Set where the oater and outer space collide, “Cowboys & Aliens” reps the first of a new breed of popcorn movie: the feature-length genre mash-up, in which unlikely bedfellows are spliced together for cheeky escapism and maximum coin (on the horizon: “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” and “How to Survive a Robot Uprising”). While the concept itself is more likely to inspire giggles than excitement, director Jon Favreau and no fewer than six writers have risen to the challenge of crafting a full-bodied, roundly satisfying yarn of it, positioning this to join the half dozen Westerns to crack the $100 million club.
A quick tour through Favreau’s credits reveals a helmer who has managed to spin hearty entertainment from ever more anemic sources — first a bedtime story (“Zathura”), then a comicbook series (“Iron Man”), and now a mere illustration, intended to be the cover of a then-unpublished graphic novel. Still, of all the directors to work in exec producer Steven Spielberg’s shadow (including J.J. Abrams and Michael Bay), Favreau has emerged the most immediate heir to the master’s heartfelt showmanship. (Besides, what was “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” if not a prototype for such a B-movie mash-up?)
“Cowboys & Aliens” begins like a 19th-century Bourne movie, with Daniel Craig playing a stone-cold killer who wakes up in the middle of the New Mexico desert, his memory a blank. He reaches for a bloody wound at his side and discovers a strange manacle cuffed to his wrist and a lovely stranger’s tintype photograph lying in the dust at his feet — and so begins the mystery of how this loner will come to save humankind from a battalion of unidentified, unfriendly and most unwelcome flying objects.
After the muddled “Iron Man 2,” this feels like a return to a more patient, more coherent storytelling style for Favreau, who finds imaginative ways to introduce each character before bringing on the alien mayhem. Back in town, a dirtheap fittingly named Absolution, Paul Dano plays the tyrannical son of local cattle baron Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). The youth carelessly provokes Craig’s character, whose unflinching response indicates the kind of hero we’re dealing with.
Ever so gradually, further clues emerge, revealing the amnesia-stricken Jake Lonergan as a wanted man and … well, anything else said about his origins would constitute a spoiler. Besides, it’s more fun to unpack Jake’s past as he does, in a fit of flashbacks and seat-of-his-pants epiphanies. The first breakthrough concerns his bracelet, which reveals itself to be some sort of turbo-charged blaster cannon, pretty much the only weapon strong enough to fight back with when the aliens attack. The sheer uselessness of spears, arrows and bullets marks a running joke in a lopsided intergalactic battle that unites sworn enemies — cowboys and indians, lawmen and outlaws — in a common cause.
Shot to look Clint Eastwood-tall, Craig offsets much of the pic’s potential hamminess through the same brute mix of ruthlessness and sensitivity he brought to the recent 007 pics. Olivia Wilde, who plays his equally enigmatic love interest, works in the opposite direction, however. She not only appears out of place among her grizzled co-stars but also embodies the film’s biggest risk, an outlandish trial-by-fire twist that breaks the rules of both horse and space operas. Thirty years ago, Ford could have easily tackled the lead role in such an adventure; here, he goes against type, bringing an intriguing emotional dimension to a character who would traditionally ride under a black hat.
Historically speaking, sci-fi killed the Western genre: Instead of looking back, Hollywood projected its themes of frontier survivalism and fear of the other forward, into the equally lawless realms of outer space. So there’s a certain karmic beauty in the fact that sci-fi should be the reason to dust off the oater, if only just this once. While “Cowboys & Aliens” offers little in the way of sociological insight (except perhaps giving the white man a taste of his own resource-stealing medicine), it’s still a ripping good ride.
Beneath all the state-of-the-art special effects beats an old-fashioned heart, one that prizes both of the genres in play. Echoes of “Rio Bravo” and “3:10 to Yuma” resonate through the first act, while the finale uses neato dragonfly-shaped UFOs and truly menacing monster design to update tropes from corny 1950s alien-invasion movies. In between, the script cobbles together a bumpy second act, tossing off serial-style cliffhangers — cut off by bandits! surrounded by Indians! — en route to the big showdown promised by the film’s title.
Ironically, Hollywood never would have lavished this much money on a cowboy or alien picture in the pre-Spielberg era. Today, such lowbrow genres enjoy the most extravagant budgets, and Favreau leverages his resources for maximum impact. A canny blend of CG and practical effects serve the sci-fi elements well, while location shooting (featuring stunning widescreen lensing by Matthew Libatique) and Mary Zophres’ form-fitting period duds make the West look its best.