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Cowboys & Aliens

Year: 2011
Production Co: Imagine Entertainment
Studio: Paramount/Universal/Dreamworks
Director: Jon Favreau
Producer: Steven Spielberg/Ron Howard/Brian Grazer
Writer: Roberto Orci/Alex Kurtzman/Damon Lindelof/Mark Fergus/Hawk Ostby/Steve Oedekerk
Cast: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Clancy Brown, Paul Dano, Adam Beach, Noah Ringer

It could have been a title in search of a movie and the early drafts were according to the screenwriters, who explained the evolution of adapting the graphic novel to Jeff Goldsmith of The Q&A. The name of the film conjured up bad memories of other mash-ups where they didn't realise the movie outlasted the joke like Lesbian Vampire Killers or Snakes on a Plane.

Actually the title was deceptive. The final incantation Favreau has committed to the screen took it seriously with no winks or nods at the audience and there are real stakes for the characters. A movie called Rise of the Demons or Darkness Comes to Absolution would have intrigued a lot more...

The writers have taken a hatful of Western tropes and stitched them to Alien and UFO pop culture very smartly. The stoic Man With No Name (actually called Jake, played by Craig) who rides into town doesn't say much because he's been abducted by aliens and doesn't remember who is or how he got the strange apparatus attached to his wrist.

Strangely though, he has the fighting skills of James Bond, and when he arrives in town Dolarhyde (Ford) – the menacing local rancher and erstwhile town dictator – wants vengeance, believing Jake's the one who mutilated his cattle out in the desert.

But in the midst of a tense stand off and with Jake locked in the police wagon, a line of lights appears far off in the silent sky in the film's most Spielbergian moment (after Super 8, this is the second film this year to bear his mark as a producer and homage his best imagery).

Then the aliens attack, and when they snatch people from the ground with tentacles from their ships (like lassos, get it?) the townspeople realise these creatures are the ones responsible for the disappearances of their kin. Dolarhyde, Jake and the townspeople saddle up and the race is on to find the 'demon' stronghold and get everyone back.

The later stages of the movie are inherently restricted to standard chase thriller/war movie motifs because of the premise – once the concept is introduced with a flourish there's really nowhere else for it to go but bigger and louder. It's competent and looks great, but it's workmanlike rather than classic sci-fi action.

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