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Video: Watch the 'Cowboys and Aliens' trailer

Hollywood Reporter
updated 7/27/2011 2:38:27 PM ET 2011-07-27T18:38:27

Fusion is everything in gourmet cuisine these days, so why shouldn’t filmmakers mix and match movie genres no matter how crazy? "Cowboys & Aliens" -- well, the title says it all. Taking the idea from a Platinum Studios graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, this film from Jon Favreau shrewdly blends an alien-invasion movie into a Western. The key to its success lies in the determination by everyone involved to play the damn thing straight. Even the slightest goofiness, the tiniest touch of camp, and the whole thing would blow sky high. But it doesn’t.

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If you were to assess the mix, it would be about 70 percent Western paired with 30 percent alien invasion. Which is pretty bold given that aliens are all the rage and the most recent Western to make a lasting impression was probably Clint Eastwood’s 1992 "Unforgiven." But that’s where shrewdness comes in: You expect space invasions; a Western is a tricky thing to pull off.

Video: 'Cowboys and Aliens' inside look (on this page)

A big hit here at its Comic-Con world premiere, the Universal release looks primed to round up box-office gold with its target audience, all in ample supply this weekend in San Diego. But you suspect this is one monster movie that might even reach older audiences, who would love to slap on chaps and get rough and dirty with a good, old-fashioned Western. Well, here’s that opportunity. Nor does it hurt the movie’s appeal to an older crowd that the film unhesitatingly pairs two mature stars, Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, to go up against the aliens.

Take a look at the credit box for this film, and you’ll see an all-star team of Hollywood producers, exec producers and writers. But such is the overriding intelligence and singular vision in this picture that you have to assume Favreau deserves the credit for keeping things true to both genres. A surprisingly good Western is taking place before those creatures drop down from another planet. True, the Western characters and story are awfully familiar to those who still treasure the genre, but the Western was always a conservative genre that stuck close to its traditions while allowing plenty of room for storytelling.

Story: Harrison Ford is America's everyman hero

All good Westerns begin when a stranger rides into town. But this stranger, in 1875 New Mexico territory, suffers from amnesia. Played by Craig, the man awakens in the middle of the desert with a strange shackle on his left wrist and no memory of what happened to him. When he encounters three men who would take advantage of his situation, he quickly learns -- as does the audience -- he is not a man to be messed with.

The town he rides into, on a horse belonging to one of those unfortunate men, is called Absolution, a name that would give anyone pause. It is ruled by a tyrannical cattle baron, Colonel Dolarhyde, and that would be Ford who lets his face and body sag under the weight of his own ferocious and bitter sense of power. You get the impression he really wants someone to stand up to him.

Story: Who do you want on your side: Han Solo, or Indiana Jones?

When the man with no name challenges the colonel's cowardly son (an amusing Paul Dano), it looks like the colonel has found such a man. But not before a few townsfolk get introduced into the drama -- which would include the town’s preacher (Clancy Brown); a stressed saloon-keeper (Sam Rockwell) and his plucky wife (Ana de la Reguera); the colonel’s unappreciated Indian cowhand (Adam Beach); and the beleaguered sheriff (Keith Carradine, evoking his late father’s considerable impact on the Western form) and his eager-to-grow-up grandson (Noah Ringer).

Drifting mysteriously on the periphery but making sure that the stranger stays in town when everyone else is keen to see him gone is a woman, Ella (Olivia Wilde), who might understand his plight and amnesia.

Just as a showdown of epic proportions seems imminent, an even greater showdown explodes in the town in a great WTF moment. Alien spacecrafts strafe the town and abduct a number of its citizens, including the colonel’s son. Equally surprising is how the stranger’s wrist ornament suddenly springs to life as the only successful weapon against these alien forces. The stranger, as strangers always do in Westerns, has demonstrated his usefulness.

"Cowboys & Aliens" has now reached the crucial juncture that will either make or break this odd admixture of a movie. Had the film given way to this sci-fi onslaught, the whole thing might have turned into the fiasco that was 1999’s "Wild Wild West."

But no, Favreau and his legion of screenwriters wisely cling to the Western framework. The clear model for the rest of the movie is John Ford’s "The Searchers," about a Comanche abduction of a white girl and her would-be rescuers led by John Wayne’s virulently racist uncle, to whom Indians were on the same level as reptilian space aliens.

Faced with the demise of the planet, all the Western’s warring parties -- the cowboys and Indians, cattle barons and downtrodden townsfolk, the stranger and the colonel -- suddenly realize they all belong to the same species. So they band together to form a search-and-rescue party to free loved ones and eliminate the alien scourge.

Video: Daniel Craig on lassoing up ‘Cowboy’ role (on this page)

As this posse tracks the aliens down to their lair with some unexpected help from the mysterious Ella, the movie becomes perhaps a tad more conventional. Some of the movie’s niftiest sequences and best character-reveals happen during this rescue, but if there is a weakness here, it’s the aliens themselves.

Thanks to quite a few filmmakers -- including Steven Spielberg, one of the many exec producers here -- audiences are used to greater detail and more empathy for movie space creatures, even as recently as the one in "Super 8." The alien villains here -- while ingenious from a CGI standpoint with multilayered malevolence in bodies that pull back endoplasmic surfaces to reveal further weapons of destruction -- don’t rate as characters. They are more like moving blobs you shoot at in a video game. Bam -- gotcha!

Story: Comic-Con welcomes 'Cowboys & Aliens' premiere

Nonetheless, as the first of undoubtedly a bunch of copycat genre mashups, some of which are bound to be horrendous, "Cowboys & Aliens" is a solid success. For a tentpole Comic-Con movie, this one devotes a gratifying amount of time to character and achieves most of its success because Favreau has intelligently cast his film and let his actors do their thing. As good as the visual effects are, you walk away from the movie with a memory of actors’ faces, lines of dialogue and actions that speak more to character than to shock and awe.

And another thing: That wrist accessory worn by Craig should be a merchandising stroke of genius.

Copyright 2012 The Hollywood Reporter

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Photos: Harrison Ford

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  1. Chairman of the board

    Harrison Ford cradles the Board of the Governors Award he was presented with at the 26th annual American Society of Cinematographers' Outstanding Achievement Awards, held in Hollywood, Calif. on Feb. 12, 2012. (Angela Weiss / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Golden couple

    Ford and wife Calista Flockhart attend the 69th Golden Globe awards in Beverly Hills, Calif. on Jan. 15, 2012. (Frazer Harrison / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Frequent flyer

    Ford, who is a pilot as well as an actor, attends the Senate General Aviation Caucus meeting in Washington on Oct. 18, 2011. (Paul Morigi / WireImage) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. 'Cowboys & Aliens'

    Ford is still playing a hero, even decades after his start in film. He stars with James Bond star Daniel Craig in 2011's "Cowboys & Aliens." (Universal Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Can't wait!

    Ford accepts the most anticipated movie award for "Cowboy & Aliens" at the Spike TV Guys Choice Awards on Saturday, June 4, 2011, in Culver City, Calif. Looking on are Jon Favreau and Jeremy Renner. Favreau directs the film. (Matt Sayles / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. What's the story, 'Morning Glory'?

    Ford and Rachel McAdams attend the UK premiere of their 2010 film, "Morning Glory," held at The Empire Leicester Square on Jan. 11, 2011, in London. He plays a veteran journalist and she an aspiring producer in the world of morning television. (Dave Hogan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Wake-up call

    Diane Keaton also stars with Ford in "Morning Glory." (Paramount Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Red-carpet couple

    Ford and wife Calista Flockhart arrive at the premiere of "Extraordinary Measures" at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, Calif., Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2010. (Danny Moloshok / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. 'Extraordinary Measures'

    In 2010's "Extraordinary Measures," Brendan Fraser, right, plays John Crowley, a biotechnology executive, whose two youngest children were afflicted with Pompe disease. He raises money for research scientist Robert Stonehill (Ford), forming a company to develop a drug to save his children's lives. (CBS Films) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. 'Crossing Over'

    Ford plays an immigration officer in 2009's "Crossing Over," which explores the allure of the American dream, and the reality that immigrants find --- and create -- in 21st century Los Angeles. (The Weinstein Company) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Advocate

    Ford speaks during the second Governors' Global Climate Summit in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2009. (Reed Saxon / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Indy returns!

    Ford reprised his role as Indiana Jones in 2008's "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." Shia LaBeouf played Mutt, Jones' son with "Raiders of the Lost Ark" paramour Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen). (Paramount Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Big kid

    Ford gets slimed during the 21st Annual Kids' Choice Awards in Los Angeles, in 2008. (Matt Sayles / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Pitching in

    Flockhart and Ford join Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa Nov. 2007, to dish up Thanksgiving dinner to hundreds of men, women and children who live in Los Angeles' Skid Row. (Reed Saxon / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Meet the press

    Ford answers question as he arrives at the Rome Film Festival in October 2006. Ford was at the festival to honor Jim Berkus, co-founder and president of the United Talent Agency. (Vincenzo Pinto / AFP-Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Drama king

    Ford promotes his film "Firewall" at the Coliseum Cinema in Barcelona on March 2006. The film tells the story of a bank-security executive (Ford) who must rob his own bank in order to ensure the safety of his kidnapped wife and children. (Lluis Gene / AFP-Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Globe trotters

    "Firewall" co-stars Virginia Madsen and Ford share a laugh backstage before presenting at the 63rd Annual Golden Globe Awards on Jan. 16, 2006. (Kevin Winter / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Jedi mind trick

    Flockhart and Ford pose with storm troopers at the 33rd American Film Institute Life Achievement Awards after-party on June 9, 2005 in Hollywood, Calif. Ford starred as Han Solo in "Star Wars," "The Empire Strikes Back," and "Return of the Jedi." (Vince Bucci / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. True star

    Ford attends a ceremony honoring him with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on May 30, 2003 in Hollywood, Calif. (Vince Bucci / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Ready for action

    Ford films a scene on the set of "Hollywood Homicide," on Sept. 17, 2002 in Beverly Hills, Calif. He co-starred with Josh Hartnett in this film about two moonlighting L.A. cops. (Frazer Harrison / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Real hero

    On July 10, 2001, Ford used his helicopter in a search-and-rescue mission in Jackson, Wy. Ford located 13-year-old Boy Scout Cody Clawson, who had wandered off the trail. Clawson's mom told People magazine, "Cody said the kids asked if he got an autograph and he said, 'No, but I got a hug and a handshake, and that's better.'" (Getty Images / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Pensive pair

    Ford starred opposite Michelle Pfeiffer in the 2000 film, "What Lies Beneath." The pair played a husband and wife who are haunted by a specter from Ford's past. (Dreamworks) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Three amigos

    Ford receives the American Film Institute's lifetime achievement award from director George Lucas while director Steven Spielberg looks on in Beverly Hills, Calif., Thursday, Feb. 17, 2000. Lucas cast Ford in "American Graffiti" and "Star Wars," and Spielberg directed him in the "Indiana Jones" movies. (Michael Caulfield / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Former couple

    Ford and his former wife Melissa Mathison attend the premiere of "Six Days and Seven Nights" on June 8, 1998. The two divorced in 2004 after more than two decades of marriage. (Brenda Chase / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. All wet

    Harrison Ford and Anne Heche starred together in "Six Days Seven Nights" as feuding pair who crash on a deserted South Seas island. The film was a notorious flop. (Touchstone Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Power player

    Ford is greeted by President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair at a 2005 White House state dinner honoring Blair and wife Cherie. (Joyce Naltchayan / AFP-Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Tasty trio

    Ruben Blades, Ford and Brad Pitt starred in 1997's "The Devil's Own." Ford played a police officer who realizes his houseguest (Pitt) is an IRA agent. (Getty Images / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Turbulent flight

    Harrison Ford starred as the president of the United States in 1997's "Air Force One." The presidential plane is hijacked by bad guy Gary Oldman. (Columbia Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Harvard follies

    Ford beams as Nick Gordon and Jason Watkins plant a kiss on him during the Hasty Pudding Theatrics Man of the Year Award Presentation at Harvard University, in Cambridge, Mass., on Feb 20, 1996. (Stuart Cahill / AFP-Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. 'Working' for a living

    Ford teamed up with Melanie Griffith in this 1988 film about a Staten Island-raised secretary who gets her corporate big break when she impersonates her injured boss -- and stealing her boyfriend (Ford) in the process. (20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. 'Mosquito Coast'

    In this 1986 film, Allie Fox (Ford) and his wife take their family to Central America to build a paradise that is never found. (Warner Bros.) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Top cop

    Ford starred as Rick Deckard in Ridley Scott's 1982 film "Blade Runner." In the sci-fi thriller, Deckard must track down and kill four replicants (human clones). (Warner Bros.) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. The birth of Indy

    Ford struck cinematic gold starting as swashbuckling archeologist Indiana Jones in 1981's "Raiders of the Lost Ark." The film sparked three sequels. (Paramount Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. 'The Frisco Kid'

    This 1979 comedy, directed by Robert Aldrich, tells the story of a Polish rabbi (played by Gene Wilder) who is traveling to San Francisco, and Ford as a bank robber who befriends him. (Warner Bros.) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Let the Wookiee win

    Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Han Solo (Ford) outwit Darth Vader and destroy the Death Star in 1977's "Star Wars." She loves him. He knows. (Twentieth Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Reporting for duty

    Ford had a featured role in Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 classic, "Apocalypse Now." (Paramount Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Early break

    Director George Lucas took notice of Ford early, casting him in his 1973 film "American Graffitti" opposite other rising stars such as Richard Dreyfuss and Ron Howard. (Universal Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. American Society Of Cinematographers' 26th Annual Outstanding Achievement Awards
    Angela Weiss / Getty Images
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