Monday, August 8, 2011

Sagebrush, Horses, and a Dog Are Not Enough

Cowboys & Aliens” was fast-moving, fun, and sometimes funny, and as long as that’s all anyone expects, fine.  Not all films based on comic books, though, feel as emotionally empty as this one.   
(c) 2011 Universal Studios and Dreamworks

A pathetic but accurate description of human behavior is that for us to all get along and work together, we need an external enemy.  Here they’re buggy and reptile-like aliens with flying machines and stuff that doesn’t belong in New Mexico desert canyons.  And what do they want?  Not to experiment with us, and certainly not to learn from or about us.  They just want what countless humans have wanted before them:  filthy lucre.

It’s a clever idea with seemingly lots of potential:  Take your standard western elements (like big rancher, bad son, pacifistic storekeeper, preacher, sheriff, boy, dog, horses and sagebrush), add aliens, mix well.  So what went wrong?  I haven’t read the original comic book, and its writer isn’t credited…. So did someone like the idea and the artwork and ditch the rest but never quite finish?  Director Jon Favreau is, of course, the director of “Iron Man,” which is a splendid example of an excellent film adaptation of a comic book series.  There are five quite competent screenwriters credited and all of them — generally working in pairs — know what they’re doing:  Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof and Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby.  Is five the magic number that equals too many cooks?

The film opens with a guy in the middle of nowhere. He wakes up without knowing who or where he is, with an odd metal bracelet locked on his wrist and a bloody wound in his side.  Since it’s Daniel Craig, this could be a James Bond movie.  Three guys on horseback are somehow silent until they’re right on top of him.  Craig as the man without a memory is stoic and quiet — not a stretch for him.  When asked his name, he doesn’t know.  When asked what he does know, his answer is “English.”  Whatever he may not recall, he remembers how to be a smartass.

Soon we meet Clancy Brown as Preacher Meacham, who has some of the best lines, but there are a lot of snappy one-liners in the film.  Brown brings to Meacham a depth of humanity that’s barely written.  Sam Rockwell does his usual good work as Doc, the saloonkeeper who is simply a decent man trying to live non-violently with his neighbors.

Once in town, the man without a memory is discovered to be Jake Lonergan, a stagecoach robber and possibly murderer.  This saddens some people, since he did stop the bullying of Doc by Percy Dolarhyde.  Paul Dano is that arrogant and incompetent son of the rich and powerful man of the territory.  One could either say he serves no useful purpose on the planet or that “he’s young, he’ll grow out of it.”  Under normal circumstances, no he wouldn’t. 

Adam Beach does good work as Nat Colorado, the sometime babysitter of Percy, and the guy who would have been a better son of the same powerful man — but he’s an Indian and it’s not as if he could really be treated decently by the rancher Harrison Ford plays, Woodrow Dolarhyde.  Dolarhyde, rich rancher, is no Ben Cartwright.  He’s a bad man, in fact, and leverages his wealth against his neighbors and protects instead of teaching his son. 

When Lonergan and Percy are cuffed into the same tiny wagon to be handed over to the federal marshal in Santa Fe, Dolarhyde and his men, as well as the townspeople, are on hand and so view the attack by alien flying machines, which shoot out explosions as well as hinged metal lasso-things that grab up captives.  A couple nice people and some not so nice are swiped up in a way that would probably shatter their spines. (Please note, I did suspend my disbelief.)  These flying machines and lassoings look swell yet somehow do not terrorize the populace as they ought.  

Attacks by night by unknown enemies create allies of all humans. Colonel Dolarhyde rounds up a few people to go after the strange attackers who grabbed his son, including his ranch hands and cowboys; Nat Colorado; Emmett Taggert, the required boy (well played by Noah Ringer), whose grandfather the Sheriff (Keith Carradine) was also taken; Doc (Sam Rockwell), whose wife Maria was taken (very nice characterization by Ana de la Reguera); the Preacher, of course; the dog; and Ella (Olivia Wilde), a rail-thin woman who keeps trying to talk to Lonergan.  She wears a holster slung across her poplin dress, rides a horse as well as any man (as all Western heroines must), and doesn’t quite seem to belong.

Ella is one thing that went very right in this film.  She’s called “whore” more than once (by criminals), but otherwise the women aren’t treated badly here.  Doc loves his wife, Black Knife, the chief of the Apaches (Raoul Trujillo), loves his, and Jake Lonergan loved his Alice (Abigail Spencer).  With a common enemy, there’s lots of heroism on the part of people who didn’t know they had it in them, but no one holds a candle to Ella.  She was the one character who was truly more than she seemed, not to mention she performed the most heroic action.  (Unfortunately Mr. Favreau didn’t get this moment quite right.  He needs to read more comics.)
Cowboys, rustlers, ranchers and Apache warriors join forces, people who hated each other save each other, big fight scenes have dynamite, bows and arrows, and Harrison Ford gets to hold a spear like a lance as if he were a knight of olde.  Good people die, as do bad people.  So how come there’s no emotional resonance? 

I like Daniel Craig, and I’m perfectly pleased to watch his neat butt running up a craggy hill, swimming, whatever.  But somehow those pale blue eyes aren’t as sharp — or squinty — as Clint Eastwood’s would have been….And much as I like Harrison Ford, if I could have had Eastwood as Jake and Robert Ryan as Dolarhyde, well, then, what sparks might have flown….
See what I mean?

The film offers a nifty production design by Scott Chambliss and fine art direction by Christopher Burian-Mohr and Daniel T. Dorrance, as well as fitting set decoration by Karen Manthey. Visually the film is swell.  The actors are fine, the pace excellent.  The script offers some snarky lines for everybody, and I particularly enjoyed the upside down riverboat in the middle of the plains of New Mexico. 

C&A” is a good ride, it’s got its gasps and jumps and guns and explosions plus a boy and a dog.  Is everybody who survives the better for the experience?  Well, yes.  Story-wise it appears to have hit the right notes.  Guys who weren’t particularly good or brave do the right thing when it’s time.  Guys who were downright bad do the same.  So what went wrong here?  Can you tell I'm frustrated?

Is it that the aliens are not interesting?  Even when we meet one in Lonergan’s memory and again at the climax (or one of them, there are several climaxes), we get it — the big ugly dude Lonergan scarred in his escape remembers Lonergan’s actions and he’s pissed off, etc.  This should personalize it as a sentient being and all that. Somehow it’s just not effective.
Harrison Ford as Dolarhyde and Daniel Craig as Lonergan.  (c) 2011 Universal and DreamWorks

If you expect no more than a traditional Saturday afternoon “B” western with added weaponry and explosives, you’ll be fine.  If, however, you’re looking for characters who are known by more than their function in the plot, this isn’t the movie for you.

Note to Society:  Remember, visually the film works.  Characters are appropriately dressed (by Mary Zophres), the town, the horses, everything looks right.  And lots of cowboys smoked.  The apology for smoking at the end of the film was offensively funny.

~ Molly Matera, signing off.  Almost – but not quite – wishing I still smoked, just for spite.


  1. Sounds good; I was looking forward to it from the rushes, but then the reviews haven't been all that good. I like your perspective, and I can look forward to it again--as entertainment.

  2. Indeed, Maggie. It's disappointing on certain levels, but with the right attitude and popcorn, you'll have a good time.