Le Cinema de WTF: Cowboys and Aliens

Today I am starting a new little series that I’ve been contemplating for a while. Have you ever watched a movie that was so strange, so bizarre, so outlandish that when it was over, you were left scratching your head and wondering if you actually saw what you think you just saw, or if it was all some kind of hallucination? I know I have. That is what I am going to explore here. These are the films that leave you puzzled, confused, and wondering what in the bloody hell you just watched. Welcome, my friends, to Le Cinema de WTF.

We’ll begin with “Cowboys and Aliens,” the 2011 film starring Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford and directed by Jon Favreau, of “Iron Man” fame. It’s a pretty simple concept, really: take a classic western in the vein of Clint Eastwood or John Wayne, add aliens. Get James Bond and Indiana Jones to star, and you’re all set. It’s one of those cases where the title pretty much tells you everything you need to know (See “Snakes on a Plane” for another example).

Genre mashups are all the rage lately. “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” just hit theaters yesterday, and there are dozens of books sitting on shelves combining public domain literary classics with all manner of supernatural creatures, zombies, werewolves, vampires, etc. It’s all gotten a bit out of hand really, ever since “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” showed people that there’s money to be made from combining things that really don’t belong together. I think part of the reason that these sorts of mashups are popular is that they are so absurd: it’s fun in a weird sort of way to see things put together that we know have really no business being put together.

Such is the appeal of “Cowboys and Aliens,” for me at least. And it starts out promising enough, with a great opening scene showing Daniel Craig waking up in the middle of the desert, with a strange gauntlet on his wrist and seemingly no memory of how he got there. He promptly beats the crap out of three tobacco-spitting rednecks who show up, takes a gun from one of them and rides into town like a boss.

It’s a great opening, one that sucks you in and makes you wonder who this guy is, how he got there, what’s up with the weird wrist gauntlet, etc. And while all of these questions are eventually answered, they end up not feeling very important. The opening scene almost makes you forget that there will be aliens later in the film at all. The aliens feel a little tacked-on since you feel from the opening that this film would work just fine as a straight-up western. Do there really need to be aliens at all? No, not really. The great opening almost works against the film in a way.

Much as it pains me to say it, dear God does Harrison Ford look old in this movie. I mean, I’m not judging the man, he’s made some classic movies, and he’s pushing 70 so cut him some slack. But at the same time, his grimly humorless performance in this movie is just not very much fun to watch. He’s well-suited to the role of crusty, jaded cattle rancher, and he does what he can with the thinly-written script. It’s really not his fault that it’s kind of hard to see him in growly frowny mode when you can’t help but be reminded of how suave and charming he was as Indiana Jones or Han Solo.

And all of this speaks to the inherent problem with “Cowboys and Aliens”: it’s just not quite as much fun as you feel it really should be. The goofy title leads you to believe that the movie is going to be a fun, lighthearted romp, but it ends up being overly serious and surprisingly violent. The aliens looked to me like a cross between a frog, an iguana, and the Hulk, with maybe a dash of xenomorph thrown in for good measure. And let me tell you, they are vicious. They stab, bite, and rip people in half. This is really not the family-friendly film the title would lead you to believe, which makes the whole film feel oddly disjointed.

Speaking of disjointedness, here’s something I’ve noticed about the plot. It turns out to be basically pretty simple: the aliens want gold for some reason, and (SPOILER ALERT) Daniel Craig ended up in the desert after he escaped from the aliens. There’s really not much else to it. Why do the aliens want gold? Who knows? The only explanation given is that gold is as rare to the aliens as it is to humans. But so what? Are they just greedy aliens then? Are they alien gangsters or something? Again, who knows? They also capture people, which is also never really explained. The people-capturing serves no purpose other than to move the film forward, so the people who get captured are basically a MacGuffin.

So it’s not exactly rock-solid plotwise. The other problem is that while the plot is essentially pretty simple, it somehow feels way more complicated than it actually is. There is an overabundance of characters and subplots that make the threadbare main storyline feel padded, and I still have really no idea what the deal was with Olivia Wilde’s character, aside from the fact that she was extremely attractive.

The film makes it a bit hard to attain that willing suspension of disbelief that my good personal friend Sam Coleridge talked about. It just seems so ridiculous to have aliens popping up in what initially appears to be a fairly straightforward western. But at the same time I kind of feel like a hypocrite for saying that, since is it any more absurd for aliens to show up in any other film? I guess it partly depends on the film’s universe. It’s not surprising to see aliens in something like Star Wars or Star Trek, since it has already been established that aliens exist in those worlds. So maybe it is more absurd for aliens to pop up in a western, but isn’t that the whole point of genre mashups in the first place? Absurdity? And now I have officially painted myself into a corner.

Ah, well. I still enjoyed “Cowboys and Aliens,” even if it is sort of all over the place. I’m a big fan of Daniel Craig, and he makes an appealing lead character, as he usually does. There are good action scenes, even if they are maybe a bit too intense for younger viewers. I find it impossible to dislike any film that stars both James Bond AND Indiana Jones. It’s a bit overlong, and it has the odd problem of feeling both too straightforward and too complicated. It’s still a fun popcorn movie, even if it is too straight-faced. You could do worse for a Friday-night popcorn movie, but you could also do better.

For all films I am going to write about in this little series, I am going to assign a WTF rating. This is not a measure of how much I liked the film, it is a measure of how freakin’ weird it is. “Cowboys and Aliens” is weird to be sure, but it is still enjoyable even though it’s a bit of a mess. WTF rating: 7/10.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.

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