Sunday, September 09, 2012

Cowboys & Aliens: When a good idea goes wrong

Cowboys & Aliens* isn’t a bad movie, but it isn’t a particularly good movie, either. I watched it the other night on Cinemax and what struck me was how the filmmakers had taken high priced movie stars, Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, and millions and millions of dollars** for special effects and blown their opportunities with what should have been gold.

[SPOILER ALERT]: Gold is what the aliens in the movie are after, so my use of the term is a joke. Ha-ha. [END OF SPOILER]

I can only imagine the high concept pitch the filmmakers made to the studio: “It’s about cowboys, you see, an outlaw gunfighter and a ruthless cattle baron, and they team up to fight some aliens from outer space. There are scenes of spaceships buzzing the town, raygun blasts like Independence Day and War of the Worlds!” I can just visualize said studio execs salivating at the box office possibilities of such a blend of genres.

Except it seems a little late. When’s the last time you saw a Western movie that had a big box office impact? Tombstone, Silverado, Wyatt Earp, Dances with Wolves were all hits a couple of decades ago. Western movies are something that can always come back depending on the story and the whims of the public nostalgia for horses and six guns, but this was a hybrid movie. It doesn’t count. And haven't movies about alien invasions played themselves out by now? There’s always a demand for science fiction if done well, but there again is that hybrid thing. Will science fiction fans buy an invasion story if it involves cowboys? Will cowboy fans buy a story about a ruthless cattle baron and a gunfighter if it involves aliens from outer space?

Considering the finished product, apparently not.

There’s another consideration, also: too many elements in the story. There’s a long scene at first of the cattle baron’s son acting spoiled and sadistic in a confrontation with a town person. It really adds nothing to the story. It should have been cut altogether or drastically edited. There’s a tavern owner (an unrecognizable — to me, anyway — Sam Rockwell), who has to learn to be a man and how to shoot a gun. There’s race prejudice against Indians, there’s…oh well. You catch my drift. There’s just too much going on that has nothing to do with the core story, which is a posse chasing after the aliens who have kidnapped several town folks.

The credits show several writers. Three writers are listed for story, and five for screenplay. My guess is that this movie had a tough gestation, was written and re-written, with different elements being juggled as the filmmakers tried to make a story that comes off as more important than it really is.

One comment on the movie I saw online said it “takes itself too seriously,” and on that I agree.

But that’s not all that’s wrong with Cowboys & Aliens, and that’s the aliens, themselves. They are computer generated images that look computer generated. They also look like monsters incapable of the technology required to get to earth [ANOTHER SPOILER ALERT!] and mine earth’s gold. [END OF SPOILER]

I’ve got nothing against computer generated images, and on occasion they mesh well with the live action. I’m thinking of Jurassic Park, which in special effects terms, is a dinosaur — another ha-ha from me — but the movie still looks good. But in Cowboys & Aliens I was aware the whole time I was watching the aliens that they came from a computer monitor. They look like they were designed by comic book artists who like tall monsters with big bulky muscled torsos and arms.

Cowboys & Aliens wanted to be more than it needed to be, and by trying to do too much ruined the movie’s effect.

*That’s the title as listed on the Internet Movie Database, using an ampersand instead of the word “and.” I hate ampersands because they cause confusion. Just use the word “and,” folks.

**According to the Internet Movie Database the estimated cost of the movie was $163,000,000, and it is estimated to have earned $174,000,000 worldwide by November, 2011.


Kirk said...

When I get a chance I might watch that movie as a matter of curiousity, though I don't expect to like it. Kind of reminds me of a couple of hybrid westerns made in the 1960s: Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter and Billy the Kid Meets Dracula (or is it the other way around, and James met Drac while Billy met...never mind.) But those movies were low budget affairs made by fly-by-night outfits, not for hundreds of millions of dollars by major studios! That the movie takes itself seriously, rather than being tounge-in-cheek, is one good reason I don't expect to like it. I'm not against movies taking themselves seriously, but for a western to take itself seriously, it has to take the time period seriously, which should mean a noticiable lack of aliens. A good western is about the creation of civilization where one doesn't exist (at least from the POV of white, European-descended easterners)

I'm going to have to stop now, before this turns into an essay.

Postino said...

They might have done a better job had it been low budget. I don't think I saw anything near $163M on the screen.

If you do watch it, Kirk, I hope you'll let me know what you think of it.