Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
August 2011

Two bad movies for the price of one

Jon Favreau's Western/science fiction mashup'Cowboys & Aliens' needs a crash course in Westerns and science fiction

Cowboys & Aliens
Universal Pictures
Director: Jon Favreau
Screenplay: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, based on the comic book by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg
Starring: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Clancy Brown, Adam Beach, Keith Carradine, Noah Ringer and Paul Dano
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 58 minutes
Opened July 29, 2011
(out of four)

I texted my initial response to a friend: "I wish Spielberg had directed Cowboys & Aliens." He texted back: "I wish someone older than 8 had written the dialogue."

So there you have it. If not for the writing and the direction, Cowboys & Aliens may have been on to something. Instead, the final result is a strangely ineffectual misfire - the kind of situation where you want to call for a do-over. If the same filmmakers went back to square one and got another shot at it, I'm reasonably confident they'd come back with a better product.

Science fiction and Westerns have enjoyed a long and fruitful courtship going back decades. Often the two are subtly blended, one genre hiding underneath the other. What I like about the premise of Cowboys & Aliens is the cheerful directness of its contradiction in terms. There is no conceptual subtlety in a film about 19th Century gunslingers and prospectors under siege from an alien invasion.

The problem, as it turns out, is that the film doesn't know sci-fi or Westerns nearly as well as it thinks it does, or nearly as well as it should. What we get is a by-the-numbers action vehicle that happens to take place in the Old West and happens to involve extraterrestrial spacecrafts, but what interest either of those things holds in its own right is lost on the filmmakers. They seem to be shrugging their shoulders at their own concept.

The film's Western milieu has been boiled down to its most superficial details - which would be fine, even preferable, if this were a tongue-in-cheek parody. But it's not; the filmmakers are attempting to play the Western angle as straight as possible. But they wind up giving us only a narrow and uninteresting view of what the genre is. "Let's see, what ingredients do we need to make a Western? Alright, let's get us a gunman, a businessman, a sheriff, a preacher, a wild man, and a dame. Oh, and some Indians hiding somewhere in the desert. Alright, that squares it!"

(For a counterpoint, just look at what Rango was able to do with its Western roots - and that was a much more complicated mash-up than this is.)

Virtually all of the characters exist for their own sake. For instance: There's a kid in this movie (played by The Last Airbender's Noah Ringer) who tags along as the gun-toting townsfolk go off to fight some aliens. The kid only exists so the movie can have a kid who learns how to be a man. When Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) tells the kid a story about how he became a man, and gives the kid the very knife he used to do so, we know exactly what the kid's fate will be, and what his purpose in the movie is.

But to make matters worse, when that time finally does come, the kid's big moment has nothing to do with anything. It is completely divorced from the rest of the action, thrown in for the sole purpose of fulfilling the predetermined (and unmotivated) arc put in place for this character. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with having a plucky kid come of age in this type of scenario, but there is something wrong with having such a character just because.

The same goes for Doc (Sam Rockwell, his talents wasted), the town barkeep, whose wife is abducted by aliens only because the movie needs a character who's trying to get his wife back. Oh, and Dolarhyde's son (played by Paul Dano) was taken as well, only because the movie needs a character who's trying to get his son back.

At the center of it all is Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig), an outlaw with almost no memory of who he is, how he got here, or what the hell that metal thing around his wrist is supposed to be. At least his character has some sense of purpose - and a real, propulsive drive to discover his own identity. That the film never really knows quite how to approach Lonergan - or, more egregiously, how to reveal information about his past and how it ties into the alien-invasion plotline - is another story. The completely forced sexual tension between him and Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde) seems, like so much in the film, like an obligation of formula more than anything else.

The science-fiction element isn't any more interesting than the Western backdrop, offering a half-baked War of the Worlds-meets-Alien story that's never allowed to walk on its own two feet.

It's not uncommon to see a film that tries to do too much and ends up failing. In the case of Cowboys & Aliens, it wants to do both science-fiction and Western proud, and winds up doing neither one very well at all. But more often than not, you can chalk these failures up to an excess of ambition. This time, though, the movie isn't especially ambitious - just lazy and uninspired.

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