Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Genre-Bending With COWBOYS & ALIENS


- Cowboys & Aliens is a movie that could have, should have been great. And for the first twenty minutes or so of the movie, I really thought it might get there. As great actor after great actor was introduced, as the tension thickened, as we were slowly sucked in to the dusty, dirty Wild West world of the film, it seemed like Jon Favreau and co. may have pulled off something special. But somehow, the early momentum of the film dips and eventually completely disappears. What starts out as a unique, satisfyingly pulpy Western devolves into a generic and witless action movie. The end result is a film that ends up feeling flat, and almost inexplicably bland and boring. For a movie with such a tantalizing premise and such a star-studded cast, that should not have been the case. It's strange and disappointing to me that a premise with such infinite possibility for fun and excitement ended up producing such a by-the-numbers movie.

As I mentioned, if you're a Western fan or just a fanboy, your eyes will surely light up throughout the film's first act. To start with, we've got a pretty cool setup - a mysterious stranger (played by Daniel Craig) wakes up in a ramshackle town in the Old West, with no memory of who he is or how he got to be in his current situation. All we know is that he's got some sort of futuristic, metallic device strapped to his arm. As Craig's character situates himself, we're introduced to a lineup of classic Western archtypes, each played by great character-actor types. The great Clancy Brown as a badass preacher. Keith Carradine - who already played Wild Bill on Deadwood - as the straight-shootin' sherrif. Sam Rockwell as an in-over-his-head saloon-owner. I mean, it doesn't really get much better than that, casting-wise. You've even got Paul Dano as a loose-cannon trouble-maker, whose dad is a powerful figure in the town.

And that dad is played by Harrison Ford, who seems pretty game to play the gruff, prickly character he plays in the film. Sure, in some ways he's practically playing Harrison Ford, but at least he's got a bit of that old twinkle in his eye for this one. He seems awake, which is more than can be said for some of his other recent roles. As for Daniel Craig, he initially does a great job of playing the mysterious, stone-faced badass. But he sticks so firmly to that archtype that the character ends up becoming a cipher. Even as we learn more about his checkered and trauma-filled past, there's little to no discernable change in Craig's demeanor. I don't know to what extent to put the blame on the script or on Craig, but the character ends up being so one-note that you just quickly stop caring.

Unfortunately, the same can be said of a lot of the film's characters. We are excited to meet them because of the actors who play them, but ultimately, most of the main characters never get much in the way of characterization. As for all of those great supporting actors, well, Clancy Brown never really has his big moment to shine, nor does Keith Carradine, or Paul Dano. In fact, a lot of the coolest actors in the movie get moved off the board for almost the entire second and third act of the film. It seems like a waste. Why go to all the trouble of building up Dano - and his relationship with his father, Ford, if those actors barely get to interact for most of the film?

The most glaringly "off" character in the movie is probably Olivia Wilde's. I think Wilde can be good, and she has done some pretty decent genre work over the years, but her character here is just lame. The mystery around the character amounts to an obvious and unexciting payoff. And the hints of romance / sexual tension with Daniel Craig just don't work in the slightest. Wilde's character ends up just being one giant plot-twist in the making, and never functions as an actual character that we care about.

And here's one big problem with the film - the movie is full of characters who are grumpy, prickly, stoic, and/or mysterious. I saw another review that said it's like a "peanut butter and peanut butter sandwich", and I agree (even though I do love peanut butter). The character dynamics are just all out of whack. But beyond that, there just aren't that many great character or story beats in the script. The movie tosses out most of its attempts at characterization once the aliens invade. But what's more, I just kept waiting - and waiting - for the movie to give me some big, stand-up-and-cheer, pump-my-fist moments. This is, afterall, Cowboys versus Aliens - how do you do a movie like that and have so little fun with the premise? I'm not saying the movie needed to be silly or cartoonish, but why make a sci-fi genre mashup with this if you don't write in as many big, badass, and kickass moments as possible?

To that end, the cool initial setup largely gives way to a fairly generic sort of alien invasion. The aliens themselves are unmemorable, seemingly ripped from whatever first-person-shooter videogame is hot at the moment. The aliens, not particularly distinguishable from those in any number of recent sci-fi movies - from Battle Los Angeles to Super 8 - have no real personalities or motivations, and that too hurts our investment in the film. Hell, even Independence Day had the big moment where that captured alien growls out something about wanting to kill us all, thus nicely setting up the stakes of the film. Here, there's some half-baked plot about how the aliens want to steal gold, but that just comes off as a bit silly without further explanation. The action, too, just feels so generic. There are the usual action movie sorts of sequences, but little that really screams "here's something awesome that could only be done in a movie called Cowboys & Aliens." It's less about imagination, wit, and fun than it is the proverbial mashing-up of two sets of action figures.

I also wasn't crazy about the stylistic choices of the film. The movie is never as gritty or stylized as a true Spaghetti Western, and it's never as intense, grand, or as awe-inspiring as the best alien invasion movies. The effect is that the movie just feels a bit bland, and too straightforward for a movie with such a potentially crazy premise. That said, some of the early sequences that were shown at last year's Comic-Con remain the movie's best. For example, the first attack on the town by the alien armada is suitably intense, atmospheric, and chaotic. It's a great scene - where the rivalries and feuds of the Old West town are suddenly interrupted by an invading force beyond and of the cowboys' comprehension. It's too bad then that we never get another set piece that lives up to the promise of that first attack, which was elegantly-staged and effectively mood-setting.

Aside from simply lacking cool, fun moments, the script is just structurally sort of a mess. Like I said, key characters are taken off the grid for huge amounts of time, we get lots of flashbacks that reveal "answers" that are easily guessed at from the movie's opening moments, and character arcs that get lots of play at the beginning of the movie all but disappear as things progress.

Ultimately, Cowboys & Aliens is sunk by a bland script and an overall lack of vision for the movie. You can tell this was likely a case where too many cooks were in the kitchen, and also one where the mere idea / gimmick of the premise overshadowed the need to create a great story and memorable characters. It's too bad, because the opening act of the film hints at something great, but things really devolve from there. I give credit to Favreau and co. for taking the movie seriously and attempting to legitimately mash-up genres, and there are certainly points in the movie (mostly in the first act), where you do feel like you're watching a really cool, really unique sort of action film. As it stands though, the movie turns out to be decently entertaining, but has enough problems that it can't be ranked among the best of the Summer 2011 blockbusters.

My Grade: B-

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