Friday, July 29, 2011

Cowboys and Aliens

Alternate Title:  Indiana Jones and the License to Kill ET

One sentence synopsis:  A drifter and a cattle boss must join forces with townsmen, bandits, and Indians to defeat alien strip miners.

Things Havoc liked:   I could watch Daniel Craig read a phone book. He's one of my favorite actors, who makes every movie he's in better, at least by my opinion. As to Harrison Ford, it really doesn't matter what other movies of low or high quality he's been in, as we are speaking of Indiana Jones and Han Solo, and therefore there shall be nothing ill said of him. While Ford certainly sometimes oversells his roles, he does reasonably well here. Both lead actors are helped by the addition of a sterling supporting cast, including Paul Dano (last seen in There Will Be Blood), Clancy Brown (last seen in the Shawshank Redemption, Carnivale, and as Lex Luthor in the DCAU), Olivia Wilde (last seen in Tron, but I will try not to hold that against her), and the incomparable Keith Caradine (last seen being generally a bad motherfucker).

With a cast this good, much that would otherwise be unbearable can be borne with ease. Daniel Craig in particular is given the task of playing an amnesiac drifter who appears to have been an outlaw before he lost his memory at the hands of the aliens. Acting-wise, this job is nearly impossible, but Craig pulls it off. Ford's character, a former army colonel who fought various battles in the Civil and Mexican wars, is given the task of expositing much of his own backstory, and with one or two exceptions, it works pretty well, proving once again that good actors can often elevate pedestrian writing.

Things Havoc disliked:   I think you know where I'm going here.

This movie is written badly. Very badly. Like long-exposition-scenes-strung-back-to-back badly. Like "I wish I had a son like you" badly. The actors, and they are excellent, do the best they can with the material given to them, but there is simply no salvaging some of this crap. I grant, it's not Last Airbender bad, but it does no service to the film. When even Daniel Craig can't sell a line, you know you've fallen off something.

Bad writing though I am used to. Movies like this are not sold on the strength of their writing. Unfortunately, the problems here go much further, into the entire making of this film. For one thing, the editing in this movie sucks. Continuity mistakes are everywhere. Daniel Craig pours the same shot of whiskey two or three times without emptying the glass. He is covered in dust by an explosion multiple times and is then clean in the next shot. Battle sequences are edited such that it is often impossible to determine where everyone is in relation either to one another or to the surrounding terrain (which is of some importance, given how much time they spend discussing the need for open ground).

Equally, the design and cinematography of this film is just bad. Lots of shots take place in the dark or in twisted, restricted tunnels, all of which are impossible to see thanks to terrible lighting and sloppy cinematographic shot selection. The alien ships look ludicrous, not flashy enough to be camp, and not interesting enough to get away without it. Entire set pieces for the film (such as the random steam boat they find in the middle of the desert) are badly designed and never explained reasonably. Why would the alien mothership have cavernous caves leading secretly to the surface? Didn't the aliens have to excavate all that?

Oh and speaking of the aliens, this movie presents us, in keeping with such films as War of the Worlds or Signs, with aliens who have mastered the interstellar hyperdrive, but not pants. Their design is totally uninspired, growling tooth-laden monsters who are sufficiently advanced to fly between the stars, but who talk by roaring, and fight naked on all fours by leaping on their target and tearing them apart with claws. Their master plan involves (spoiler alert) mining for gold, making this movie perhaps the only one I've ever seen to consciously rip off Battlefield Earth. Moreover, even this lame excuse is handled half-assed, as nowhere is it explained why the aliens are kidnapping humans instead of spending their time getting the one thing they actually are here for. Moreover, the physical capabilities of the aliens are completely inconsistent. They go from being bulletproof to susceptible to gunfire within the same sequence. At one point, bows and arrows are sufficient to kill them, while Winchester rifles are not. If you don't establish rules for your film, then the audience can't figure out what the hell to think.

Final thoughts:  A tired, cliched, poorly written film, elevated by the strength of its cast. The plot makes no sense and is hackneyed in the extreme, the direction and editing are awful, the design is lazy, and the movie overall is just a one-note bore. Even the action scenes are foolish and poorly cut together. The actors assembled for this project manage, just barely, to elevate it into mediocre level, but that's hardly a stunning recommendation. Avoid.

Final Score:  4/10

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