The Man Who Knows Aliens- 10 Reasons Cowboys and Aliens Sucked

by - Thursday, August 18, 2011

This last week, I got in on one of the boys work perks and went to see Cowboys and Aliens for free. Despite the fact that I absolutely abhor movies where a guy blows shit up while one woman watches, chest heaving, I really wanted to like this movie. My love of Westerns, bolstered by my only pseudo-ironic love for John Wayne, is well-documented. I also really like Jon Favreau, and i am pretty sure Iron Man is like the only action movie I have enjoyed in my adulthood. Plus, I find hating things (or ironically enjoying) things that ask for that kind of reaction really tedious and inane. Anyway, I really wanted to like it, but things went south (not West) fast. Here's why:

1. It ignores the conflict between the horizontal thrust of the Western Fantasy and the Upward thrust of the Alien Fantasy. I take no issue with the ahistoricity of this story, and I actually think the two genres could be very interestingly matched, but they don't  do that. It's all about rising to your masculinity in the face of otherness, which sort of happens here, but only sort of and you don't get a feeling that there are any stakes, much less of the vastness that they feel anxious about.
2. It has too much meaningless brutality. I don't need to see random people getting killed for no reason. I don't need to see scalps on horses. I am all for pushing the envelope, but here it felt lame and overdetermined. Watching Daniel Craig beat the living piss out of people is super boring, and it doesn't exactly radiate any of the genres this movie purports to represent. It is just like every single other action sequence in every other action movie. Except with boots. Nothing is added, and in fact if anything it just makes the movie feel more pointless and less fun.
3. They cut a huge character (the landscape)- Who scouted the locations for this film? And who decided what a Western really needed a bunch of crane shots where we lose the horizon line? RIDICULOUS!!!
When you don't establish what you are starting from, what the landscape means, it isn't a strong disjunction when things change. The big boat is a cool set piece, but how does it work in the rest of the film? Why wouldn't you shoot it so the two spaces contrasted more strongly? What happened to space in this film? You can afford CGI aliens but not a somewhat interesting location? Did you shoot 15 minutes out of LA?

4. Daniel Craig's Butt- One of the reasons the movie was so frustrating is that it consistently demonstrated that it was  literate in the tropes of the Western (anxieties toward the Other, community, moving outward into space) but the only one the film makers actually loved was the fixation on the male body (specifically, the butt, show me a John Wayne movie and I will show you a strange chaps-heightened fascination with the booty). They do manage to get Craig topless numerous times, and the chaps really stress his package as well, but I am not sure that it works. Because he is no fun, he is no fun to look at. So much for scopic pleasure.

5. People should be having fun, but nobody is. This concept is never going to be totally serious, so why are we taking ourselves so seriously? When did saying nothing become so vitally important? By absolutely removing every iota of joy by picking 2 super stiff leads and not even letting the character actors have fun (for serious, if Sam Rockwell can't lighten things up, you are in trouble), this movie loses the sense of play that would have probably made all the other sins forgivable. Sure, there are cutesy moments, but they are few, far between, and tragic reminders of how little fun is squished between them.

6. What the hell is up with Olivia Wilde? Did I miss something? She is a reincarnating alien from some other planet who can somehow magically shapeshift into a hot squinty lady (I think Tyra would call this expression fierce) and whose hair looks absolutely fantastic all the time. Also, she looks ridiculous riding a horse. The film justifies her stiffness by making her a haunted alien on a kamikaze mission, but I am not seeing her as the next great actress of our time. And if she is, this moment failed to show her off.

7. The dialogue stands in for any actual feeling- the first 25 minutes of the film must be the most heavy-handed clunky set up in any movie ever. It's like every character is just reading a short bio of themselves. Our big emotional moment between Indie and that guy from Law and Order SVU comes off as truly ridiculous because they are just telling us how meaningful it is, we never actually see it. No one shows anything, and the ensemble is weighed down by grating dialogue. Watch any scene from Stagecoach, much of which has a few lines, and you can see how with men who can't express themselves well, how they don't say something can be equally telling. The dialogue really just feels lazy or almost amateurish in some scenes.

8. Because of the shoddy writing, no character has any internal motivation or depth- their actions are totally based on their relationships (a la "I have to find my wife") or their lack of history, meaning eveything is ridiculously surface level. When I saw Damon Lindelof's name as a writing credit, I should have known this movie would be a colossal waste of time (that's right, I have not and will not forgive him for Lost). Like Lost characters, these people mostly do things because that is what they need to do to get to the next thing, they never communicate anything to each other (except in that super smooth exposition), and their relationship is their only motivation, so a lot of their actions seem to make no sense.

9. The Aliens- ok, so we have some sort of advanced technological militaristic society of aliens, but they are pre-linguistic and don't all use weapons (and the ones that do suffer from ridiculously bad aim). One review I read described them as from Central casting, and I think that pretty much sums it up- these aliens could not be more cliche. Not only do they not make much sense (so they've come to Earth to mine for Gold, but also as a reconnaissance mission to study the humans' weaknesses; it seems like but they feel like a big lazy drop of the creative ball.

10. Which leads us to the biggest of all- this movie is an action fantasy when it should be a Science Fiction Western. Both science fiction and the Western are loaded with ideologies, often serving as allegories for contemporary issues, making the films both fantasies and prescient to their contemporary viewers. In fantasy and action, this sort of depth is just not required- one thing just happens after another because it offers a shock or cheap thrill or whatever it is that men get from watching people beat on each other. Though I imagine this sidestep isn't a deal breaker for the majority of the audience they were shooting for, it certainly would have been both more  interesting to feel like the writers actually had fun with the questions they were asking. Maybe it would have gotten better than a 44% on Rotten Tomatoes. Maybe I would have forgiven you, Damon Lindelof, but clearly this isn't the end of our feud. I still hate you, and I really hated this movie.

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