Friday, August 19, 2011
Cowboys And Aliens And Blockheads
Let's do a little Q&A, for those who haven't seen this movie yet and are curious about it.
Is this movie about 'Cowboys' fighting 'Aliens'? Yes.
Did they make it silly or play it straight? They played it straight.
Does it have good special effects? Yes.
Does it have a good story? Hardly.
Is it fun to watch? Yes.
Is it a good movie? No.
Those last two sound like a contradiction in terms. Well, they are. I found myself immensely enjoying this film while it played. The only parts I really, REALLY couldn't stand were Olivia Wilde's character and the scenes that contained her, but we'll get to that.
As you have no doubt gleaned from the posters and trailers, the film features an old, grumpy Harrison Ford and a badass Daniel Craig. These characters are very entertaining and steal their scenes wholesale. Watching Daniel Craig beat the shit out of a whole bunch of guys at once never gets old and he makes a great hero. Harrison Ford shows a side of himself we have not really seen before, a grumpy old bastard not wholly unlike Jeff Bridges' character from the True Grit remake. Not as growly and washed up, but every bit as mean and brazen.
The actual 'western' scenes are very well done, and the 'science fiction' scenes are also very well done. The problem is that they don't really gel - they seem incompatible, at least in the form they have been put together in this film. Arch, whom I saw the film with, is a big fan of Spaghetti Westerns, particularly those by Sergio Leone such as The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. What characterises these movies, and the movies that draw from them such as Inglourious Basterds, is that there is a sense of slowly rising tension that builds, and builds, and builds until it cannot build any more, then it explodes into a maelstrom of violence that barely lasts a few seconds and leaves you thinking, "what the hell was that?!"
These tricks have not been utilised in C&A, the film opting instead on a series of 'setpiece battles' more in line with your average brainless Hollywood attempt at a scifi blast-em-up. Don't expect this film to be very intense at all, the intensity is in fact quite monotone throughout right up to the big final confrontation at the end.
I won't go on too much about Plot - because frankly, there's not much to go over. It's a very straightforward film, and if you actually sat down and attempted to write a synopsis of it, you'd find that the summary of the third act would be shorter than the other two by a magnitude. They know what they have to do, and they do it, for something like half an hour. Still, there are a couple of things that really bother me about the film's approximation of a story.
I found myself totally irritated at Olivia Wilde's presence. Daniel Craig is initially very surly toward her character and I found myself sympathising with his cries of "who are you?" and "what are you doing here?" I found myself asking those questions a lot too.
I joked with Arch upon seeing a shirtless Daniel Craig scrubbing up that this was a scene for the ladies. I was wondering, does this scene actually need him to be shirtless? Or is it a Twilight werewolf excuse to show off pecs and abs for the women in the audience? Suddenly, out of nowhere, Olivia Wilde comes in and they share a 'tender moment'. I felt defeated. Oh, so that's why he's suddenly shirtless, I thought. Every shot she is in, she is only there because the eight-or-so scriptwriters needed her to be. She's a walking, living, breathing plot device, and oh, did I mention she is a BLOCKHEAD?
It turns out Arch was much more tolerant of her role in the film because he thinks she's good looking. He would allow himself to be distracted by her prettiness, but personally, I don't see it. I see the currently and totally bewildering Hollywood vogue for women who have jaws substantially squarer and firmer-set than Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford combined. Maybe it's the Celt-Scand hardwiring of my brain to think that "pretty" girls ought to have round faces, but obviously it's a taste thing. Unfortunately, because she wasn't to my taste, I found myself constantly trying to justify her character in the plot.
Which brings me to...
>>> SPOILERS <<<
"IF YA DON'T WANT YER DARN-TOOTIN' MOVIE RUINED, AH SUGGEST YE SCRAM, VARMINT!"
Before Olivia Wilde reveals she is an alien, she feels like a forced, wedged-in love interest. There is no other explanation for her constant sudden appearances and cryptic bullshit. Then when we find out what she is, she is suddenly the bottomless pit of exposition, spewing forth loads of background on the aliens for us at a time.
I found myself so against her character that I was actually relieved when she died. 'Great', I thought, 'now we can get on with the movie'. Then she suddenly COMES BACK TO LIFE and tells us that she is an alien too, and had to take her current human form in order to walk among us.
When she said this, a guy in front of me in the cinema actually facepalmed. Slapped his face in horror, and dragged his hand down, staring in horror at what the scriptwriters had dared force down our throat. I wanted to say, badly, "yeah I'm with ya, buddy". There were murmurs around the theatre. I do not think I was alone in thinking the revelation was trite and ruinous to the movie.
From then on she is suddenly a Keira Knightley-style 'action babe', and when she sacrifices herself (very slowly - why did that super-fast alien take so frigging long to catch her scampering through those claustrophobic tunnels?), I at least had the satisfaction of seeing her stupid character die twice. This time she was gone for good but it was too little too late.
ON THE ALIENS
Arch and I were a little annoyed at how cold and heartless the aliens had been. They weren't even that alien in their psychology. They were just mean assholes. Why did they attempt to experiment on the humans and cut them up? Apparently it's because they want to know human weaknesses. Even though they can slaughter humans with relative ease and the inferior human guns seem to be pissweak against them. But hey, let's just keep loading up this massive crowd of brainwashed experiments because, you know, we just want to cut them up in lots of different ways.
Near the beginning of the film, when the alien exposes its delicate arms in the boat and strokes the boy's face, I thought, "oh sweet, these things might actually be slightly sympathetic. It seems they are curious about the human race to a degree". Then Harrison Ford scared it away and I thought "no, don't do that man, you're just pissing them off". By the final confrontation, with everyone killing everything and the boy knifing one of them in the chest, all such thoughts at a complex relationship with the aliens was completely gone. They went from curious aliens with a dangerous mean streak, to debased villains with no shot at redemption. Independence Day, The Prequel: I felt cheated.
The final fight started out cool but protracted very quickly into a tiresome confrontation that seemed to tide, according to narrative convenience, between the monstrous aliens being INVINCIBLE and relatively easy to kill, even with a cudgel or spear.
The movie seemed to revel just a tad in its own brainlessness so I suppose I will have to ignore the implausibility that a bracelet-gun designed for a totally alien pathology and psychology, would be able to work through a human being's empathic commands. I'll put that one down to Hollywood scifi silliness.
But whatever. At the end of the day, I still thought this was a fun movie, I enjoyed it at the time. It just doesn't stand up to the simplest scrutiny once you put it under the scalpel.