Sunday, 18 September 2011

Film Review: Cowboys & Aliens

You can almost picture the boardroom scene. "We need something that will make us millions" a gruff voice and a plume of cigar smoke emanates from a figure in the shadows. "What about aliens? They're big at the moment. We could cash in on the bandwagon" pipes up a fresh faced exec. "Something a bit more original. We need a hook, not another generic film about little green men invading the Earth" replies the man, taking another puff from his cigar as a glint of light catches his silver hair. "Cowboys! It's a classic concept and about time the genre was rejuvenated" contributes a more experienced producer. There's a pause. A hush descends over the boardroom. "I've got it! what if we combined cowboys and aliens?!". And so a film was born.

Set in Arizona, 1873, a man (Craig) suffering amnesia is found by a group of bandits in the middle of the desert with a strange bangle attached to his wrist. Heading for the nearest town of Absolution in search for answers to his identity, he soon discovers he is wanted criminal Jake Lonergan and was abducted like many other townsfolk by what they refer to as 'demons'. When the powerful local cattle rancher Woodrow Dolarhyde's (Ford) son is also taken, he and Lonergan set out to liberate the prisoners from the clutches of strange creatures.

Of course, Cowboys & Aliens is a bizarre concept which really shouldn't work. It sounds like an incredibly silly idea that would be instantly shot down in the Dragon's Den. But this wasn't born from a meeting of Hollywood producers who were all baked at the time. Cowboys & Aliens is actually based on a graphic novel created by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg supported by some very powerful backers in the movie industry. Directed by Jon Favreau with a screenplay written by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Damon Lindelof (the geniuses behind the likes of Lost and the rebooted Star Trek franchise), as well as Steven Spielberg being one of the executive producers, you begin to get a sense of how seriously this idea was taken. And that's to say nothing of the Hollywood heavy-hitters Daniel Craig and Indiana Jones himself, Harrison Ford, jumping on board the project.

Admittedly the graphic novel had an altogether more serious and political tone than the film on which it is loosely based. The general idea is the same - an alien scout party arrives on Earth to mine gold, but where the film deviates is from the novel's not so subtle allegory of the white man's conquest and plundering of the Americas. Like whitey, the aliens are there to pillage the West in much the same way European colonists did to the Native American's homeland. The novel was wrapped in ethics like no man's business, pitting ray guns against rifles in much the same fashion white devils set rifle against bow and arrow. Of course, being reminded of their ancestor's genocidal past wouldn't sit so well with American audiences and so the story has sanitised the stark metaphors of the novel, instead exhibiting a much softer tone as team Earth unite under one banner. Cowboys and Injuns work together to fight off alien intruders making for a new moral re-imagining in that perhaps we're not so different after all.

Where its politics have been whitewashed, the rest of Cowboys & Aliens is actually refreshingly unsterilised. The lead character smokes (a big no-no in Hollywood these days) and the whole affair remains surprisingly more gritty than its title suggests. People get sliced open, stabbed, skewered and eviscerated into ash as blood n' guts litter proceedings. Characters aren't much cheerier either, both Craig and Ford ashen souls bereft by loss. In fact, everyone's just a bit grim, and they're all in an even grimmer situation where light relief is hard to come by. However, this plays to the film's main strength - its emphasis on traditional Western tropes. These were indeed harsh times and that is reflected here in the film's hard edge. Cowboys & Aliens exceeds most where it plays like a traditional Western. Like all good Westerns, it starts with a stranger riding into town and features the obligatory saloon fight while outlaws roam the desolate desert. This acts to reinforce that yes, this film does have aliens, but they're also part of a very real world. It actually sticks far closer to the wild west than it does to science fiction which is only a good thing. Had it deviated toward the later then this could very well have ended up like another Wild Wild West.

Indeed, the film's weakest point is its unimaginative bug-eyed lizards from outer space. More and more these days aliens seem to look like something more supernatural than other-worldly. Often hulking beasts with a primitive urge for violence (see Skyline, Super 8), aliens in Hollywood have been reduced to your pesky intergalactic-neighbourhood dicks like unwelcome racoons sifting through your rubbish bin who kidnap and kill humans indiscriminately. The ETs here for example take to abducting people, as the film explains, for the purpose of ascertaining human weaknesses. Rather than this showcasing any form of intelligence, you actually wonder how many people they need to spirit away for beam weaponry testing before they've found the optimum way of killing a human being. Oh, these aliens can build spaceships bigger than a canyon no doubt, but they display such limited signs of intelligence that they're more like avatars you shoot at in a videogame.

But it's difficult to take anything away from the fantastic performances as acting is of a high standard all round. Craig is your typical man of few words alone in the wilderness while Ford scowls and growls as per usual. Both are grumpy bastards who do their best to out-grump each other, their interaction primarily consisting of one epic grump-off in an effort to find who is the surliest of all cowboys. Olivia Wilde's ethereal cowgirl is relatively innocuous disappointingly, but she does a good job providing the eye candy. Given the title's suggestion of an overuse of special effects it's actually pleasantly surprising to see just how seriously the cast take everything rather than merely standing around waiting for explosions to happen. Indeed, there's a gratifying amount of time spent on character development where everyone is given satisfying depth. What's more however is how straight faced they play their roles, but then they needed to. Had there been any campness or folly involved then Cowboys & Aliens would have been sucked into a black hole of fail.

For a film that is suspect given its M.O. to pull in as much cash as possible, Cowboys & Aliens is actually a half-decent effort. Its lean plot, while linear, is coherent enough and minus the aliens, this could have been a good Western in its own right. Indeed, it is by far the most pulling element, there being more tension when Dolarhyde's son bullies the town than when aliens begin strafing it. The cowboys are good, the aliens not so much, but this is fun in places. Perhaps the only disappointment being that it's not quite the cult classic one might have hoped for.