Wednesday, August 10, 2011
Once Upon a Time in a Spaceship
In the annals of film criticism, "The Western" is that big go-to, "The American Genre" that every genre theorist and his brother refers back to. It has produced more writing about it than any other genre. Beneath it is likely the gangster genre (in the early decades of film theory) and sci-fi (in more recent decades).
So, of course, when I hear a title like "Cowboys and Aliens," I think: "Well, I'm a genre theorist. I know something about how different theories of genre apply to the Western and the alien invasion film. This will certainly be an INTERESTING film, maybe even FUN."
There are five names attached to the screenplay of "Cowboys and Aliens," and that doesn't seem like a harmonious package when you watch the film. It features Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (of "Star Trek," "Fringe" and "Alias"), Damon Lindelof (of "Lost"), and Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby (of "Children of Men" and "Iron Man"). This combination of different writing camps, of people who delight at complex television and those who work with re-thinking adaptations and genres, already puts the film on an awkward pedestal of trying to juggle too much at once.
At first, it's tempting to be thankful for Jon Favreau, a director who, from "Swingers" to "Iron Man," has at least proven he knows how to work with actors and big effects. He can iron out the multiple voices of the script into a smooth package. He's a solid craftsman, and that's not what bugs me about "Cowboys and Aliens." What bugs me is that the film is one joke stretched painfully into two hours, where a smirking team of high-minded writers seem hell-bent on taking genre-mashing to the next level, only to expose it as an empty exercise that ultimately reveals nothing about the Western or the sci-fi genre.
When Daniel Craig first appears in "Cowboys and Aliens," there's a bit of mystery about him: why doesn't he know his name? Why is he in the middle of the desert? What's this weird thing attached to his arm? How does he always look so badass? Matthew Libatique's cinematography in the first twenty minutes is, at the very least, relaxing. Craig is always framed at optimal angles, and there's a cavalcade of signatures familiar to the genre. The very look and manner of it all is slightly camp, but serious enough to prevent it from seeming too silly. When he puts on a wide-brimmed hat with the hand that houses the alien apparatus, it's hard not to smile at the obvious collision of semantic iconography.
And that's kind of the gear the whole movie stays in. When Harrison Ford finally saunters on screen, barking his lines in a kind of a stupor that belongs to a movie closer to "Blazing Saddles" than this one, the mixed tones, moods, and ideas embedded in "Cowboys and Aliens" become all too apparent. It starts to feel like every single person making this movie has their own idea about what it should be like, and what its ultimate meaning is.
It's befuddling, because there is genuine talent here: Craig, Sam Rockwell, Libatique (Oscar-nominated for shooting "Black Swan"), Favreau, etc. But that talent doesn't seem to know where to go. Yes, the visual effects look great. Yes, the alien designs are actually well-conceived. The score is even a pretty solid fusion of Western and sci-fi arrangements.
But what's the point? (HERE BE A SPOILER) The only argument the film ends up making is that aliens accidentally help settlers find gold and create a more prosperous community. Once we fight them off.
It's as if most writing meetings must have involved variations on the sentence, "Well in most Westerns a stranger wanders into town, right? We gotta have that!" or, "Well in most alien invasion movies disparate social groups have to band together, so we gotta throw in some Native Americans and whatnot!" The tropes are there. They get deployed. But again, for what?
If your only answer is, "for the fun of it," I don't buy that. The first hour of this movie is pretty good blockbuster fun. But then it becomes more and more obvious it has no idea what it's saying. It's just mashing genres for the sake of mashing genres.
Remember "Back to the Future: Part III"? Sure, not the best in the trilogy. But for a trilogy incredibly concerned with nostalgia, how different eras get imagined and why certain representations of them exist, it uses its time-travel, "fish out of water" scenario to make a movie about how people in the 1980s perceive "The Old West," and how those perceptions need to be reckoned with. In that film, "The Old West" is supposedly a real place, but one that feels more indebted to Hollywood fantasies than history. Which, of course, ends up being the POINT of a lot of Western genre theory: Hollywood writes and perpetuates certain perceptions of history.
In the Western, we imagine what the world used to be. In sci-fi, we imagine what the world could be. In "Cowboys and Aliens," what could be facilitates the creation of what is. It's not funny satire, it's not compelling drama, and it's only intermittently a visual effects feast. In between, it's just confusing and kind of sad to think that these writers thought so reductively about the genres they were employing, instead of colliding them to create a unique argument about how they relate.