Cowboys and AliensComplications Ensue
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Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Watched COWBOYS AND ALIENS last night with my friend Doug. I was surprised how good it was because the critics have generally disliked it for being cliche-ridden: badmen, a sheriff, wise Indians, tough cattle rancher, etc.

That's not really a fair criticism because C & A is a mash-up. It is intended to have all that cheesy Western goodness ... and aliens! Of course it has Indians. What kind of Western would it be if it had aliens and no Indians.

But actually, it's much better than that. It has a story that holds up well. It has surprises and twists, some of which are nicely foreshadowed.

The complaints, I think, come out of not understanding what the movie is. It is a horse opera with aliens.

By "horse opera," I mean it is not intended to be a realistic portrayal of anything. It is bigger than life, just as STAR WARS, a space opera, was bigger than life. Daniel Craig's Jake Lonergan is a capital B Badman with a heart. The opening scene is as good an opening for a Western as I've ever seen. Jake wakes up in the dust; can't remember how he got there; finds out he's wounded; finds out he's got an alien doodad on his wrist; is surrounded by bounty hunters; takes care of the bounty hunters; and rides off with their dog.

Sure, the "I can't remember who I am or how I got here" opening is not realistic, but that's not the point. Jake is the kind of hero we go to the movies to see. There is a point to seeing him 40 feet tall.

And it has really good characters. I draw your attention to Harrison Ford's character, Col. Woodrow Dolarhyde.

/* mild spoilers */

We first meet Dolarhyde through his awful son, a drunk who's shooting up the town. No one dares stop him because he's the son of Col. Dolarhyde, the rich local rancher. Then when Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) has a (very satisfactory) run-in with the punk, Dolarhyde comes to rescue his son and lynch Lonergan, who's stolen his gold.

We quickly get that Dolarhyde is dangerous. He's willing to torture his own people if he thinks they've betrayed him.

But Dolarhyde then embarks on a deftly scripted revelation of character. He is a badass. And he's mean. But we start to learn where he's coming from. He's seen towns slaughtered by Apache raids. He was an officer at Antietam where he lost 328 men in a day. He's mean because his world is mean. He takes care of an orphan in his own way -- giving the kid his own buck knife and giving him advice on how to use it. And later on we discover that his Indian scout, who he's so mean to, is in fact a boy he adopted after the boy's family was slaughtered.

It's not a transformation of character. He doesn't change as a person. But we discover that he has virtues. We realize that he's a man you don't want as an enemy, but who you do want next to you in a fight.

Harrison Ford does really a beautiful job with the role. Nobody's going to give him an Oscar for this part, because nobody gets an Oscar for a movie called Cowboys and Aliens. But this is the best acting I've ever seen him do.

I could go on about Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde) and the nifty way the movie hints to us what her secret is (the minute she said "they took my people too," I knew). I could go on about the wide-eyed kid. I could mention the clever way the screenwriters get us over the bump of why aliens would come here looking for what they're looking for -- they hang a lantern on it and address it. But darn it, go see the damn movie. And to hell with the critics.



I think the problem is not that the characters are cliche, so much as the movie spends a lot of time with those characters doing nothing but interacting with each other. And because they are cliche, those interactions are boring and viewers notice that. The film is rubbing it in your face.

I'm all for the slow roll of a good Western, like last year's True Grit, but this ain't it.

The beats needed to come faster, not giving the audience time to dwell on the shallow characters.

So I think there is a good screenwriting lesson here, and when people say it's not a very good movie, they're correct.

But it certainly could have been.

By Blogger Scot Boyd, at 6:35 PM  

I liked the film, too, and that's helped by the fact that I entered it not expecting much. But unlike Scott, I felt the story's pace worked and the characters, for a film of this ilk, engaging.

I had a similar reaction to widespread panning of "Battle for Los Angeles." I didn't expected that film to be great, but it was entertaining. That was largely due to the grounded portrayal of the soldiers.

It's also interesting to watch a primitive technology take on an advanced one. George Lucas set the all-time low bar on that subject with "Stormtroopers vs. Teddy Bears."

By Blogger David, at 9:16 PM  

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