Eric Plaag and Matt Smith

Cowboys and Aliens: A (Wide-Ranging) SplitScreen Discussion

In Film, Film Theory, Reviews on August 13, 2011 at 11:51 am

By Matt Smith and Eric Plaag

This past weekend’s release of genre mash-up Cowboys & Aliens was something that both Matt and Eric were looking forward to. Directed by Jon Favreau, who has proven to be a more than reliable director with a light touch and a gift for working with actors and pulling easygoing performances out of them, the film mostly concerns Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) who wakes up in the middle of the desert with a strange scar, amnesia, and some sort of device clamped on his wrist. Turns out, he’s an outlaw, wanted for theft and murder, and when he wanders into a gold rush town gone bust, run largely by cattleman Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), whose stagecoach Lonargan robbed, he is arrested and thrown in jail by the sheriff alongside Dolaryhyde’s kid (Paul Dano). The beats and setups of classic Westerns are all lined up before we even get a hint of alien involvement: meek but feisty saloon and hotel owner (Sam Rockwell), a Native who runs in a white man’s gang (Adam Beach), a no-nonsense town sheriff (Keith Carradine, doing his best “I Was On Deadwood” strut), and the mysterious whore with a heart of gold (Olivia Wilde). But sure enough, right around the half-hour mark, when the prisoners are about to be transported to the Marshal service and Dolarhyde shows up to get his kid out of the clink, the spaceships appear in the distance, and then proceed to blow the town to bits and abduct the townsfolk, taking them off to god-knows-where. In order to recover their kin, and defend the world from their new-found and incomprehensible threat, Jake and Dolarhyde set out with a posse to take out the alien invaders.

Once again, Matt and Eric have decided the film is ripe for a back and forth. They are both fans of Westerns and of Science Fiction, and, as mentioned, were eagerly anticipating this summer blockbuster. Each saw the film over its opening weekend – Matt in Atlanta, GA, with his girlfriend, and Eric somewhere in the Northeast while on a tour of Civil War sites – and have not discussed it in any detail whatsoever. There will be spoilers, so if you care about that sort of thing, you may want to go see the film before you continue reading.

MATT: I was pleasantly surprised by some aspects of the film, while let down by a few others. One of the things that really stood out for me is something that Jon Favreau does really well, which is make us enjoy watching the characters onscreen interact. A lot of this has to do with his uncanny ability to cast actors who fit well with the roles, but I think a fair amount of credit is due to him as a director. Even Olivia Wilde, who has been cited as a weak spot for some (I’m assuming because of her unconvincing accent), was someone I was surprised to see doing so well with a much meatier role than I’m used to seeing her in. Her accent didn’t bother me, though, because of the nature of her character being a sort of outsider who isn’t discovered until much later in the film. The design of the aliens was also, I think, well done, giving us something more traditional than the Cloverfield-lite of Super 8, but a nice variation on that tradition to spice up the types of monsters that were being conceived in the space invader films made alongside a lot of Westerns in the heyday of the B-movie era. A big weakness was the dialogue. It was almost like watching many of those B-movies, and it was a huge surprise considering the writers on this thing, which include the J.J. Abrams proteges Orci, Kurtzman and Lindelof, as well as the co-writing duo behind Iron Man and Children of Men. Before we get into the nitty gritty, what are your initial thoughts on strengths or weaknesses, Eric?

ERIC: Like you, I enjoyed the panoply of stock Western characters and the set-up in and of itself. I especially enjoyed seeing Harrison Ford playing a particularly surly and not very sympathetic character, rather than the conventional adventure heroes we’re used to seeing from him. While I wasn’t crazy about the overall alien design, aside from those horrific extra hands that emerge from the chest organs, I also appreciated that the aliens were not monolithic, as evinced by the long-standing feud between Lonergan and one of the creatures coming to a karmic head in the last few minutes of the film.

What stood out beforehand, though, and still stands out for me, is the concept. As I told you months ago, my initial reaction to the trailer was, “Hell, yeah! Why hasn’t anyone thought of THIS before!?!” While the plot devices used to arrive at the explanation for the aliens and why they are here (via Olivia Wilde’s character, Ella) struck me as a bit laborious, the explanation itself certainly made a helluva lot more sense than anything we’ve seen from any other alien flicks in the past, oh, twenty years, and that includes Cloverfield and Super 8. Nevertheless, I found that the plot progression served as a rather evident example of backwards scripting–have a clear explanation for the plot in the end, then work back to five or six mysterious overlapping strands that will all magically come together with a flash of revelation at precisely the right moment. Formulaic to the core, in my opinion.

Then again, I went into this expecting a formula, so finding one didn’t disappoint me. The writing in general, though, especially the dialogue, struck me as often heavy-handed and wooden. Intentionally “clever” lines like the one uttered by one of the marauders, who find Lonergan and announce that they’re “heading toward Absolution,” are actually too clever by half. Likewise, Preacher’s observation that “Only two kinds of men get shot–criminals and victims” doesn’t ring true to the time period or carry any of the classic western oomph of, say, Paul Newman reminding us in Hombre, “We all die. Just a question of when.” It’s the difference between pithy and cheesy, and the writers on Cowboys and Aliens don’t know the difference and don’t recognize the importance of pithy to this genre.

Speaking of genre, that raises an intriguing question. On the surface, this film might seem like a mash-up of two genres (Sci Fi and Western) that often seem at odds with one another, even though we typically regard a certain subgenre of Sci Fi movies as “Space Cowboys” movies. For me, though, Cowboys and Aliens is all Western, regardless of the intergalactic background of the film’s villains. Substitute aliens taking slaves and mining gold for the marauding gang that terrorizes Lago in High Plains Drifter, and you’ve basically got the same film–a stranger the townsfolk all recognize comes to town and teaches them a lesson about the evils that lie within, even as they confront a horrific evil from without. If Cowboys and Aliens really is just a dressed-up Western, isn’t there an unwritten rule that films should respect the conventions of their genre? And if so, does Cowboys and Aliens succeed?

MATT: I have actually discussed this a bit with a professor of mine, Dr. Ina Hark, and she and I both agree that this is strictly Western territory, where the traditional “AND” antagonists, the Apaches encountered toward the middle of the film, get to be the cavalry. One of the joys of this approach versus the overwhelming probability that this could have ended up as much more a variation on some of the mash-ups made by Joss Whedon on Firefly is that you get to see all of the usual suspects of the Western genre come together to defeat an enemy much greater than they are. In that regard, from characters to plotting to the problematic dialogue, Cowboys and Aliens does respect the genre conventions. What it also does, though–and this is something that I particularly like about it–is that it tweaks those conventions pretty well and manages to walk that fine line between parody and homage. It’s like a post-Postmodern take on conventionality, if that makes any sense. The film is self-reflexive and self-aware, but just enough to not make too much out of it, reveling in the very things that it’s aware of and leaving them be.

I want to mention, briefly, the role of Olivia Wilde and pick your brain on this a bit more. You said that she seemed to fit a purpose needed by the plot’s conclusion rather than the other way around, and while I think it feels this way in retrospect, the whole time I was watching the movie, I kept thinking that she felt very out of place and inorganic, especially that she was asking about what Lonergan remembered. It almost seemed to me the exact opposite of how you interpreted it, that they had the stock character and then forced her into the role, making her mysterious and otherworldly when viewed next to the whore that Lonergan actually did run off with. Not to say I didn’t enjoy the character, or the performance by Wilde, who as I mentioned before had a bit more meat on her character than I’m used to seeing from roles she is given by studios (Tron: Legacy comes to mind not because it’s good, but because she plays a relatively bland character–typical of how she has been cast previously). I guess what I’m driving at is this: How did you respond to her character beyond the scripting, and furthermore, how do you think the scripting contributed, in retrospect, to your feelings before and after you knew what was going on with her as a being from another, previously ravished planet?

ERIC: I was actually really intrigued with Ella’s function, both in the “mysterious phase” before her secret was revealed and in the way that she leads Lonergan and the others to a solution that can be effectively carried out against the aliens. It’s never explicitly revealed, but I suspect that we are to understand that Ella was just a new disguise for the woman Lonergan had shacked up with (Alice), reincarnated in a new body after Alice’s immolation on the spaceship during alien testing. There’s a fascinating moment in Lonergan’s effort to bring Ella back to the others after she has “died”; suddenly the film stock–in the midst of his horseback ride–switches to the oversaturated stock used for all of his fleeting memories of Alice, and yet it is Ella–not Alice–who appears here. Later in the film–when he awakens after seeing scenes of Alice, then a hummingbird in his peyote hallucination–a reanimated Ella affirms for him that “now” he remembers, and this after Ella has admitted that she worried about being able to bring “this body” back, suggesting that Ella’s body is not her first foray into phoenix-like reformulation. In one of the tighter components of the film, I liked too that the hummingbird returns, in a real life vision at the end, to affirm that Ella is safe, even though we do not know for sure what became of her after she detonated the explosives on the alien craft.

Regardless of whether Ella is or is not Alice, in many respects, the twist of making Ella the agent of everyone’s salvation allows the film to transcend and in some ways subvert the traditional components of Westerns with strong “Stranger” leads. If you think of the great Westerns like this from the 1960s and 1970s–Outlaw Josey Wales, Hombre, High Plains Drifter, The Great Silence, even True Grit (where Cogburn the unknown man bears the weight of Cogburn the legend)–there is always a female character who turns this “Stranger” lead, urging him to see some sliver of hope for humanity where he has otherwise lost all such hope. Ella is that character here, but she turns the genre on its head by becoming the salvation of the story rather than being just the catalyst for that transformation. She is the figure without whom the innocents of the story could not be saved. Typically this role would belong to the “Stranger,” but it does not here. And there’s something I deeply admire about that.

What troubled me, though, is that in the midst of all of this genre subversion–whether it involves Native Americans or traditional western female roles or saloon keepers who usually end up dead because they can’t shoot straight–we have a story that is really rather pedestrian. Maybe it’s because we no longer make entertaining movies that are not so secretly about issues that matter, but Cowboys and Aliens just doesn’t have any of the cultural subtext that those great 60s and 70s westerns had, unless we are to read the aliens as some sort of broad swipe at corporations sucking the lives out of our eyeballs (through TV?) in order to rape us for our labor and maximize profit. Or is there some other message I’m missing here?

MATT: The lack of an underlying message is something that doesn’t really bother me. I don’t think there is one, even broadly – it’s a movie greenlit by a major corporation and put out in the middle of the summer, and based on a marginally successful graphic novel (which varies a good bit from the film, actually) – but I don’t think the film is anything less because of that. The story is weak because it’s admittedly based on weak source material – the comic is about like the movie, brilliant in conception, but problematic in execution. This isn’t to say that there couldn’t be something going on underneath all the summer blockbuster bulge, but that if there is, it’s completely unnoticeable upon a single viewing, like you mentioned.

This isn’t to say that big budget pictures are completely devoid of artistic or social merit. One only has to look into them as products of their times in order to gain some sort of understanding about the environment in which they were made, or the agendas of the filmmakers behind them. Take Michael Bay’s militaristic orgies of special effects as an example and you can see a reflection of a portion of society that is completely enamored with the idea of kicking the ever loving crap out of their enemies, and being able to do so for time eternal. It’s propagandistic, over-the-top, and disingenuous filmmaking as far as intellectual integrity goes, but it still makes for some pretty decent entertainment. And Cowboys and Aliens is much better than that – at both entertainment and commentary – as far as blockbusters go. What I think Cowboys and Aliens is a bit closer to rather than the westerns of the late period are the Hollywood B-movies from the 30s and 40s. It certainly feels much more attuned to those subtle undercurrents of social commentary than the righteous rage we got two decades later.

And Jon Favreau is definitely a subtle director of rousing entertainments, who doesn’t seem to focus on social commentary too much. And though there’s a pretty decent swath of information about the military industrial complex in both Iron Man movies, I think it’s more a byproduct of the source material than any attempt by the filmmaker(s) to shape the narrative to fit a specific worldview. This is still the guy who made the mob comedy Made and the Will Ferrell Christmas flick Elf, after all, and though I like pretty much everything the man has directed to a certain extent, he’s not an auteur by any stretch of the imagination. He simply knows his craft and is good at directing actors. And I think that, even though it adds up to very little overall, the bits and pieces of Cowboys and Aliens work enough to make this another strong movie for his track record, and a thoroughly entertaining bit of fluff in what has turned out to be, for me at least, a better than average summer movie season.

ERIC: I’m not sure I agree with you about what Favreau was aiming for in terms of emulation (30s/40s B-movies instead of 60s Westerns). He’s been quoted as citing John Ford, Sergio Leone, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as the source of inspiration for the substantial changes he and the writers made to the original story from the graphic novel. In giving the aliens the Manifest Destiny impetus, rather than the humans, and thereby forcing the various competing human groups to work together, he’s also admitted that he was thinking of The Magnificent Seven and trying to evoke that sensibility in viewers. But I’m sorry, it’s just not there for me. Without a modern-day analog for the aliens to represent clearly, I have to chalk Favreau’s intentions up to the “fallacy of authorial intent” and turn to the material itself. What we have here, then, is the point on which you and I can certainly agree—Cowboys and Aliens is a movie with a great concept, some intriguing characters, a fascinating set of genre inversions, but virtually no cohesion as a whole.

On a side note, I have to admit that I’m a bit troubled by the allowances that are sometimes made for a movie based upon the cultural/social context in which it was made or the entertainment quotient of the film itself. When I sit down to watch a film, I do so hoping to see a story that will evoke a response from me that is strong, visceral, and (most importantly) meaningful. Michael Bay movies aren’t meaningful. Ever. They appeal to some sort of prurient interest in explosions and technological devices, perhaps (and by definition that makes them pornographic, in my opinion), but they can’t and shouldn’t be taken seriously or ever be regarded as good or worthwhile just because they entertain certain folks. Some people are entertained by drowning kittens, after all. By contrast, some of the body horror films you have written about—which I confess I do not enjoy—are nevertheless worth watching because they raise serious questions about the nature of human existence, even as they entertain some people on some level and truly horrify people like me on another. The lack of an underlying message, which does not seem to trouble you in summer blockbusters, is a major flaw in them for me. Spending that much money to produce a string of celluloid that serves the same ephemeral function as cotton candy is criminal in my book. It’s catering to the lowest common denominator to make a buck (or a billion). This isn’t to say that I haven’t ever been entertained by a piece of mindless fluff, and we all certainly have our preferred forms of pornography. But at a time when there are far too many movies to choose from and not nearly enough time or dough to see the worthwhile ones, how can I in good conscience recommend the crappy ones on any level? There’s no there there, so why should our readers be?

When I finish my viewing of a movie and sit down to write a review, I ultimately reach the stage where I choose to assign a certain number of stars to that film, primarily because that’s an easy way for readers to get a feel for how I felt about that movie. The scale isn’t exact, and I’m sure I sometimes get it wrong. As readers have seen previously on this blog, I’ve gone back to old films that I once loved and watched them again, only to discover that they don’t hold up well. Gone With the Wind didn’t have the technological capabilities we have today, and it was written at a time when melodrama was en vogue—both of which might detract from its value for some modern viewers—but it’s still a five-star movie because of everything that it does do well (set design, lighting, acting, plotting, adaptation, sound design, etc., etc.). By contrast, Ghost Story, which sure seemed like a good movie to me as a teenager, just isn’t a very good movie at all, so it gets two stars from me now. But this isn’t a sign of the times or a function of viewing Ghost Story outside of its cultural or temporal context. I recently saw Rear Window at the AFI Silver—probably the tenth or eleventh time I’ve seen that movie in my life—and it carried with it much more suspense and continuity than Ghost Story, even though it was made twenty years earlier and on a soundstage. It’s still a five-star film–because it’s a good film.

All of this may be a bit of a digression on a topic that we might best return to at another time in another discussion, but it serves to bring me back around to what I really thought about Cowboys and Aliens. No, it’s not cotton candy, and it’s not the equivalent of Michael Bay’s explosive pornography. As I mentioned earlier, there are plenty of things to admire about it, but the whole does not make for a very good movie. I can’t excuse these failings by saying that it’s just fun summer entertainment or let Favreau off the hook of making a film with some oomph by just acknowledging that he usually makes entertaining fluff with only a modicum of substance. Cowboys and Aliens is a two-star movie for me, slightly better than Super 8, regardless of the fact that it kept my interest for most of its two hours, and, yes, entertained me. If someone twisted my arm and threatened my cat, sure, I might even give it a marginal three stars. But curving the star meter because it’s just a mindless bit of summer entertainment, and thereby giving it four stars or saying that everyone should see it, just isn’t fair to a movie like, say, Tree of Life, which isn’t entertaining in the conventional sense and is at times hard work to sit through, but sticks to the ribs primarily because it kicks so hard in the gut. That’s what a movie should do. It should matter, whether it’s a zany comedy, or a heartrending drama, or an epic adventure. It should stay with us long after viewing for clear and unequivocal reasons, regardless of what season it appears in or how many things blow up on the screen.


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