By C. Michael Forsyth
I’ve been looking forward to Cowboys and Aliens for more than a year. Indiana Jones and James Bond turn into cowboys and kick alien butt. What red-blooded American male with an ounce of 12 year old in him wouldn’t want to see that? Plus it’s directed by Jon Favreau, who made the witty male-bonding comedy, Swingers.
I saw it last weekend along with over a million others (Unbelievably, half of you instead chose to see the Smurfs movie, feeding Hollywood’s addiction to recycling everything under the sun.) Well, I wasn’t disappointed. There’s all the non-stop action you could hope for. The plot, in which the cowboys form a posse to track down their abducted kin, provides a solid structure; and the aliens are appropriately hideous (although Hollywood effects wizards STILL haven’t quite managed to make CGI look completely real). And of course, you’ve got lots of scenes the concept demands, such as a cowboy roping an evil E.T.
Big-screen icon Harrison Ford is terrific as Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde. Hearing about the cast, you expect Ford to play an avuncular if ornery older cowboy, to Daniel Craig’s young buck, like in your standard buddy movie. Instead he’s a ruthless cattle tycoon more in line with stock western villains. His performance is far better than Jeff Bridges as crusty Rooster Cogburn in the True Grit remake, and is reminiscent of the bigoted anti-hero John Wayne played in The Searchers. It goes without saying that Craig, the reigning 007, is convincing as an action hero, in his role as bad-ass gunslinger Jake Lonergan. It’s nice that he’s had the opportunity to expand beyond Bond films and show his acting chops, while continuing to star in the franchise – a feat that predecessors Sean Connery, Pierce Brosnan and company were unable to achieve. And some minor characters are interesting, such as a young Native American raised by the Colonel, who ends up bringing out the best in him.
Sure, the movie largely follows Hollywood formula. A startling number of elements are identical to the Syfy movie High Plains Invaders reviewed on this blog some months back. In both scripts, the hero is a murderous outlaw set to hang; there’s a wussy young doc who proves his manhood; the aliens are attacking a mining town for its natural resources and a gorgeous gun-toting woman joins in the fight. I don’t think anyone stole anyone’s idea (although movie producers aren’t above that). It’s just that those were easy and obvious choices.
Along the same lines, as soon as a tribe of “hostile” Indians shows up, it’s a given that they’ll join forces with our heroes. When a kid gets a knife as a gift, we all know where the business end will wind up. (By the way, nature endowed the aliens with a rather unlikely vulnerability).
But there ARE some deviations from the cliché. The Colonel’s whining, arrogant, useless son seems a sure bet to be killed within the first 20 minutes, doing something stupid, cowardly or both. But his fate is more interesting.
Beyond that, I had three problems with the movie that require SPOILER ALERTS:
#1 To me, the whole appeal of a cowboys versus aliens story is that the cowboys are way outgunned. Without modern technology, the heroes are even bigger underdogs than we are today. So having Daniel Craig’s character armed with a super-weapon as potent as anything the extraterrestrials have, throughout the movie (potent enough to destroy the entire alien ship) undermines the premise. It would have worked better to have the weapon disabled early on. The screenwriters had the same challenge as the ’60s Star Trek writers did. Give the crew communicators and the ability to beam out of any predicament negates most threats, so you’ve got to make them constantly go on the fritz.
# 2. That gorgeous cowgirl turns out to be a good alien in disguise. A cool plot twist. My beef is that she comes to Earth to help us completely unarmed! Her only superpower is looking cute. Okay, she can also resurrect HERSELF, but not anyone else. So she’s no more useful than any other plucky frontier woman.
#3 The aliens are here for our gold. Yeah, right. You’re capable of interstellar flight, but need to dig up gold. At least in the Syfy movie it was uranium, which has a high-tech ring. The Cowboys and Aliens screenwriters use that old trick of having a character acknowledge how ludicrous the plot point is so it doesn’t seem like a mistake. Harrison Ford’s character says incredulously, “What do they want to do – buy stuff?” But that doesn’t hide that the moviemakers got a bit mentally lazy. Just once, I’d like to see an alien-invasion movie where the motive is a little more sophisticated than wiping us all out and stealing our natural resources!
Cowboys fighting aliens is such an evocative concept that you go to the theater filled with expectations of all the exciting things that might be in such a story. Some reviewers complain that the movie could have been better than it is and yes, of course it could be. But no film could compete with the richness of a viewer’s own imagination.
On the HOUR OF THE BEAST front, I just finished a 20-page treatment for a film version of my first horror novel!To check out the book, CLICK HERE.