Cowboys & Aliens

by deerinthexenonarclights

The conception of this film is now a well tread tail, but I feel that it is also a telling one: Studio executives squealed at the sight of a single piece of cover art for an entirely unwritten comic book series and brought the rights on the spot, handing the image over to their creative department with no additional content and ordering them to do their stuff, make this a movie. From there the project, which already encompassed two genres, made it’s way through the hands of seven credited screenwriters – though more were no doubt involved along the way –  and a plethora of powerful executive producers – among them Ron Howard and Steven Speilberg – all of whom were trying to turn this basically blank slate into their own ideal movie; and the subsequent schizophrenia shows in Favreau’s final product.

    In theory I certainly agree that this is an amazing premise – setting a traditional science fiction story in the dry and dusty confines of the old west – and individually these are probably the guys that you would want to make it, but it turns out that these elements had not been combined in the past for a reason, they are inherently immiscible, at least in kitchen as crowded as this.

In the opening act, when the film is still a simple, straight western, it plays; its shallow and abridged sure but at the base level it works: the scenery looks stunning and within it a story plays out with some mystery, tension and occasional bouts of suspense, but this is short lived. For each element of Science fiction that is introduced to the concoction the quality drops and our investment goes with it; the two are almost directly proportional to one another and so the film slides down a perfectly smooth slope of disappointment and diminishing returns as it progresses.

Though it did not follow this model exactly something similar occurred during the recent release Super 8  – it’s drop was a much steeper but ultimately less damaging one – and this s not the only trait that they share. For one their plotlines are almost identical: Aliens land on Earth, capture random townspeople and string them up in their underground lair whilst scouring the surrounds for much needed scrap metal; secondly they share a name in Speilberg, who was brought on their with a similar purpose there as he was here, to be a living link to the past that these films wish to re-create.

The difference between them lies in the way that the two work to counter this familiar plot with a new context: Super 8 chose to juxtapose its invasion with an intimate, character driven drama depicting the innocence of childhood, whereas Cowboys sets its shallow Sci-Fi shootouts off with shallow Western shoot-outs. The purpose of this assignment seemed to be the clashing of these two much loved genres against one another, but after half an hour the two have simply merged into a mud-like mess.

Now I know that i’ll be lambasted for daring to mention this word in my review of a multiplex movie, but the script is to blame. To my mind the movie’s mistakes are best summed up by a single character, a dog named dog. Throughout the film this one dog appears again and again, but each time it appears to belong to a different character and has occasionally jumped miles ahead of our characters since last we saw it. There is no point to this dog – I thought for a time that perhaps he was an alien, but alas no – and yet it is given such attention and likely more close-ups than Daniel Craig. What the hell was up with this dog? Why was it always there? Though it is remarkably insignificant the portrayal of this pooch serves as a perfect exemplar of all the plots problems: the inconsistencies of character, universe and idea.

What makes these issues unforgivable is the fact that the writers really havn’t tried to do anything hard here; they aren’t out to revolutionize either genre but have instead stuck to simply crafting a story out of the two competing sets of expected conventions. The majority of audience members could have spec’ed a story that was as innovative as this one and most of their attempts would have been more cohesive, better executed and ultimately made for better movies.

It is all about the action though – it shouldn’t be; Western’s weren’t and Science Fiction says in its title that it is a genre for geeks and not jocks – because unlike Super 8  and Falling Skies – another contemporary Speilberg production that shares the same essential story as this, is the man out of ideas? – Cowboys isn’t about harking back to those past films that made these genres great, that made them so special to us as an audience, instead its goal is to take the tropes of Ford and Spielberg and forcibly modernize them. If this film feels reminiscent of anything it’s not The Searchers nor Close Encounters but rather Seraphim Falls and Battle: L.A. – its institutional memory is that of a goldfish – and as in those more modern movies the script simply isn’t seen to matter.

This is such a shame, mostly because Favreau, Howard and Speilberg  have managed to wrangle up a massively talented stable of character actors for this film, but not one of them has been given anything resembling a character: Rockwell, Goggins, Dano, Ford, Carridine and company simply play to their established schtick and for some this works – Ford is still very charismatic and his gruffness suits the genre – but for others it feels a little incongruous – I don’t really know what Rockwell was aiming for here, but it didn’t work regardless and that’s something I’ve never before said of the man – and so overall we simply don’t care about any of them during the all important action scenes, not that we can really see much of  them anyway, and without these stakes the whole thing falls flat.

Daniel Craig though is far from flat, his performance is negligible but his body is not and Favreu makes the most of this, leaving us with a lead character who’s most defining attribute is his pair of tight leather chaps; chaps which are center framed in half of the film’s shots thanks to the fact that we spend most of our time watching him climbing up inclines, getting on horses, or just being drenched and undressed when that is starting to feel a little too subtle. So there is something of worth in their for that side of the audience, it seems strange though that Olivia Wilde is never given such attention, even in her nude scene; though she too is conveniently wet for most of the movie so it’s really just a classy affair all round.

There was such potential in this premise of alloying genres, such potential in the title alone that I was sold from the second I first heard it, but none of that has been capitalized on here by Favreau and co. Hell the idea hasn’t really even been executed here at all; instead of allowing them to create something new and unique, having these two genres has simply given the collection of creatives twice as many cliches to fall back on; so ultimately this is a film interesting in name alone.