Saturday, December 31, 2011

Cowboys & Aliens (Universal, DreamWorks and Relativity Media, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The night before last Charles and I had screened a recent DVD: Cowboys & Aliens (the ampersand is part of the official title), a 2011 movie directed by Jon Favreau — I was amused that the blurbs on the DVD box mentioned that he was the director of Iron Man but not the director of Elf — from a script that went through so many hands it was as if the producers of this movie (Universal, DreamWorks and Relativity Media) were going out of their way to prove my general field theory of cinema that the quality of a movie is inversely proportional to its number of writers. Cowboys & Aliens began life as a comic book by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg for a company called Platinum Studios. After that it went through Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, and Steve Odekirk for an “original screen story” that got converted into an actual screenplay by Fergus & Ostby and Damon Lindelhof and Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman. What these six writers working in three relay teams came up with was essentially a science-fiction version of The Bourne Identity out West: the setting is 1873, in the Arizona territory, in and near the town of Absolution (I joked that if they continued down the same trail they’d reach a town called Extreme Unction!).

We’re first introduced to Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig), who’s come to on the trail to Absolution with a mysterious, ornate metal bracelet on his wrist and no idea who he is or what he’s called. He’s immediately ambushed by three thugs, whom he easily vanquishes — at this point I joked, “I’ve played an Israeli assassin and James Bond. You guys didn’t have a chance!” For the first half-hour of the movie there’s no hint of any alien presence other than that weird bracelet on Jake’s wrist, and the film meanders through an ultra-slow introduction of its other principals: local cattle rancher Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford — obviously part of the logic of this film was to tap the supposed commercial appeal of a James Bond and an Indiana Jones acting in the same movie, though as pointed out Ford had appeared with Sean Connery in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and therefore this was not his first movie with an actor who’d played Bond), his psycho son Percy (Paul Dano, who as usual stole every scene he was in), and a woman, Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde), who seemed to be there just to be decorative and to give Jake someone he could walk away from at the end à la the Lone Ranger once the world was saved from the space creatures once and for all.

The aliens finally appear and turn out to be giant green monkey-like creatures, moving with a fearsome agility far beyond that of humans even though we own this planet and they’re the ones trying to conquer it (were we supposed to believe the gravity was heavier on their planet than on ours?), and Favreau’s direction of the alien sequences goes as much or more for horror than action, with a lot of quick cuts and “shock” edits that worked on one level even though, after quite a lot of footage of these ugly green things, I found myself regretting that Favreau hadn’t followed the example of George Pal in the 1953 War of the Worlds (and, outside the sci-fi realm, of Val Lewton before that!) of merely teasing us with what the monsters looked like. Still, the scenes in which the cowboys are actually battling the aliens are quite a bit more entertaining than the rest; the film is surprisingly slow-paced (especially given that Favreau’s earlier directorial efforts have moved!) and the script by the writing committee is full of Western clichés that seem to have lodged in their subconscious minds many moons ago and get played out at excruciating lengths. Add to that a job of cinematography by Matthew Libatique that is such an extreme example of the past-is-brown look that at one point I joked that he was making the people (all of whom are white, mind you!) look as dark as possible so they’d match the mahogany bar of the town saloon, and Cowboys & Aliens emerges as a movie that thoroughly deserved its fate as a box-office flop.

On standard indicia of quality it’s no doubt a “better” movie than the 1935 serial The Phantom Empire — the title I came up with when I asked myself, “What other sci-fi Westerns have there been?” — but that old tacky Republic serial with comfort-actor Gene Autry as a decent but unheroic lead was actually (at least for me) more fun to watch, and one reason is that the Muranians were played by identifiable human actors and drawn as conscious, sentient characters with (often clashing) agendas of their own, rather than a bland, silent fighting force seemingly out to conquer the Earth (Ella explains to Jake that they’re probably “scouts,” sent as an advance guard from their planet to see if Earthlinks either can or will fight them off, and therefore he has to make sure all of them die so none of them report back home and the leaders of their world decide that Earth is too tough a nut to crack and leave us alone) but not given any sign of higher intelligence — much like, come to think of it, the racist way American Indians were usually portrayed in classic-era Westerns!