Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Jul 30, 2011 6:16 am 
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Far from home

A specter of sleaze hovered about the long-displayed posters of this movie. It even seemed this might be a gay cowboy flick, the way the image lingered on a gunlinger's tight butt. Be assured however, this teaming up of the director of Jaws and ET and the man who recently helmed the Iron Man movies has high production values. It's just the concept that's cheesy. There's probably a genuine Western in here somewhere wildly signalling to be let out. The 1873 Arizona Territory town and the saloon where people congregate between gunfights on the main drag and the sheriff, the barman-doctor, the brave little orphaned boy, the tired but beautiful young woman, all look and sound right. Into this world steps a lean and gnarly desperado. His name is Jake. We know him as Daniel Craig. Many of us prefer to think of him as James Bond. We might prefer not to follow him here. Though saddled with a bad case of amnesia and a futuristic wrist bracelet he can't even knock off with a rock, he comports himself with sullen dignity and invincible machismo. So does Harrison Ford, as the richest rancher in the territory, saddled with Paul Dano as a son. Equally dignified are Keith Carradine as the sheriff and Sam Rockwell as Doc.

For half an hour Favreau and his admirable cast cook up the feel of a real Western. But -- spoiler alert -- this is a movie about cowboys and aliens. And sure enough, aliens they are, right out of that cheap but feisty movie from South Africa that garnered so much attention a couple of years ago, District 9. But they looked the same in J.J. Abrams' Super 8. They're all standard issue now. This time they are not stranded and alienated, like the insect-like monsters in Neill Blomkamp's ironic genre flick. They've come to nineteenth-century America for the gold. "It's as valuable to them as it is to us," someone with the inside dope helpfully explains.

If you ask me, the real invasion is computer-generated imagery. It eventually invades this (potentially) decent cowboy movie the same way it tore up J.J. Abrams' story about Eighties kids making horror movies. Of course Hollywood tends nowadays to be very often about genre mash-ups -- both for variety and to appeal to multiple audiences. But this one is just mashed; it's a wrecked Western, one that's ridiculous without being funny. Jon Favreau's humorous touch, so evident in his recent forays into Marvel Comics territory with the Iron Man movies, is sadly lacking here -- unless you count Dano's histrionic showing off as Harrison Ford's spoiled, trigger-happy son as humor. This is a movie that might have succeeded as camp or surrealism but instead simply falls flat, degenerating into one of those battles that so often overtake American summer blockbusters to make up for the lack of a coherent plot and justify the big budget.

This movie reportedly cost $160-$200 million. That's a chunk of change and it gets you something. It bought a lovingly distressed frontier town, a fine set of costumes, an alien space ship worthy of the Black Fortress from Krull, and aliens with a finer outer gloss on them than Blomkamp's as well as an ability to morph into creeping grasping claws to scare the bejesus out of wide-eyed young Emmett (Noah Ringer, who was brave enough to survive The Last Airbender). But it can't buy narrative clarity. Good storytelling isn't about money; it's about economy. And that is best achieved when a movie has not taken a dozen years and a dozen writers to produce as this one did.

Jake wakes up not knowing who he is. We know he's Daniel Craig in the wrong movie. Unfortunately our knowledge doesn't progress much from there. The aliens send what look like large mechanical dragonflies to drag people away to their space ship where they're kept in a trance. If they are freed, the captured victims have lost their memories. Sometimes.

But why? What happened to Jake? What do the critters use gold for? Where do they come from? How did they wind up in the nineteenth century? And what are we doing watching this movie? All questions that remain unanswered as we stagger out after a lengthy and numbingly pointless battle between the frontiersmen led by Craig, Carradine, and Ford and the insect-like monsters, who can, luckily for the CGI team, readily blow things up and shoot flames. I kept wondering what Harrison Ford must think of all this. He keeps the air of an authentic curmudgeon throughout Cowboys and Aliens' whole two hours of running time. But this is a man with a reputation for not putting up with nonsense. Then again though, he put up with the Indiana Jones job, so he was up for this. You may not be. As for me I'm just hoping there's no sequel, though the ending ominously hints there could be one on the way.

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