Friday, July 29, 2011

An Absurd-Idea Graphic Novel Gets Made Over Into A Pretty Gross Film: Cowboys And Aliens!

The Good: Decent acting, Consistently good special effects.
The Bad: Light on character development, Absolutely absurd plot, Unpleasantly gory.
The Basics: Cowboys And Aliens arrives on the big screen with no real social commentary, a lot of effects and an impossible-to-recommend execution of a silly idea,

It's been a weirdly long day for me. I woke up, dressed in a monkey suit and went to the final interviews for my new job (I got it!) and then went to a local comic book shop with the hopes of reading their copy of Justice League: Generation Lost, a graphic novel no one seems to be stocking, but that I have a pretty decent amount of interest in. When it turned out they did not have it, I moved on to Cowboys And Aliens (reviewed here!), figuring I could get done the homework for tonight's midnight showing of the film. Truth be told, I was not impressed. My fundamental issue with the graphic novel Cowboys And Aliens is that the book never became more than its quirky title idea. It was as if the authors got high one night and said, "Let's write something with cowboys and aliens and see what happens" and then they wrote it, but nothing extraordinary happened in it.

Cowboys And Aliens is not the graphic novel. Unlike so many films based upon graphic novels, the relationship between Cowboys And Aliens and the graphic novel with the same name is limited almost entirely to the title. Director Jon Favreau, who dominated a nice part of Summer Blockbuster Season last year with Iron Man 2 (reviewed here!) returns with another big-budget special-effects-driven movie that reminded me more of District 9 (reviewed here!) than anything else. And if that analogy were to hold, it's like District 9 in the Old West without the social commentary.

After waking up in the desert with no memory and a bracelet that will not break off when beaten with a rock, a man is assaulted by three bounty hunters, whom he easily subdues. He rides into Absolution where the people are living in fear of a jerky kid named Percy, largely on the threat of his father. When the stranger stops him from beating on the local saloon owner, he comes to the attention of the Sheriff, who figures him to be a wanted felon, Jake Lonergan. So, almost as soon as Jake is sewn up by the local priest, he is in custody with Percy. When Percy's father, Dolarhyde, rides into town after a herd of his steer go missing (the only witness claims they were burned up following the appearance of a white light from the sky), Absolution is attacked from ships soaring through the night sky and abducting many of its citizens.

The attack is repelled, in part, because of Jake and the gadget on his wrist. Having felled one of the ships with it, Dolarhyde insists Jake join the townspeople in finding the source of the ships and recovering them. This appeals to the strange lady in town, Ella, but not to Jake, who rides off to a house where some of his memories come back. With a tribe of local Apache Indians, Jake's old gang and the remaining townspeople, Jake, Dolarhyde, Black Knife and Ella discover the source of the aliens - who have come for our gold - and launch an attack to liberate the townsfolk and save Earth.

Usually, I like to get involved with some systematic analysis, but this morning, I am so tired from everything that I want to just cut to the chase. One of the benefits of getting older is the ability to admit straight out when something is bad, especially when one spends money on it. After Cowboys And Aliens was done, I looked around the nowhere-near-full theater and I saw a guy who was clearly on a date. He was in his late-teens or early-twenties and he very cautiously told his date, "I liked it," when the movie was over. She looked at him and asked, "What did you like about it?" He opened his mouth two or three times like a fish, then without any sense of conviction shrugged and repeated that he liked it. I'll say what he couldn't (yet) admit to himself: Cowboys And Aliens just wasn't good.

First, the movie is gory. I'm in no way a censorship advocate, but I do argue that there are plenty of times when the MPAA gets movie ratings wrong. This is one of them. There is an incredible amount of gore - not so much blood as aliens being popped, cut, burnt and shot - that actually left my stomach quite upset. The gore seems to be okay with the MPAA because it is almost all computer generated and happening to alien creatures. The level of gore was at least on par with the R-rated Aliens and while that film had language that drove it into the R range, this did not. It still should not have been PG-13.

The screenwriters for Cowboys And Aliens manage to cut out the few redeeming aspects of the graphic novel from which they got the concept. Unfortunately, that cuts out what little credibility there is in a plot that involves cowboys actually repelling the technologically superior alien forces. In addition to having the aliens arrive on Earth for the somewhat ridiculous notion that they need our planet's gold because it is as rare for them as it is for us, the screenwriters forget about the social allegory for conquerors that Cowboys And Aliens had in print. They substitute the social message with action sequences that work better for the medium and violence that seems to be counter-message. What the screenwriters also leave out, with entirely different effect, is the notion of the humans scavenging to save the planet. In the book, the only way the humans are able to repel the aliens with any sense of realism is that they take from downed vessels the weapons and technology and use it against the creatures. In the film, there are several aliens dropped and none of the humans pick up their cannons! They continue fighting with arrows, shotguns and pistols.

And a knife. Sadly, the plot is so predictable that Harrison Ford's Dolarhyde has to tell a kid a story about a knife before giving the child the knife, as if the five writers for the script (it floors me that it took five people to write this film!) wanted to come as close to explicitly saying, "Guess what this kid is going to do later in the movie?" And the telegraphing, er, foreshadowing is as obvious as the set-up prepares the viewer.

I had a few other notes, but I find I don't care about them now. In fact, I wanted to rail about how some of the imagery was taken from The Puppet Masters (reviewed here!), but I can't even generate the enthusiasm within myself to make that argument now.

So what did the movie do right? First, it does look good. The special effects are amazing and because they so effectively turned my stomach, I was thinking for the while that the movie must have been very good. But no, when the movie was a Western, it was a very boring Western. And when it was science fiction, it was science fiction horror and I tend to enjoy the cerebral more. Ahh yes, the good . . .

The acting in Cowboys And Aliens is all-around excellent. Daniel Craig never lets his American accent slip as Jake and there was not a moment while I was watching the film that I felt like I was watching Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig. Instead, they got me invested in the place and time. With support from performers like Sam Rockwell, Clancy Brown, Keith Carradine and Nat Colorado, it is very easy for the viewer to completely buy into the time and place and feel like they all belong there.

But it is virtually impossible to care. None of the characters evokes real empathy and as the two hour chase/destroy the hive mission movie goes on, the viewer feels more like they are enduring it, rather than the plot or characters progressing. The result is a big summer splat and one that is easy to recommend against seeing.

For other works featuring Olivia Wilde, please check out my reviews of:
The Change-Up
Tron: Legacy
The Next Three Days
Year One


For other movie reviews, please be sure to visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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