Monday 15 August 2011

Cowboys & Aliens: Dull Encounters of the Third Kind

Plot: The Old West. A stranger wakes up with no memories and a mysterious device attached to his wrist. After a tussle with the locals of a mining town, he finds himself forced to ally with them when aliens suddenly appear in the sky and launch an attack, abducting many of its residents in the process.

A dark shadow loomed over this project. The last time a studio tried to mix western with fantasy, we ended up with the late 90's uberfiasco Wild, Wild, West. This adaptation of the old 60's popular TV serie was a commercial and critical flop, and became a case study of how not to make a blockbuster. The characters were unlikeable, the story was a mess and some un-PC jokes were borderline offensive, and not in a funny way. Above all, it was incredibly tedious.

So we have had to wait until now for somebody to attempt a similar genre mash-up: the man with the golden touch (or should it be the Iron Touch), Iron Man director Jon Favreau, who is adapting a little known graphic novel of the same name. The great news is that the mixture of genre works surprisingly well. When the first wave of alien attacks takes place over the small town, despite the rather preposterous premise, it does not feel out of place, it just works and the science-fiction element seemingly integrates itself in the story. After all, if , as some believe, aliens visited the Mayans, why not have them visit cowboys too?

The bad news is, well, everything else, since nothing else works. Where to start?

First the acting. You would have hoped that the teaming up of Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and James Bond (Daniel Craig) in the same film would create some sort of on screen chemistry, who knows, a new benchmark in tough love bromance? You would be mistaken. There is so little going on between those two, it almost feels like they are not in the same film. Poor Harrison Ford is not so much to blame. He gets to play a character who starts off as almost a villain (a rarity for him), a local hotshot who considers himself above the law, yet he is then given nothing to do with it, plotwise, once the aliens attack. Daniel Craig treads a fine line between enigmatic intensity and emptiness, sadly channelling more of the latter. Worse, the explanation for the alien weapon he is intriguingly wearing at the start turns out to be disappointingly simple.

A supporting cast does very little to help. Paul Dano seems to be reprising his character from There Will Be Blood, only on crack, all in eye rolling and overacting. Sam Rockwell is allegedly in the film but I find it hard to believe, such as his limp and barely there character makes you miss his villain in Charlie's Angels. Olivia Wilde keeps the same tensed and mysterious expression throughout the whole film bar one scene.

The aliens do not fare any better and are some of the most generic kind, as some sort of human-probing reptilian types seen a million times before. Indeed, scenes of them experimenting on humans in scary, dark caves are the kind that were so popular in by the numbers, made for TV low budget 90's sci-fi films and that we hoped to never see again. Their only quirk, a set of second arms hidden underneath their ribcage, is not quite enough to place them up there with some of HR Giger's best creations. If only the mad Swiss genius had been offered the creature design in this!

As for the plot, it is disappointingly straight-forward: aliens attack out of nowhere, a motley crue of survivors fight back, erm, that's it. Within this, there is one of the most head scratching plot developtment concerning a major characters that had the whole audience gasping, and for all the wrong reasons.

So poor acting, insufficient characterisation, thin plot... That has not stopped previous blockbusters to be fun nonetheless. Yet, as the final nail on the coffin of this sad blockbuster, it is also incredibly dull, despite the loud noises and special effects. There is not a single memorable scene to wow the audience, except perhaps for the first alien attacks, but then it is a shame is has been seen over and over in the trailer for months.

It has hard to believe that Mr ET/Close Encounters of the Third Kind himself, Steven Spielberg produced this. Wild Wild West 2 it is not, but it certainly is not that much better. Robert Downey Jr was supposed to be playing the part that went on to Daniel Craig after he pulled out, I wonder if this could have turned out differently.

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