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Posts Tagged ‘Cowboys & Aliens’

…which is to say that the Wild one meets its Final cousin in Jon Favreau’s Cowboys & Aliens – a self-consciously silly title which the film, for some reason, does its best to belie.  Nevertheless, this is what it sounds like: a mash-up of the venerable old Western genre with its upstart (and some would say illegitimate) offspring, the sci-fi action movie. (More on this later.)

Clearly working hard to establish the right tone of quintessentially American ruggedness, Favreau has cast a British actor best known for playing someone posh in the lead role. Daniel Craig plays a tough, rootin’-tootin’ kinda guy who wakes up in the desert, bereft of his memory but possessing a jazzy wristband, a photo of a woman and a funny-looking wound. Making his way to the nearest town he learns he is in fact feared outlaw Lonergan.

Lonergan is on the hit list of ruthless cattle baron Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), who pretty much owns the town, and whose son is a public nuisance there. The sheriff slings Lonergan in the town jail, ready to be shipped off to the federal marshal with Dolarhyde’s son.

A showdown threatens when Dolarhyde and his men ride in, demanding both prisoners be handed over to them, but things are disrupted by the arrival of – and it’s not quite as abrupt and bizarre as it sounds on paper – alien ships, also intent on making a nuisance of themselves. The mash-up threatens to become a literal one as the aliens start behaving like cowboys and the cowboys start acting like aliens. The aliens start physically lassoing the townsfolk and dragging them off while Lonergan discovers a death ray about his person and rapidly learns how to use it.

When the dust settles the aliens have been driven off, but not without having taking numerous local worthies with them. Quite properly, Dolarhyde decides to raise a posse and go in pursuit (his son being amongst the abductees), recruiting Lonergan to his cause, along with the local preacher (Clancy Brown), the barkeep (Sam Rockwell), and various others – including one of those tediously enigmatic young women (on this occasion, Olivia Wilde) who you just know will be reporting for exposition duty somewhere in the second act.

Well, to some extent this is a combination of excerpts from the Big Book of Sci-Fi Cliches with a selection from its little-read Western counterpart, but as genre fusions go it’s a curiously unsuccessful affair. This seems odd, as there is a long and fairly distinguished history of splicing Western DNA into SF stories: Westworld itself, the Tatooine section of the first Star Wars, Outland, Battle Beyond the Stars, and more recently Firefly have all partaken of Western themes and imagery (let’s not mention Wild Wild West). Having said that, none of these films have what you’d honestly describe as an American west setting, which to me suggests that what true Westerns are really about is nothing to do with deserts and six-shooters and hats, but personal freedom and morality, and the clash of different values.

Cowboys & Aliens isn’t about anything like that, really. It works hard to establish an authentically nasty and grimy Western atmosphere – the films it reminded me of most were Unforgiven and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, both great movies even if the latter isn’t a very typical Western – but the characters are all very thin and anonymous, the cast resembling people on a Wild West dress-up holiday. The only person who effortlessly convinces is Harrison Ford, who’s an impressively nasty piece of work to begin with, that familiar old growly whisper modulated into a vicious rasp. But as soon as the aliens show up he turns into a bit of a cut-out and really doesn’t get the material that such an icon really deserves.

For this kind of film to work, both the donor genres really need to have a strong identity of their own. You would think this wouldn’t be a problem with the case of the Western and the SF film, but as I’ve already mentioned the Cowboy element is wholly superficial, and the Alien element… well, it’s not really a proper SF movie, but an effects-driven summer blockbuster, a style of film which is fundamentally superficial anyway.

(The Aliens here, by the way, are an anonymous bunch, their glistening appendages and deceptively-weathered technology marking them out as close cousins of the ones in Independence Day and Spielberg’s version of War of the Worlds. Why have they come to Earth and started behaving so badly? I will refrain from giving away too much of the plot, but suffice to say that when the expositing eventually occurs, Ford’s character responds by snarling ‘That’s just ridiculous!’ and I was with him all the way.)

So what we end up with is a fairly empty-headed FX blockbuster with some strange tonal and pacing problems: the film-makers seem desperately keen to show this is a Proper Western on some level, resulting in long sequences where everyone’s a bit dour and homespun and not much happens, involving aliens or not. It’s not visually very surprising, nor is the plot particularly involving. It’s all a bit dull, if I’m honest, without much humour or indeed a sense of fun about itself. Occasionally there’s a briefly arresting moment (the one inevitably springing to mind is when Olivia Wilde walks naked out of a bonfire, but that may just be me) but on the whole there’s nothing here you won’t have seen before.

And I suppose on some level you could argue that all this really is, is an attempt to mash a genre up with itself: many people having argued that – in cinematic terms – the rise of the sci-fi blockbuster in the late seventies coincided rather neatly with the demise of the western as a going concern, with the resulting conclusion being that one simply transformed into the other. I’m not completely sold on that, to be perfectly honest, but beyond it simply being a coincidence I’m not quite sure how to explain it.

Anyway. Cowboys & Aliens probably sounded like a great idea for a movie, and there may indeed be a good film to made around the theme of extraterrestrials in the old west. But this isn’t it: the story and characters are too thin for it to engage as a drama, and it just isn’t fun enough to work solely as a blockbuster (needless to say, Favreau’s Iron Man did both). Given the talent involved this is really a disappointment, and one of the weaker movies of the summer.

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