August 17, 2011

Cowboys & Aliens (2011 film)

Previously published at Hope Lies.

Daniel Craig is the man with no name. Really, he wakes up in a desert with no idea of who or where he is. His only clues are a wound in his side, a photo of a beautiful woman, and a strange metal device clamped on his wrist. After beating down some stray ruffians and stealing a horse and some boots, this man rides into the town of Absolution, where he meets the usual western fare. You've got the weathered old Sheriff Taggart (Keith Carradine made up to resemble Jason Robards) and his rambunctious grandson (The Last Airbender himself, Noah Ringer); the befuddled local saloon owner with bad aim, Doc (Sam Rockwell), and his soothing Mexican wife, Maria (Ana de la Reguera); and the fatherly old Preacher, Meacham (Clancy Brown), who's always there with advice, liquor, a sewing needle, or laugh lines about how holding your gun compares to holding your pecker.

Everyone lives in fear of Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford, gruffly channeling Walter Brennan from Support Your Local Sheriff), a Civil War colonel turned cattle baron whose money is pretty much the only thing keeping the town going after the gold mines dried up. After his spoiled son Percy (Paul Dano) does a bit of flaunting that results in a deputy being shot, Sheriff Taggart has no choice but to lock the boy up and send him to the Marshalls, even as Dolarhyde rounds up his posse and marches into town to get the boy back. Oh, and it turns out our mysterious hero is a wanted outlaw whose gang held up a stagecoach full of Dolarhyde's gold, and he'd very much like to get it back.

That about sums up the first 15-20 minutes of the movie as every cliche is laid on pretty damn thick. The mysterious stranger, the woman he's locking eyes with (Olivia Wilde), the rich father with the spoiled son, posses on either side, the sheriff standing up to his principals, the saloon owner who wants people to stop shooting his sign, the native tracker (Adam Beach), the wanted poster, and the big tense standoff. It's not that things are poorly executed, they aren't - it's well shot, the writing is fine with good dialogue, the cast is amazing - but everything it hits are the same old beats we've seen time and time again. Hell, it doesn't even hit all of them very well as the Man With No Name is given a name and a backstory before the first act is through.

And then the aliens show up.

Now, with the way they're hitting all the old beats with the cowboys, you think they'd do the same with the aliens. You'd expect flying saucers and death rays and either the little green men of classic spaceman films or the black-eyed Greys of modern mythology. That's not what we get. No, the crafts more closely resemble the mythical thunderbird of native totems, which would be interesting if the natives themselves didn't flat out say they're encountering them for the first time, too. The aliens don't abduct us with tractor beams or teleportation, they literally use lassos to snatch people up as their ships swoop by. Again, interesting, even though the speed would likely cut the people in half, which goes against the aliens' intention of keeping their captives alive for no reason. Well, okay, they do need us for experimentation so they can... I don't know. It doesn't make sense. They do surgery on people and even do some probing (seriously), but there's no good explanation for it.

And the aliens themselves are these hulking crustacean monsters that you can empty a gun into and they'll just keep coming and coming. Except for the time they're killed by spears or clubs, or one of them attacks in a way that leaves his heart blatantly exposed to be stabbed, or other moments where the script conveniently overlooks their invulnerability to any weapon but the blaster on Daniel Craig's wrist. The point is that we're supposed to be watching a fight between salt of the earth western men and beings that hide behind advanced technology, and even when we get past that technology, we're still encountering a force that can crush half a dozen men before they even blink. This not only makes a lot of the climax feel pointless, but, as mentioned, causes the script to fall apart as they contradict their own setup. Hell, a character says the aliens don't like going out in the daylight not 20 minutes after an action scene where they were just out in the daylight.

And then the natives show up and have so much better luck with their spears, clubs, and bows & arrows that I'd much rather see Aliens and Indians. As opposed to Vikings and Aliens, which we got in Outlander. Or Vikings and Indians, which we got in Pathfinder. I'm tangenting, but the point is that this whole genre mashup thing doesn't do much for me. And it's not a new thing, as I kept flashing back to Red Sun, a samurai western where a shogun warrior (Toshiro Mifune) teams up with an outlaw gunslinger (Charles Bronson). It was capably made with a good cast and some great moments but, as with this film, it couldn't shake the feeling that not only was I watching a film I'd already seen, I was watching two films I'd already seen. Cowboys and Aliens offers nothing new as a western. It tries to be original and fresh with the alien aspect, but that side of the coin feels underdeveloped and silly. Especially when a main character is revealed to also be an alien, albeit from a different race which was wiped out by the bad aliens. That's the scene in the trailers where she's standing in front of a fire, naked. You know who I'm talking about, but I won't say the actress's name because that would be a spoiler and I don't want to spoil a film unless I don't think it's worth your time to see.

Even pushing all of the other complaints aside, the film is predictable as hell. You know from the first ten minutes who's going to die and who will make it to the end. You've got a setup of a knife that's so blatant that there's no surprise when it pops out at a pivotal moment to stab the pointlessly exposed alien heart I mentioned earlier. You've got the sentimental speech as one man dies in another's arms. You've got a man who lost his love, but since she's lost, it's okay for him to love again, only it's not okay, so he loses another love. You've got the outlaw gang who won't stand for disrespect until it knocks them on their asses and then, okay, I guess they will stand for it. You've got the natives who won't follow the white man's orders until another white man shows up with other white men which gets the natives to respect him and follow his orders.

And in the end, the hero hops on his horse and rides off into the sunset. Because, what with all the spaceships at play, he couldn't have saved the day by literally riding into the sun or something. I guess that would have been too clever. And did I mention the gold? Aliens want gold. Because gold is precious and rare. And they use it to... no, never explained.

Sorry, but this is a disappointing film. Every time it looks like something special or surprising is going to happen, it bends over to crap in the river and all the flashes of inspiration of what this could have been end up passing us by off screen, much like the igniting of a herd of cows.

And, no, we never find out why the cows are ignited, so don't ask.

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