aliens vs cowboys seeds

“God don’t care who you were, son, only who you are.”

Whatever the virtues of the comic book this came from, the story here is a simple hybrid — “Rio Bravo” Western glued to “Star Wars” sci-fi quest. Round up friends, mount up, chase the bad guys and free the hostages. And watch out for those Tie Fighters guarding the Death Star!

After a promising start, presenting Craig’s character as a man of mystery, Favreau’s movie sets out to solve that mystery, and every other one that you might imagine in this situation or that one. The situations pile up as we have the obligatory encounter with a version of the Hole in the Wall Gang, black-toothed rustlers and robbers, and a band of Native American warriors.

Daniel Craig carries a Steve McQueen cool — a man of few words toughness — in his latest film. And had McQueen ever taken on a Western that also involves bug-eyed aliens kidnapping the locals, he’d have played it a lot like the Once and Future James Bond.

Only two types of folks get shot in the Old West. Is he a criminal or a victim?

“I don’t know that, either.”

Though maybe he’d have picked a different hat.

After he fends off a gang of yokels intent on dragging him into town for possible “RE-ward” money, after he slaps around the spoiled punk son (Paul Dano, channeling the young Bruce Dern) of the town boss, after he’s been arrested for being Jake Lonergan — a wanted man, Jake finds out what the wrist-band does.

We meet Craig’s mostly silent stranger in the desert. He wakes up on the road to Absolution. There’s this heavy bracelet on his left wrist. He’s got a nasty gut wound.

“Got a name, friend?”

The Western works better than the science fiction here, as director Jon Favreau (“Iron Man”) struggles to get comfortable with the genre and his cast struggles to look comfortable on horses. But there’s plenty of sturdy support from a nice collection of character actors, especially Brown and Carradine. Brown delivers the script’s best line with a hardscrabble preacher’s conviction.

The jokes are Western jokes. Mostly. The posse comes across another “Close Encounters” reference — a riverboat marooned in the desert.

“I don’t remember.”

It shoots laser blasts at the alien spaceships that start out as “Close Encounters” lights in the night sky and then swoop down for an air strike on the dusty village where the preacher (Clancy Brown, very good), the sheriff (Keith Carradine, excellent), saloon keeper (Sam Rockwell, not bad), prostitute (Olivia Wilde, all-cheekbones) and ruthless cattle boss (an always scowling Harrison Ford) reside.

“COWBOYS & ALIENS” — ★★1/2 — Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde; PG-13 (intense sequences of western and sci-fi action and violence, some partial nudity and a brief crude reference); in general release.

“I don’t know much about boats,” Rockwell’s “Doc” drawls, “but I’d say that thing is upside down.”

And since these “demons” are lassoing the locals and the stranger has the only thing that can shoot them, he gets drafted into a posse to get those locals back.

“Cowboys & Aliens” — the title leaves out the Indians, the desperadoes and the homesteaders — is a perfectly serviceable B-movie in the modern mold — lots of money, lots of stars, lots of explosions and lots of credited screenwriters. That it lacks the snap, crackle and kapow of the summer’s better comic book blockbusters isn’t surprising. With all this effort riding on a big, expensive and rushed studio summer picture, the real miracle is that any of them come to life.

And the less mysterious “Cowboys & Aliens” is, the more tedious it becomes. See it if it’s your thing. But don’t go around yelling “FRANCHISE” at this three-legged horse just yet.

“What DO you know?”

“Cowboys & Aliens” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of western and sci-fi action and violence, some partial nudity and a brief crude reference; running time: 118 minutes.

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Aliens were a natural choice to wrest this role from the Russians, according to Shostak. First of all, aliens won’t complain about being caricatured or typecast. [Q&A With ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ Writer Damon Lindelof]

“It’s a long-term interest, but the science now is making it that much more realistic,” said Emory University physics professor Sidney Perkowitz, author of “Hollywood Science: Movies, Science, and the End of the World” (Columbia University Press, 2007). “I think Hollywood and science will feed into each other on this.” [10 Alien Encounters Debunked]

Hollywood has always loved aliens.

And last year, astronomers reported strong evidence that the Saturn moon Enceladus likely harbors a huge and salty ocean beneath its icy crust. Subsurface oceans are also suspected to occur on other moons, such as Saturn’s Titan and Europa, a satellite of Jupiter.

This glut of alien sci-fi films comes at a time when scientific discoveries are making the existence of life beyond Earth seem more and more plausible. And that might not be a coincidence, some experts say.

“I think that they became popular after the collapse, in 1991, of the Soviet Union,” Shostak told SPACE.com. “You still needed bad guys in movies, and all of a sudden your favorite bad guys — who came from behind the Iron Curtain — they weren’t available anymore.”

“In general, I think almost anything Hollywood does with science and technology, even if it’s not quite right, is a good thing, because it’s some level of exposure,” Perkowitz said.

He pointed to “District 9,” a 2009 South African film that many viewers — including Perkowitz — read as a comment on the evils of apartheid.

Art imitating (alien) life?

Shostak stressed the emotional hold that movies can have on kids. Compelling sci-fi films can plant a seed of curiosity in youngsters, spurring them to investigate scientific issues on their own — and perhaps even become scientists down the road.

“They can make really spectacular and persuasive aliens now, which they couldn’t do 30 years ago,” Perkowitz said. “Thirty years ago, you had a guy jumping around in an alien suit. Now it’s much more realistic.”

“There’s money in aliens,” said Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute in Mountain View, Calif. “That’s been true for a very long time. When I was a kid, there was money in aliens.” [TV’s Best Science Fiction Shows Ever]

He does, however, sense an overall increase in alien movies in the last two decades. But this trend may have more to do with geopolitical developments than scientific ones, he said.

In short, the prospect that life exists beyond Earth — and perhaps even beyond our solar system — is becoming more and more likely. This is big news that affects the way many people view our species and its place in the universe.

Indeed, computer-generated imagery (CGI) has matured significantly over the past few decades, roughly paralleling the rise in alien films that Shostak sees. Perkowitz thinks that’s no coincidence.

Just 20 years ago, scientists had yet to find a single planet beyond our own solar system. Now the count of confirmed extrasolar planets tops 550, with many more about to be added to the list.

Both Perkowitz and Shostak said they’re usually happy to see aliens rendered on celluloid, however clumsily or sensationally.

So Shostak — who has advised Hollywood on a number of feature films, including 1997’s “Contact” — thinks this year’s surge may just be part of Hollywood’s regular cycle, which tends to feature waves of alien movies from time to time.

And now more than ever, Hollywood may be tapping into that growing well of interest.

In February, for example, scientists announced that NASA’s Kepler space telescope had detected 1,235 candidate alien worlds in its first four months of operation. Of those, 54 likely orbit in their host stars’ habitable zone — the range of distances that could support liquid water.

In the past few months, a slew of big-budget alien movies has hit theaters, from kiddie flicks (“Mars Needs Moms”) to comedies (“Paul”) to high-octane action films (“Battle: Los Angeles,” “Green Lantern” and the just-released “Cowboys & Aliens,” among others). And many more such movies are on the way, both this year and next.

These candidate planets need to be confirmed by follow-up observations, but NASA researchers have estimated that at least 80 percent will end up being the real deal.

“My suspicion is, even if Hollywood weren’t pushing it, people would be interested,” Perkowitz told SPACE.com. “I think the straight science turns them on, but there’s no doubt that Hollywood knows how to enhance it, and how to use it in really effective ways.”

“These films can have a big impact,” Shostak said.

Of course, it’s not as if Hollywood has just discovered that aliens can be box-office gold. Alien films have been around — and have been raking in big bucks — for decades.

“There’s no anti-defamation league, if you will, for the aliens,” Shostak said. “And they have another advantage: They don’t ask for residuals. They’re cheap. You have to computer-animate them, that’s true, but that’s a lot cheaper than hiring a big-time Hollywood star.”

Hooking kids on science.