When the western and science fiction genres meld in "Cowboys & Aliens," the entertaining result makes the Wild West seem even wilder. It's a wildly preposterous movie, which is exactly what makes it ideal for summertime viewing in an air-conditioned theater.
The wacky premise about aliens landing in New Mexico circa 1875 might lead you to expect that the tone will be one of campy excess, but the movie generally plays it relatively straight.
Besides mining the movie's graphic novel source, director Jon Favreau and a squadron of five screenwriters have done their genre homework. Incorporating influences that range from "The Searchers" to, umm, "Alien," they have fun spoofing the definitional attributes of the western and sci-fi genres; however, they also realize that serious themes percolate through what otherwise often seems like a spaghetti western on drugs.
Although there are occasionally choppy changes in tone, the filmmakers manage to maintain your allegiance to the what-if premise. Likewise, it's easy to forgive logical gaps that are as wide as the Grand Canyon. Just go with the absurd flow and allow yourself to have a good time.
What keeps the movie more or less anchored is the central performance by Daniel Craig as Jake Lonergan, a tough outlaw who wakes up in the desert one day and can't remember what knocked him out and left him with a nasty gash in his side. For that matter, his inability to remember his own name truly makes him a man-with-no-name. As if that weren't worrisome enough, Jake has a mysterious metallic bracelet on one wrist; no mere piece of jewelry, this bracelet will connect him to the alien invasion story.
Craig's ruggedly handsome features and stoic expression make him a good choice to play Jake. This character's anti-hero personality and enigmatic past provide a scripted link to similar characters played over the decades by the likes of Alan Ladd, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. These cinematic loners end up helping endangered communities, but they always need to maintain their own space — or, in this instance, outer space.
The early scenes in this movie might strike younger viewers as too slow, but there's an advantage to settling in with Jake and watching him embark on an investigation into his own identity. In any event, action movie enthusiasts will get their fix when alien invaders bombard a western town populated with such stock characters as a timid saloonkeeper, Doc (Sam Rockwell); a gruff cattle baron, Col. Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford); and a spirited young woman, Ella (Olivia Wilde), whose love-interest function is complemented by her love of fighting aliens.
You should discover the particulars of the alien invasion for yourself, but suffice it to say that gun-toting cowboys on horseback are a primitive fighting force up against a technologically superior adversary that has decided to touch down on planet Earth many decades before Roswell.
The humans ordinarily are warring among themselves, but realize they need to put aside their differences and collectively fight the aliens. Law-abiding town residents, rowdy ranchers, criminal gang members, loner Jake and, yep, even American Indians will join forces for the sake of their shared humanity.
The filmmakers are so thematically blunt in terms of this humanitarian agenda that it may make you wince, but there's no denying the entertainment value of watching so many different people unleashing their bullets and arrows at the monsters.
Pass the popcorn as they pass the ammo — and brace yourself for the next close encounter of a weird kind. After all, Steven Spielberg is an executive producer for this smartly engineered nonsense. Grade: B+
"Cowboys & Aliens" (PG-13) is now playing at area theaters.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun