Cowboys & Aliens

“The test of a first-rate intelligence,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in his 1936 essay collection The Crack-Up, “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” At its best, Favreau’s genre mash-up Cowboys & Aliens demonstrates the kind of smarts Fitzgerald describes, crossing two previously uncrossed streams of cinema narrative and making sense on its own terms. But the hold doesn’t last and the story dissolves into random nonsense, fun for a while but ultimately empty and unsatisfying.

Placed firmly at the intersection between a traditional western and an alien invasion sci-fi, Iron Man director Favreau’s film (based on the comic book by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg) is the first in a new breed of genre mash-ups that presages upcoming titles such as Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

The title tells you all you need to know, really. We’re in the Old West at the end of the 19th century. There are cowboys, like Jake the outlaw amnesiac (Daniel Craig) and crotchety Civil War Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) who live in the faded frontier town of Absolution, in the middle of a vast, rocky plain. And there are aliens, bug-eyed monsters from beyond the stars who descend on the town in whirring UFOs to wreak intergalactic havoc.

As the story opens, Craig’s hard-bitten Jake has woken up in the desert with no idea who or where he is. He has a gaping wound in his side and a mysterious metal bracelet on his wrist. Wandering into town, he meets Percy (Paul Dano), the trigger-happy weasel son of Ford’s true-grit Colonel who uses his father’s position as a rich cattle-baron to demand free whiskey and shoot up the place. Establishing himself as the hero, Jake stops the youngster with a single punch but he can’t stop himself from being thrown in jail alongside him.

When the Colonel rides into town to effect a rescue, he is stopped in his tracks by strange lights in the sky. A heartbeat later the aliens attack, snatching up the townsfolk, including Percy, with metallic lassos and whisking them away to parts unknown. Jake and the Colonel must put their enmity aside and join forces to mount a rescue. Joining them in the posse are saloon-owner Doc (Sam Rockwell), gun-slinging beauty Ella (Olivia Wilde) and the local preacher Meacham (Clancy Brown). On the way, they enlist the help of a tribe of Native Americans, who seem to recognise the ethereal Ella and are eager to mount a war party against their common enemy.

From that point on, Cowboys & Aliens barely pauses for breath but what the adventure lacks in coherence, it makes up for in spectacle. Despite the presence of two genuine superstars, the film’s biggest pulling power derives from its clever concept and execution. The story plays with the conventions of the standardised horse opera while joining them with the not-dissimilar tropes of the sci-fi blockbuster; questing discovery, survivalism and the battle for resources. The results are occasionally compelling, if only for the sheer audacity of the plot, but Favreau (and his five credited screenwriters) never settle on the right balance between fun and force and the film is surprisingly humourless and violent.

No comments: