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‘Cowboys & Aliens’ is just that: Cliched escapist action

Craig, Ford star as two popular film genres collide

POSTED: July 28, 2011 12:30 a.m.
Timothy White/AP Photo/Universal Pictures

Daniel Craig is shown in a scene from "Cowboys & Aliens."

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"Cowboys & Aliens" is the most efficient movie title I've encountered in quite some time.

In just three words, it summarizes the entire plot. "Cowboys & Aliens" consists solely of some cowboy characters who do what we expect movie cowboys to do — ride horses, punch each other, shoot at people, spit, etc.; and alien characters who do what movie aliens usually do — fly spaceships, abduct people, snarl, drip mucus, etc.

Both groups of characters offer all the depth of cardboard cutouts, even though most of them are played by excellent actors.

The title also, in a sense, acts as its own review. If the combination of cowboys and aliens intrigues you, then maybe you'll like the movie. If you want something more than that gimmicky pairing, you should probably mosey on along.

It begins very much like a spaghetti Western. A man (Daniel Craig) awakes in the middle of a western plain. He is wounded, shoeless and has no identity. The only thing that distinguishes this set-up from any number of Clint Eastwood films is that the man wears an odd, hi-tech bracelet on his left wrist. He tries to get it off but can't.

He beats up a trio of opportunistic bandits who happen by, then takes their clothes and money. He wanders into a nearby town called Absolution.

Gosh, I wonder if the absolution of sins might become a theme of the movie? Cue the first character the man meets, a preacher (Clancy Brown).

For a while, "Cowboys & Aliens" plays like a lecture on Western genre cliches.

A local land baron (Harrison Ford) and his dim-witted, ultraviolent son (Paul Dano) terrorize the town. The local sheriff (Keith Carradine) struggles to enforce law and order without provoking the wrath of the land baron's gunslingers.

A nonviolent, greenhorn saloon owner named Doc (Sam Rockwell) and his Latina wife (Ana de la Reguera) try to carve out a life for themselves in this uncivilized town. (We later learn that Doc is genuinely a doctor, so why is he operating a saloon?)

And there's a young boy desperately looking for a male role model since he hasn't seen his own father in several months. Sort of goes without saying that manhood is another prominent theme.

All of these typical Western scenarios are about to come to a head during a showdown in the middle of main street, when mysterious lights descend on the town. Spaceships whir and rumble overheard, snaring and abducting several of the characters.

It's a different kind of movie from that point on.

Suddenly, the interhuman conflicts no longer matter. From then on, lawmen, land barons, outlaws, greenhorns and later, Indians, unite to battle these strange invaders and rescue the loved ones who have been taken.

What we have is "High Plains Drifter," "Shane" and "The Searchers" mingled with "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Alien" and "Super 8," with a little "Dances With Wolves."

Jon Favreau, who directed the Iron Man movies, is a capable director who knows how to produce an entertaining blockbuster. On the most superficial level, "Cowboys & Aliens" is no exception.

But underneath all its whooshing, buzzing, crunching, blinking and crashing lies nothing of substance. It's the usual, forgettable summer sound and fury that signifies nothing.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.



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