Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Cowboys & Aliens Movie Review: An Interesting Melding of Genre Films

What a fascinating concept, the mixing of genres in Cowboys & Aliens, director Jon Favreau’s latest action spectacular with enough brains to rise slightly above the usual mediocre dreck. Why must it be inevitable that every science fiction film about alien invasion has either a contemporary or a futuristic setting? If you’ve ever wondered how men on horseback with six-shooters and rifles would fend off technologically superior alien invaders, Cowboys & Aliens is a mash-up that might satisfy your thirst for knowledge. At any rate, all alien invaders are by definition technologically superior to humans.

As a Western, Cowboys & Aliens follows the conventions laid down decades ago. Daniel Craig plays the outlaw, Jake Lonergan. He’s wanted for engaging in such time-honored Western traditions as robbing trains. Harrison Ford is Woodrow Dolarhyde, with a name befitting his occupation as a wealthy landowner. Of course he has an idiot son, Percy (Paul Dano), who can’t be touched by the good sheriff played by Keith Carradine. There’s also a preacher (Clancy Brown), a saloon operator (Sam Rockwell) and a token Indian, Nat (Adam Beach), who works for Dolarhyde and is something of an adoptive (though lesser) son. Indians provide some of the film’s most awkwardly laughable moments when they have to unite with a local tribe whose practices adhere to some of the more regrettable conventions of the depiction of Native Americans in film lore. Also, it’s oddly convenient that, despite the existence of dozens of tribes out west, they encounter one that speaks the same language as Nat.

In the manner of The Bourne Identity, Jake wakes up not knowing who he is or what has recently happened to him. He’s got a strange manacle on one of his wrists and, like Jason Bourne, is adept at hand-to-hand combat in a way that lends a modern action flare to the proud traditions of fisticuffs in Westerns. It’s mere minutes into the film when Jake starts cracking bones and wreaking havoc. Shortly after arriving into the town of Absolution (the least creative name used in a screenplay since Avatar’s Unobtainium), strange flying machines are descending upon the hapless earthlings, latching onto several like the titular cowboys might rope cattle and are just as quickly gone from sight, but not before Jake’s wrist appendage transforms into a deadly weapon, the provenance of which will eventually illuminate the missing history in his memory, that shoots down one of the spacecraft.

There’s also a beautiful woman in town. She’s Ella (Olivia Wilde) and she has a strange interest in Jake and that thing on his wrist. She claims to have lost her people too, and wants to go along with the search party to find them. Does her story mask a hidden truth? It would seem so. After all, in Westerns someone is often hiding something.

As a director, Favreau has a few very good moments building and releasing tension. One is during the initial attack on the town. It’s chaos and pandemonium for the characters, but we’re able to follow the course of action. Later there’s an interesting little piece of set design that goes mysteriously unexplained – an upside down river boat that lies “at least 500 miles from any river big enough to hold it.” The search party takes refuge from a storm inside, where the chandeliers on the floor call to mind The Poseidon Adventure. What they don’t know is that the alien they’ve been tracking is occupying the same space. This leads to a manipulative scene of both a dog and child in peril and a thrilling moment before the unseen alien becomes seen. This scene is handled with the kind of skilled directorial hand exhibited by Steven Spielberg with Jaws, but then Favreau ruins it by revealing his hand and showing us the creature full on. What the imagination can produce is far more terrifying than anything we can be shown. Think about the tremendous disappointment of the TV mini-series adaptation of Stephen King’s It in which the creature is revealed to be a giant arachnid. The aliens dreamed up for this film owe a lot to their forerunners in District 9, which are much more humanoid not very horrible.

If only the core elements of the screenplay had been developed to fruition rather than left to fester in stack of action movie clichés, there might have been something really worth seeking out here. And it has the cast to support it. Ford is serviceable, but Craig is an unusual Western hero. He doesn’t quite have the look of your typical cowboy or outlaw, but in retrospect I think it works because he’s not a typical character. He’s a man altered by his experiences with extraterrestrials. The supporting cast gives the film its lifeblood. Although Dano does a bit of scenery chewing early on, Carradine and Brown add world weariness to their morally righteous sheriff and preacher. Any alien invasion film faces the problem of how technologically inferior earthlings can defeat beings capable of traveling light years to find them. It most often comes down to good old human ingenuity and teamwork. Independence Day employs the deus ex machina of a computer virus (good thing the alien computers were Windows compatible!). Cowboys & Aliens just gives one of the alien weapons to the hero at the very beginning. War of the Worlds is, to my knowledge, the only one that provides a defeat of the aliens based on luck and, quite frankly, scientific likelihood. I think here they could have done better to operate with the constraints of the technology of the 19th century to win the battle. After all, where aliens from another world are concerned is there really any difference between the human advancements of the late 19th and early 21st centuries?

The film, based on or inspired by a graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, has nearly as many screenwriters as it has extraneous plot elements and genre tropes. The mantra in the writers’ room must have been, “Everything but the kitchen sink.” The top-billed writers on the project are Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman, whose previous writing credits include the first two Transformers films in addition to TV’s “Hercules” and “Xena.” I’m not surprised to discover this as Cowboys & Aliens, despite being far more coherent than any of the Michael Bay Transformers monstrosities, does share something of a kinship with the bizarre nature of the ancient hero television series. Favreau’s work as an action director is steady – this is the clear result of his work on the Iron Man films, which are two of the finer comic book action films of the last decade. But as a blend of two distinct genres, I wish the screenwriting team had had more courage in defying expectations. Cowboys & Aliens ultimately amounts to a completely predictable formulaic film. Unfortunately there’s a lot of missed opportunity.

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