Of course, Jon Favreau’s gritty new flick Cowboys and Aliens probably won’t be winning Best Picture. But it also won’t be disappointing.
The movie opens with a series of brutal shots, violent and sharp, almost jarring. Sparks fly between characters sketched within the outlines of the Wild-West characters we’ve known since the pop-culture of our childhood–especially Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig. Olivia Wilde is less fascinating as the beautiful young woman with a mysterious past (central to the plot, of course). The part was, perhaps, not very well written, and the lack of depth in her character might not solely be the result of her acting, but there’s no doubt that the moment the movie took a turn towards ridiculous was the moment when her character (spoiler alert) magically stepped out of a fire. Naked.
Cowboys and Aliens has something going for it that no other summer blockbuster has had, though–a completely original storyline, something that truly sparks the imagination. Every other movie this summer has revolved around a well-known, well-trodden premise. Endless rom-coms, slasher flicks (Final Destination FIVE? REALLY?), and super-hero movies of the same genus abound. Summer is traditionally awash in alien movies, but all of them take place in the present day or in some not-too-distant future, where puny humans ultimately triumph over or make peace with misunderstood unknowns (see: Transformers Dark of the Moon, Super 8, even that godawful-looking Smurfs movie). Cowboys and Aliens places the traditional dance of human v. extraterrestrial in a time period that at first seems ridiculous, but then dawns as fascinating to consider. Modern humans have the comforts of tanks, jets, and bombs in their battle against the unknown. But cowboys of the 1800s? The movie was based off of the 2006 graphic novels by the same name, which pondered a simple but interesting notion: if an alien invasion is possible in 2020, it is just as possible in 1870…but with far different consequences.
Alien movies are so popular in the summer because both the season and the extraterrestrials represent the possibilities inherent in something unknown and untested. Favreau’s aliens take a tack that fits with the cowboy theme–that of brutal, intelligent beings whose purpose on Earth is material gain and whose dictum is kill or be killed. This, to me, seems more plausible than the starry-eyed wonder inspired by Super 8’s benevolent beast, who really just wants to be understood, preferably by a doe-eyed adolescent boy just coming of age.
The movie took a chance with an idea that could have been purely laughable and turned out to be both entertaining and worth a moment’s thought. It is refreshing in an industry that has been reliably churning out the same formulaic movies for years, and feels the need to make ANOTHER series of Spiderman movies on the heels of the disastrous musical and the recent blockbusters.
Of course, Cowboys and Aliens has its flaws. But it is worth going to see, if only for the riveting action, Craig’s rugged features set against Ford’s eternal scowl, a beautiful soundtrack, and the possibility that, just maybe, new ideas can exist in the world of movies.