be a frivolous affair, but it’s a well-tooled ride made with a lot of affection. Saddle up and set your phasers, or something.
“Cowboys & Aliens”
A fun, frivolous genre-bender in which the elements of a classic Western are rudely interrupted by an attack from flying saucers. “Iron Man” director Jon Favreau is having a ball playing with these things, and Daniel Craig (as a confused lone gunman) and Harrison Ford (corrupt cattle baron) are in the spirit of things.
Rated: PG-13 for violence.
Showing: Alderwood, Cinebarre, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Stanwood, Metro, Pacific Place, Thorton Place, Woodinville, Cascade Mall, Oak Harbor.