You had me at “… & Aliens”.
Actually, you had me at Daniel Craig, but working aliens into the mix is a decided bonus.
So I just watched Cowboys & Aliens. I know, it was out a while ago and I know, it got meh reviews. And I know, people were all agog over the fact that it was directed by Jon Favreau, and he gave the world Iron Man and because of that, everyone loves Jon Favreau and since this was decidedly not Iron Man, it was a complete disappointment.
With that in mind, here is how I felt about Cowboys & Aliens.
I liked it. There, I said it, OK. I didn’t love it, it wasn’t the greatest movie I’ve ever seen. But it was unapologetically what it was. So let’s look at some of the hater-reviews:
“The result takes itself much too seriously, with acts of brutality outnumbering the gags.”
I don’t remember this being pitched to the viewing public as Blazing Saddles and Also Some Cowboys & Aliens, so I’m not entirely sure why this reviewer expected gags. (Note: I am always delighted to work Madeline Kahn into just about any occasion.) I expected things to blow up in the conflict between cowboys and aliens and in that regard, I was pretty well satisfied. A lot of westerns take themselves very, very seriously. There’s not a lot of kidding around in Unforgiven. You don’t watch True Grit (either version) for laffs. I think this reviewer wanted Silverado, with aliens, which would probably also be a lot of fun. But this? Was never that movie. Get over it.
*sigh* I love this movie. Anyway. Moving on.
“Still, we know Jake’s a cowboy ’cause he shoots three men before the credits roll, then rides into town as the lone stranger. There, you got your rich and imperious cattle baron (Ford), his punk of a son, the good yet ineffectual sheriff, the wussy saloon keeper with his specs, and the tow-headed kid who’s about to grow up quick. The town is called Absolution but Stereotypeville seems more apt.”
So you think the characters are stereotyped? Somewhat one-dimensional? Especially when faced with utter destruction by a malevolent and profoundly powerful enemy? Yeah. This movie was based on a graphic novel, and while I love a good graphic novel/comic book adaptation, they’re not particularly noted for their character development. Thor? Wanted to like it, but this movie made traveling the interdimensional Rainbow Bridge as flat and uninteresting as possible. Hellboy? Disappointed. He had a big stone hand! And sawed-off horn roots! And he was red and scary-looking! But he fought for good and against the Nazis! I suppose he’s a potential subject for a nature vs. nurture study, so long as one can get their hands on more demon babies for monitoring, but without other hellish brethren available for comparison it seems that Hellboy doesn’t demonstrate a tremendous amount of personal growth. Certainly not enough to warrant a sequel. And what about The Watchmen? Full disclosure: I loved the graphic novel. I enjoyed the movie. But when the characters are so rigid in their roles and development (or lack thereof) that fans can generate a chart describing their moral alignment, then these are, by definition, stereotyped and one-dimensional.
This is perhaps my favorite hate-review:
“While we were hoping and rightly expecting some old school magic from the director of Iron Man, the director of Iron Man 2 showed up.”
Ummmm…they’re the same guy. The review was not written well enough to let the reader know if the writer is being snarky (as in, he hated Iron Man 2 and thought Jon Favreau deserved a slap for it) or if the writer made a legitimate mistake and simply didn’t realize they were directed by the same person. In the first instance, brush up on your skillz. In the second instance, let me recommend a Google search before committing easily-fixable mistakes to print.
Anyway. The movie. As I said, it’s pretty straightforward. The aliens are ruthless and slimy, here to trap humans, erase their minds and press them into slavery as gold miners that they will use and use and use for digging until they are all used up. Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the desert with a mysterious metal cuff around his wrist that turns out to be an incredibly potent weapon against the aliens. When he gets to town, he is tended to by Meacham, the preacher, played by the incomparable Clancy Brown. Harrison Ford plays the fabulously named Woodrow Dolarhyde, ruthless cattle rancher and father of a psychotically spoiled son, who is at first the town’s antagonist (in the, “My son is above the law” sort of way) until his child is taken in an alien raid on the town. Once this happens, interhuman enmity fades as the principle that “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” arises. The townspeople band together in an uncomfortable posse and eventually, after an initial bloody encounter, get a local tribe of Chiracahua to fight with them and against the aliens.
The enemy of my enemy… is a plot device used by every mismatched buddy movie ever made; think 48 Hours or Lethal Weapon and, recently, The Other Guys. The “surprise allies” concept also shows up in movies like Dogma, or The Breakfast Club, or The Warriors. (Bonus points if you can identify the actor who appears in two of these clips.) It’s a pretty common device, and one of the reviewers who didn’t like C&A points to it as a cliched problem, saying:
“… the men’s transformations—from selfish, ignorant individuals into something like a community—are inevitably helped along by their union against a common enemy. Common and conventional….”
I agree, it is common. But it’s also something that happens in real life–take the WWII alliance between England, the US and the Soviet Union (or, really, almost any history of warfare; rarely are all sides divided clearly and in black-and-white). The US–and probably England–never would have allied with the USSR if they weren’t aligning against Germany. And the alliance fell apart at the end of the war, much like it breaks up at the end of the movie. If you’re going to pick on a movie for something, maybe one shouldn’t pick on a movie for something that happens on a regular basis. People band together against real (or perceived) threats. You don’t like the aliens? Fine. You don’t like the script? OK. But not liking the “enemy of my enemy” dynamic is pointless; you might as well not like neighborhood watch committees.
There are some points where the movie starts to unravel a little. I lost a little patience when I found out that Olivia Wilde‘s character was another alien with a grudge to settle against the invaders. I thought Dolarhyde’s “Go be a man, kill something” speech to a thirteen-year-old boy was kind of creepy. It’s not perfect. But. This movie doesn’t pretend to solve the issues of Native American relations, or create a town where everyone loves one another, or ultimately redeem Jake Lonergan. It does, however, provide two hours of mostly satisfying shooty-bangy-punchypunch-booms. Which is all I ever expected from the title. What more do you need?
Watch this movie if:
You like either cowboys and/or aliens.
You don’t care about character development.
You want to hear Harrison Ford growl out lines as though he’s speaking through a wad of cotton.
You need to see everything Clancy Brown ever does.
Don’t watch this movie if:
You want multidimensional characters.
You don’t like when old-timey things explode.
You don’t want to hear Harrison Ford growl out lines as though he’s speaking through a wad of cotton.
You hate graphic novel-based movies.
You can’t forgive Jon Favreau for Vince Vaughn.