Indiana Jones, James Bond and Thirteen walk into a bar… (Movie review, Cowboys and Aliens)
I’m glad I didn’t read any reviews before going to see Cowboys and Aliens. MrsDoF and I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, then went out for frozen yogurt. So here’s my review with spoilers (fair warning).
It’s a big cast. You got your standard-issue cowboys, a mysterious stranger, a rich cattle baron who is kind of a jerk, his worthless son who’s a world-class jerk, a mysterious woman, a saloon keeper, a preacher, a boy, a dog, a knife, some Indians, some aliens – hell, that’s just scratching the surface. There’s got to be, like, ten movies worth of stories there if you wanted to flesh them out. It could be a series, told over and over from different points of view. Thankfully there is a main point of view; Jake Lonergan, an outlaw with amnesia and a hunk of alien hardware bolted to his wrist.
Of course you like Jake; he’s Daniel Craig after all. And you like the cattle baron, Colonel Dolorhyde. Well no, we don’t like him; he’s kind of a jerk, but since he’s Harrison Ford we suspect there’s a really worthwhile person in there and later we’re not disappointed. And Ella Swanson is Olivia Wilde, whose name I had to look up because I recognized her as Thirteen from House.
The physical environment in this movie is richly textured, right down to the wavy glass in the windows and the faded blue patina on the handguns. I guess if you spend a hundred sixty-three million bucks, you can hire people to make sure about details like that.
The townsfolk are a pretty likable bunch too. You’re rooting for the barkeep and the preacher and the sheriff and his grandson. Once you’ve got characters you care about, you can do pretty much whatever with the movie and it will still work. So you throw some aliens at them. How, after all, would 19th-century people confront advanced and hostile aliens?
Here’s a spoiler: one outlaw with an alien gun strapped to his wrist isn’t enough, no matter how good a shot he is. You’re also going to need a Civil War colonel to provide leadership and work out strategy, and another alien from (let’s say) planet Thirteen to provide inside information and to do the surprising thing at the end. A few bags of dynamite could come in handy too.
Because brother, these are not your touchy-feely, well-intentioned scientist aliens from ET. No sir, they’re big, ugly, mean, have claws, and they don’t have anything at all like a Prime Directive. But they’re not invulnerable; if you hit ‘em in the right places they go down just like anyone else. The trick is getting them out in the open where you can hit ‘em. Which the humans and that one other alien (Thirteen) did, in spades.
Here’s another spoiler: the resolution reminded me of the Challenger disaster. Not sure how I feel about that.
Criticisms? Sure, I could make plenty. The aliens had a mining shuttle the size of a Saturn V, that looked like it would weigh about twenty times as much. A thing like that would have a bigger backwash on takeoff. That’s something Hollywood never gets right. Alien behavior didn’t make a lot of sense, but I have to forgive them for that; we have Congress after all. Jake Lonergan seemed to be able to control the alien gun easily. Granted the targeting interface was pretty neat (no doubt DARPA is showing the film at their Fall retreat) but still. The Indians were pretty clichéd but so was everyone else.
When I got home, I read reviews. ***Dave thought there was way too much potential back-story for the amount of exposition, and Danny Bowes at Tor.Com seemed to go on at length about how the movie pretty much sucked. And yet, both reviewers said they liked the movie.
So here’s what I think happened: both reviews illustrate that the characters are more important than the story. If you like the characters, and you care about what happens to them, the writer can get away with a lot. As Robert Peck says; “Fiction Is Folks”. It’s like how you choose pictures of yourself or your family; the facial expression trumps framing, focus, exposure, style – anything. With all its flaws, they couldn’t help liking the movie. Fiction writers, take note.
- ***Dave: Movie Review – Cowboys & Aliens
- Tor.Com: Sometimes all you have is a great title – Cowboys And Aliens
- Wikipedia: Cowboys & Aliens
- Amazon.com: Fiction Is Folks, by Robert Peck.