Cowboys and Aliens (2011)

July 29, 2011 § Leave a comment

Good ol' ornery Harrison Ford and stoic brooder Daniel Craig cowboy up in the genre-clashing flick 'Cowboys and Aliens'

Roberto Orci (screenplay) &
Alex Kurtzman (screenplay) &
Damon Lindelof (screenplay) and
Mark Fergus (screenplay) &
Hawk Ostby (screenplay)

Mark Fergus (screen story) &
Hawk Ostby (screen story) and
Steve Oedekerk (screen story)

Scott Mitchell Rosenberg (Platinum Studios comic book)

Produced by Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, Steven Spielberg, etc.

Directed by Jon Favreau

Starring Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Keith Carradine, Paul Dano, Clancy Brown, Adam Beach, David O’Hara, Walton Goggins and Sam Rockwell

Let me start by acknowledging all the credits I put at the top of this review. Normally I keep it to the key credits and try to focus on the true stars of the film rather than the bulk of the cast who have named characters and speaking roles. I added everybody I possibly could without turning this into an IMDb.com page because seeing these stats, if you will, forces me to address a few points about Hollywood and the history of film making.

First note the seven names credited with developing the story and writing the script, then notice the eighth name, Scott Rosenberg, the guy who actually wrote the graphic novel upon which the film is based. Normally when you have this many cooks in the kitchen -and we’re potentially looking at a regular old ‘too many cooks in the kitchen’ scenario- it is readily apparent by the disjointed story and uneven thematic and stylistic elements of a film that nobody could get it right, the studio was running up against rights deadlines and people’s schedules and said ‘screw it’ and just filmed the damn thing, hoping for the best but expecting the worst. That’s normally what so many writers would mean. For some reason, though, thanks to the movie gods, ‘Cowboys and Aliens’ has done something that is on one hand very unique in modern day Hollywood and on the other hand is what we’ve come to expect, recognize and appreciate most as film goers over the last hundred-plus years of Hollywood.

What we audience members have come to appreciate is comfort imagery and eye popping, ground breaking spectacle. Most of the time we don’t get them in one film. We have to pick and choose our stylistic battles and the studios know this, so individual films tend to get bogged down in the uninspired and tedious retreads of past genre successes. Movies like ‘Skyline’ and ‘Battle: Los Angeles’ take the most basic elements of successful alien films like ‘Independence Day’ or even a satire such as ‘Mars Attacks!’ and managed to strip the fat from the proceedings. But what is fat? We perceive fat to be bad. Yet, butter makes things taste better, fatter cuts of steak tend to be juicier and appease our taste buds more thoroughly. What I’m getting at here is that there was a humanity and a depth to these elder statesmen of the genre, in which we followed characters we learned to care about and remember, memorized our favorite lines and reveled at watching our favorite scenes over and over again as the years went on and the films aged, mostly in nostalgic and positive ways. Sure, some of the effects and model work in ‘Independence Day’ started looking hokey once we got accustomed to HD screens and yes, a film like ‘Mars Attacks!’ is pure satire, but at their cores they relied on characters. Who doesn’t remember Will Smith’s choicest quotes (“Welcome to earf!”/”Now that’s what I call a close encounter”) or Randy Quaid’s crazy abductee or Bill Pullman’s stupfyingly cheesy ra-ra speech to signal the beginning of the third act (“Today, is our Independence Day!”). These were what made those films memorable. Not the special effects, not the big shiny space ships zipping past our screens. It was the people that gave us an excuse to care and to pay attention and remember. Films like ‘Skyline’ or ‘Battle: Los Angeles’ ask us to be wowed by generic special effects and indecipherable action sequences in which the film makers hope that by virtue of simply knowing we’re watching special effects and blue lasers blowing stuff up we’ll be satisfied. The aliens have vague designs and zero personality, give zero reasons for the invasion and we’re generally not given anything to care about except for a few money shot moments of someone doing something generically heroic in slow motion. These scenes are all interchangeable.

To aide in these endeavors, the actors provide juicy quotes during the pre-release media blitz, doing their damndest to convince us they’re practically real soldiers or wunderkind Action Jacksons by providing quotes about the ‘intense’ two week boot camp they went through before filming. However, in the end, we don’t care about their characters and most everybody above twelve years old is disappointed or feels insulted by what they just paid to see and these films quickly become a minor cliff note in Hollywood history, cautionary tales about the soulless and creatively bankrupt side of the movie industry.

On the other hand, you’ve got the western, a Hollywood genre-staple, a go to action movie and paycheck for actors still in the contract Studio system era. There were a handful of sets built on the back lots and outskirts of a relatively undeveloped Los Angeles. Contract screen writers would crank out the white hats vs. black hat stories of simply morality tales such as ‘Shane’ starring Alan Ladd and Jack Palance as men who literally wore white and black hats depending who was the protagonist and who was the villain. John Wayne made scenery chewing auto-pilot acting an art form. As Hollywood got more sophisticated and technology improved, people tired of the simplicity and old fashioned nature of the western and it was mostly abandoned, save for the occasional big ticket ‘anti-western’ films such as Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” in which violence was shown in its true horrific nature, with blood and squibs everywhere. The heroes and villains didn’t wear uniforms of white or black, but men wore shades of gray, their roles interchanging as the stories progressed. Clint Eastwood took this mold to its most sophisticated and simplistic zenith in the seminal anti-western Best Picture winner ‘Unforgiven’ about a former gun slinger who is forced back into his violent ways by some small town corruption.

Aside from these examples, westerns had mostly lost their luster and tended to be passion projects of actors too young to have been a part of the studio system. Movies like the ‘Young Gun’ series, ‘Quick and the Dead’ and ‘Tombstone’ took Westerns and turned them into action set pieces meant to provide aforementioned younger actors a chance to get a taste of old Hollywood film making. Aside from these, westerns as a genre-staple were dying or dead.

Enter ‘Cowboys and Aliens’, which has taken all of the most memorable, fun and spellbinding elements of these two separate and wayward film styles and has managed to create a credible, fulfilling and nostalgic experience for fans of either genre. The film starts and ends with classic western motifs, while filling the middle and apex of the story with classic sci-fi/alien action that will please even the most ardent and anal genre fans. The story isn’t quite as simple as white hats vs. black hats, but it might as well be. Daniel Craig stars as Jake Lonergan, a gifted fighter and gun slinger who awakens with his memory wiped from existence and a strange and indestructible metal bracelet firmly attached to his left wrist. He doesn’t know who he is, but does remember English and how to defend himself. He quickly avoids capture by some ruthless travelers looking for a quick finder’s fee and makes his way into a small town that’s virtually run by a supposedly ruthless cattle man played by Harrison Ford.

We quickly meet our cast of characters, with everybody getting a little bit of back story and some vague character arcs; an indifferent reverend (Clancy Brown) who’s too jaded to pretend God can save people must find the holy spirit once again and imbue his Godly comfort upon other lost souls; a meek bar owner (Sam Rockwell) must find the confident warrior within himself to stand up to the town bullies, earn their respect and save his wife. The cattle rancher’s defiant, arrogant and destructive son (Paul Dano in a surprisingly menacing performance) must learn some humility, the anglicized Native American (Adam Beach) must use the knowledge of his people to bridge the cultural gaps between the white cowboys and the Native American tribesmen and Olivia Wilde, playing a gorgeous, confident and mysterious woman, who must achieve certain personal goals to help the humans fight the aliens. Wilde is wonderful, evoking a confidence and power reminiscent of Sigourney Weaver or Julianne Moore. It might sound sexist to say this, but it’s almost a shame Wilde is as stunningly beautiful as she is, because if she was more weathered, I think her tremendous strength as an actress would be better acknowledged.

Then of course, there’s Harrison Ford as Woodrow Dolarhyde, a cantankerous cattle owner whose men run the town with a mildly mighty fist. People seem to cede power to Dollarhyde when in his presence, but otherwise acknowledge him to be a basically decent guy who abstains from town business. As Dolarhyde, good old Harrison Ford delivers a lively, hammy performance that evokes a more with-it aging John Wayne type of an actor, who has his own rhythm and styles, to hell with modern acting or believability! Ford grumbles, guffaws and screeches all his lines through a bellowing phlegmy elder statesman voice, evoking years of toil, hardship and loss of direction as an actor. The plain fact is, the man is a legend and to see him on screen is instantly pleasing. Every single line and shot with him is a heart warming trip down memory lane.

There’s one scene in particular in which Ford is walking and talking with a young boy. The camera is pulling back in front of them, with Ford and the boy centered with a procession of men behind them. Ford looks to the sides of the screen, his left side (our right) in particular, presumably to avoid directly looking into the camera. He gives a long, uncut section of dialogue which he may very well have memorized, but I’m almost positive he was relying on cue cards to get him through the sequence. I thought I’d be disappointed by the possibility that Ford wasn’t on his game for this sequence. On the contrary, it was supremely satisfying to see an elder statesman of Hollywood, in a veritable come back performance, giving us an experience reminiscent of the greatest lazy actor of all time, John Wayne. This is Ford showing us his legend supersedes his abilities and daring us to be in any way disappointed or disenchanted by this fact. I, for one, got a grin-inducing kick out of being fully aware that it was a movie with a set and crew members running around making sure this sequence looked remotely believable. This is what old Hollywood was. These moments where it was so clearly a movie and the actors were so clearly phoning it in or didn’t have their best stuff, but you love them so much and love the genre so much that you simply don’t care, or the laziness somewhat ironically enhances your viewing experience. The most positive thing I can say about Ford is that, like the similarly named car company’s trucks, he’s built tough. Even in his mid-60’s, gray, crinkled and a little out of sorts in New Hollywood, the man holds his own during the action sequences. Watching him blaze across the screen on a horse as he spears or shoots a massive CGI alien is pure cinematic magic. I’m quite thankful he was pulled out of semi-retirement for this role as he nails it and gives us that warm gooey nostalgic feeling of watching something with such pure joy that we feel like we’re seven years old once more, for a brief two hours.

Once again, Harrison Ford is paired with a James Bond. Instead of Sean Connery as his father in Indiana Jones, he gets Daniel Craig as the mysterious and stoic man who holds the key to the alien presence (since science-fiction and the term alien didn’t yet exist in the old west, the aliens of the title are referred to as creatures, demons or things in the film) with a metal contraption stuck to his wrist, which he figures out he can use as a sort of hand cannon to fight the aliens with their own technology. He reluctantly but curiously leads the humans in their quest to save abducted loved ones, snatched up by dragonfly-looking metallic buzzard ships that may or may not be unmanned drones. He has shades of reluctant gun slinger ‘Shane’, while maintaining that uniquely Craig-ian tough guy snarl and believable physicality. He doesn’t look like a typical action hero, but I believe he could kick ass if necessary and that’s probably the best quality a hero can have in a movie like this. As for his character development, despite memories of a fallen lover and his own abduction experience, Longerhan is drawn to Olivia Wilde’s character, a woman not so much attracted to him as she is driven to help him because she believes he can help her, as they’re both connected to the aliens in their own way.

This all leads to an extended chase sequence that introduces us to side characters, including a rough and tumble outlaw gang, headed by up well known character actor Walton Goggings as an aw-shucks faux tough guy and a mean wanna-be gang leader played by scene stealing Irish toughy David O’Hara, perhaps most famous as one of the main henchmen in Martin Scorsese’s the Departed a few years back. Once all the cowboys are together, they encounter some Native Americans, who looks surprisingly like Native Americans you’d see depicted in classic Hollywood westerns, minus the racist undertones. The Native Americans, while not given a whole ton of character development, play vital roles in the battle against the greater evil of the aliens and there are some surprisingly entertaining sequences in which the tribesmen and townfolk must communicate through various bilingual members of their parties.

The final battle is pretty much the perfect mash up of alien tech design, replete with huge metallic ships, a weird membrane-like control center for the alien spacecraft, some experimentation units and lots of creepy aliens. The aliens’ overall look is a little vague. They’re like shrunken, more anthropomorphized versions of the ‘Cloverfield’ creatures, except for some slimy tentacle like hands that they can extend from inside their bodies to grab onto people better. This aspect is very creepy and will satisfy anybody looking for chills and good creature feature visuals. Though the aliens are devoid of personality, they are given reasons for their presence and a couple of mildly sympathetic moments to make them feel like slightly more than perfunctory anonymous creatures for the humans to fight with.

And that’s what makes Cowboys and Aliens so good. Yes, all the elements existed in cheesy, lazier fare before this film, but everything is done with such exquisite, loving detail, homage, tongues in cheeks and straight forward seriousness all at once that there’s nothing from either genre that’s missing and yet it doesn’t feel like they crammed too much in. We even get some slimy alien tech goo at one point!

The film is also profoundly shot in rich widescreen close ups that feel like the film makers are daring us to spot their tricks. They want us immersed in the visual treats on screen. They want us to feel as close as we can to really being there. The imagery is rich with texture and crisp angles to give us as much to feast our eyes on as possible. Favreau specifically avoided 3D-centric sequences (there is no 3D version of the film available) and also mostly avoids any frenetic quick cutting of fights. It’s all right there in plain sight, for all its cinematic glory to be bestowed upon the viewer.

All in all, Cowboys and Aliens is not nearly as silly as the title suggests, paying homage, respect and reverence to the genre flicks that came before it, sidestepping the mistakes other films have made along the way and only playing to its potential strengths, to give us a lean, fun and rich action adventure that harkens back to a time when westerns weren’t self-consciously hokey and alien films weren’t insultingly stupid.

Personally, I couldn’t have asked for a better genre-mash up.

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