Friday, July 29, 2011

An Incredibly Bad Design Flaw: Cowboys & Aliens

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

"Cowboys & Aliens," the genre mash-up from director Jon Favreau, is a curiosity in that it has so much going for it--great actors, a crazy set-up, action, aliens, fights, blood, Daniel Craig's abs--but still manages to fail completely.

The movie starts out in promising form, with Craig's amnesiac Man With No Name waking up in the desert, shoeless, with a weird metal contraption attached to his wrist.

He's soon surrounded by outlaws that he easily overcomes before making his way to the western town of Absolution. Here he is greeted by the town's population of cliches, such as the wimpy saloon owner (Sam Rockwell), the sensible sheriff, (Keith Carradine), a pistol-packing lass, (Olivia Wilde), and the spoiled, drunken son (Paul Dano) of a ruthless rancher, (Harrison Ford).

Turns out the Man With No Name has a name--Jake Lonergan--and a Wanted poster. But before the sheriff can collect a bounty, the town is attacked by low flying saucers that shoot up buildings and kidnap their kin; Lonergan quickly learns what that metal wristband is good for.

From this point on, the movie starts to plod, with the townsfolk teaming up with Longergan to defeat the "demons" and get back their kinfolk. Last year, after seeing the Coen brothers' "True Grit," alongside the John Wayne original, I came to the realization that my longstanding self-proclaimed hatred of westerns was, in fact, a lie. I don't hate westerns; I hate bad westerns. And, unfortunately, the western half of "Cowboys & Aliens" is a bad western.

Sadly, the sci-fi half isn't any better. The aliens the cowboys fight are only memorable in that they have an incredibly bad design flaw: a pair of extra arms that are, essentially, lung-arms, which means whenever said arms are extended, the alien's inner workings are made vulnerable. Other than that, they're generically boring and maddeningly inconsistent. Sometimes guns can take them down, and sometimes bullets just bounce off of them.

As the band of cowboys (and one mysterious cowgirl) make their way to the alien lair, they are attacked by, and eventually align with, an Apache tribe, who have also lost some of their own to the aliens' lassos. Thus the movie becomes "Cowboys & Indians Vs. Aliens."

There is some attempt at historical commentary here, with the aliens' invasion and quest for gold (yes, gold) mirroring America's "manifest destiny" and slaughter of the natives, but that kind of heady thinking is cast aside pretty quickly, in favor of several shoot-outs, and the inevitable, "I need to get to the heart of the alien craft, where the inevitable weakness is, to set off the bomb!" set-up. It took eight writers to come up with that?

Daniel Craig is his usual bad-ass self, all sinewy muscle and piercing blue eyes, and I appreciate his not going overboard with an accent. (In fact most of the cast stays away from that, and it was kind of refreshing not hearing the usual heavy fake southern accents that tend to populate all westerns.) But a little too much burden is placed on Craig's shoulders to carry the movie, and I don't think he entirely succeeds.

Which brings me to the bigger star in this movie: Harrison Ford. His character is supposed to be a mean, ruthless, sonofabitch, but aside from a few early minutes of torturous interrogation of a ranch hand, he's anything but, and comes across as more of a cranky old man than a man to be feared.

After seeing this and last year's "Morning Glory," in which he played a cranky old newscaster--badly--I'm beginning to wonder if Harrison Ford was ever actually a good actor. Don't get me wrong: I loved him as much as the next Gen X'er did in their youth. But perhaps he really, really, benefited from being in some great movies. Place him in a mediocre movie, and there's nothing he can really do to save it, and this one is no exception.

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