There's something timeless about a good Western, even if the genre has generally fallen out of favor with modern filmgoers. Sprinkle in some scary aliens, stunning special effects, and a terrific cast and the mashup film Cowboys & Aliensturns out to be a terrific and highly entertaining summer tentpole adventure.
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Set in sparsely populated New Mexico around 1875, the film starts with bad hombre Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) waking up in the middle of nowhere, with no memory of who he is or how he got there. Stuck to his wrist is a strange metal bracelet, one that is built of technology far beyond what he's ever seen. Three ruffians show up and try to jump him, saying "son, this just ain't your lucky day" but they're wrong. It's their unlucky day and Jake demonstrates he hasn't forgotten his fighting skills.
Heading into the sleepy, impoverished town of Absolution, he has a scuffle with local bully Percy (Paul Dano) and ends up tossed in jail by Sheriff Taggart (Keith Carradine). Just as they're about to leave for the Federal court in Santa Fe, Percy's Dad Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) shows up and, more dramatically, so do alien spacecraft out of the gloom, intent on lassoing and kidnapping humans.
The juxtaposition of the mythic Old West with the technology and frightening visage of the aliens are at the heart of this movie and Iron Man director Favreau doesn't disappoint.The creatures are reminiscent of Predator, with some internal plumbing all their own. Westerns are just as much about the sweeping plains and endless skies and Cowboys & Aliens has it's share of beautiful vistas. In fact, subtract the alien element and it's a terrific Western with believable personalities, sets and lots of tough hombres on horseback. Fun!
Human vs. alien movies end with the humans winning. It's the heart of just about every film, that good guys overcome bad guys. Cowboys & Aliens still manages to have an engaging storyline and its aggressive special visual effects notch up the tension quite a bit. We know the cowboys win, but with the Indians on their side? That's a central theme in the film too: in times of trouble, disparate people can band together to fight the alien invaders.
M. Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender is a film that amply demonstrates the adage that everyone outside of Hollywood understands: special effects do not a movie make. The brilliant effects by Industrial Light & Magic are all there is to this incoherent mess of a movie, and it's too bad, because there could have been a visually stunning story. Unfortunately Shyamalan has demonstrated in every post-Sixth Sense film he's made that he just isn't a very good storyteller.
Then there's the issue of race. I'm not concerned about issues of whether actors of the appropriate ethnicity are cast in ethnic roles (most recently this debate flared up over Gyllenhaal in Prince of Persia) but The Last Airbender pushed that suspension of disbelief out the window. In the story, the world is split into four races, the four elementals of earth, wind, water and fire. The ostensible hero, Aang (Noah Ringer), is the last airbender, while the main characters are actually Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) of the water tribe.
The dissonance comes from the entire Northern Water Tribe living in the frozen north in an Aleutian village, dressed in Eskimo furs, but the lead actors are caucasian. It was bizarre and was never explained in the film. Were there no Asian actors available to take the brother-sister roles of Katara and Sokka?
That's just the tip of the proverbial iceberg with the problems throughout The Last Airbender. If you can stomach an incomprehensible movie with stilted self-conscious dialog because of some cool special effects, go see it. Otherwise it'll be on Nickelodeon soon enough, just wait and save the ticket price.