Monday, August 15, 2011

Cowboys & Aliens

Meshing a dusty old west side story with slick sc-fi stuff - pretty jaunty task if you ask me. Jon Favreau’s Cowboys & Aliens...well its bizarre - but yes it works. Sci-fi is the deal but the old dusty cowboy stuff is cool as well. But an attempt to mix them together -- well it has consequences of course. Not only is the script a mess but the acting is up to some extent a bit flat. As a result we have a movie that starts out slow but does try to pick up speed in the middle...the key word 'try'.

But its not what goes wrong - its what doesn't go right. The setup is fine. A man (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the New Mexico outback with no memory of who he is or how he got there. Or why a strange metal bracelet is locked around his wrist. When confronted by a mean gang of three men on horseback, he quickly kills them with his fists and legs. So far good enough. He mounts a horse and rides into an archetypically dusty small town, where he encounters a mean bully named Percy (Paul Dano) and quickly kicks him in the crotch when Percy demands the stranger make a "contribution." Trying to retaliate, Percy ineptly kills one of the town's deputy sheriffs, provoking the ire of the Sheriff (Keith Carradine) and prompt incarceration. After the stranger is identified by a "Wanted" poster as mean outlaw Jake Longergan, he joins Percy in jail, but not before a brief encounter with the beautiful Ella Swanson (Olivia Wilde), who claims to know something about him.

Before Lonergan can concern himself with an escape plan, aliens swoop in and steal a number of key members of the community, and the rescue mission lands on the shoulders of Dolarhyde, Swenson, and subsequently Lonergan -- who hopes that tracking the aliens to their base will give him answers to his past.

There's five storylines and none of them are particularly interesting. Part of the problem is that we hardly learn anything about the characters and they rarely interact with each other. There’s no banter, there’s no complex relationships, and while they may share scenes, they hardly ever speak to each other. It’s the most basic screenwriting the nine writers credited to the film could muster: here’s what these characters want (and Lonergan’s motives become nebulous by the third act).
There’s no real attempt to have the genres interact in a meaningful way beyond “Look at how technology changes the relationship between the conqueror and the conquered.” The story even goes so far as to reveal that the aliens are after our gold. More problematic is that the aliens’ motives and our characters’ understanding of the aliens changes from scene to scene. We eventually learn that the aliens are abducting humans so they can study us and learn our weaknesses before beginning the real invasion. But their ship is still mining gold. Are the aliens just thoughtful multi-taskers. And oddly, bullets don’t do much but a well timed charge with a wooden spear seems to do the trick.

The success of the film is largely due to a great performance from Daniel Craig -- who leads the cast with the same subtle intensity that made him a stand-out in his other films. Craig’s performance as Lonergan is a great mix of charming western swagger and modern physicality -- convincing in both rough and tumble action choreography as well as quiet contemplation while rolling a cigarette. Sadly, as I have already stated, the same cannot be said for the majority of the supporting cast. Considering the fact that the film sports an incredible ensemble of performers -- most characters are under served. 
It's not that Cowboys & Aliens is bad, per se, just that it pokes along rather than galloping. It wants to be a Western, but it's a horse opera that relies upon the novelty of an alien invasion to perk up the plot, which dawdles when it needs to dash. There's no real emotional bite to the loss of all the townspeople who got roped by riders in the sky; it's just a device to herd the story along to its inevitable final battle. It is also a real shame about the zero sci-fi - larger world build isn't really interesting. That said, despite flat characters and a campy premise -- moment to moment the film definitely offers some exciting set-pieces, enjoyable character banter, and bizarre but intriguing visual spectacle. Seeing the cowboy and alien worlds collide on the battlefield is interesting and forces the characters to come up with some intriguing solutions for dispatching their would-be conquerors -- especially when the full extent of the aliens’ reach is revealed.

There’s no doubt that audiences will enjoy the Cowboys & Aliens experience -- since it mostly delivers on its promise of an exciting genre mash-up.


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