‘Cowboys and Aliens’ is Better Faux-Spielberg Than ‘Super 8’

Jon Favreau proves a better pupil of the master’s than the more slavish J.J. Abrams.

Cowboys & Aliens

Director: Jon Favreau
Cast: Olivia Wilde, Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Sam Rockwell, Clancy Brown,
Studio: Dreamworks
US Release Date: 2011-07-29
UK Release Date: 2011-08-17

We all liked Close Encounters of the Third King, whether catching it first as youngsters or later as older and (supposedly) more cynical adults, who you wouldn’t think would be susceptible to that kind of thing. Well, maybe not all of us liked it, but enough did that it became one of those cultural touchstones, a symbol of a certain kind of wide-eyed and worldly, curiously sophisticated naivete that wasn’t much longer for the world – the 1980s would take care of that. We loved the obsessiveness, the sweeping jumps from one part of the world to another in those breathtaking opening scenes, the warm sheets of light, the dark mystery of knowing that visitors are coming for purposes unknown, the belief that things just might turn out better for us if you just opened your eyes and thoughts a little wider. It was something like a dream, turned to film.

Unfortunately, it turned out that somebody liked it a little too much. Somebody thought that it was the sort of thing that could, in fact, be improved by swapping out some of its kinder and gentler aspects for those of a new old-fashioned monster flick (the kind of thing that, had it been made fifty years ago for 1/500th of the money, would have ended up as Mystery Science Theater 3000 fodder). That somebody was J.J. Abrams, writer/director of the highly underwhelming and dispiriting Super 8, which makes one pine for the understatement and subtlety of a Steven Spielberg film – not precisely a common feeling. One would imagine that Spielberg might have helped provide some of that aesthetic assistance, given that he’s listed here as executive producer; but perhaps that was just to show that he didn’t mind all the quotations from Close Encounters.

There are signs painted in bright red letters all throughout Super 8 of the film that it could have been. In the character of Joe (Joel Courtney), the meekest member of a gang of prepubescent buddies in a small Ohio town in the late-1970s, Abrams has a genuinely sweet protagonist of a kind rarely seen in event films of this kind. Opposite him is the one (not entirely willing) female member of their contingent, Alice (Elle Fanning, firing on all cylinders), a tough girl with a sensitive and poetic streak who could have been lifted straight out of one of the more touching flashbacks from Lost.

As the rest of their buddies run around like spinning tops trying to complete an 8mm zombie flick that their overbearing quasi-leader Charles (Riley Griffiths) has concocted, Joe and Alice seem like two eyes of the storm. Abrams gives them one emotionally thrumming scene, where Joe as the crew’s makeup artist, has to pretty up Alice for the shoot, that’s so perfectly hushed and magical you can almost hear his heart thudding out of his chest. It’s a perfectly realized moment, one of the summer’s few.

A pity, then, that Abrams surrounds it with chaos and crude reengineering of the Spielberg template. In the same cynical manner with which he toyed with genre tropes and casually dispensed with characters and story arcs in Lost, Abrams here strains so hard to hit all the right buttons that he misses almost all of them. When the playground film crew just happens to be there when a train carrying a mysterious payload explosively derails, their camera records some of what happens. This turns in handy much later in the film, after the entire town has been quarantined by an Air Force detachment eager to shut down rumors of mysterious happenings and disappearances.

\'Super 8\'

But because Abrams has so crucially misplayed his hand by that point, packing the film with scads of unsympathetic characters (most of Joe’s friends seem like jerks, to put it mildly) and reams of subplot that does little to advance the story, there’s almost no emotional payoff. All there is is a would-be scary monster who seems left over from discarded concept art for Cloverfield. For all the nods toward the sense of wonder of Close Encounters and Jaws’s tight take on a community and family under siege, there’s neither the heart nor the fright of either of those films.

Somewhat less disappointing is Jon Favreau’s Cowboys and Aliens, if only because it doesn’t try so blatantly to ape the moves of Spielberg (executive producing again). Favreau’s tone here has more in common with the lightly-handled and workmanlike manner of one of his other executive producers, Ron Howard. The squad of screenwriters who cobbled together a film from the graphic novel source material do a good job of getting down to business.

Jake (Daniel Craig, gruffing his way through an American accent) is a dangerous fella who wakes up in an Old West desert with no memory of anything and a beeping metal bracelet on his wrist. A couple minutes in, he’s dispensed with a trio of scalphunters looking to collect a reward, and rode into a rough frontier town, newly shod and armed, promptly infuriating Percy, the idiot son (Paul Dano, immaculately sleazy) of the local big-shot, and getting himself thrown in jail. This all comes to a head when the sheriff (Keith Carradine) tries to send Percy and Jake off to the feds, only Percy’s dad (Harrison Ford, the bad guy with a heart of gold) won’t hear of it.

Daniel Craig defends the Old West in \'Cowboys & Aliens\'

Things are set up nice and pretty for an epic nighttime showdown when a squadron of alien vessels scream overhead in a bombing run that obliterates most of the town and lassoing people off their horses and sending them screaming into the night sky. After Jake’s nifty metal wristlet turns into a laser cannon that shoots down one of the alien craft, it’s posse time and everyone rides off into the desert to get their loved ones back.

Cowboys and Aliens is one of those films where the hero can’t help but stride into each shot in poster-ready iconic fashion – Black Swan and Iron Man cinematographer Matthew Libatique does a smart job of framing Craig against the sun-burnt desert, those ice-blue eyes blazing – but lesser characters like Sam Rockwell’s nebbishy bartender get squinched into the corner. It’s also the kind of film where the town preacher (Clancy Brown) is a tough, whiskey-drinking sort who dispenses hard-bitten theological bon mots during target practice.

Olivia Wilde mystifies the men folk in \'Cowboys & Aliens\'

There are only a couple real surprises to be had, which is somewhat disappointing for a film whose great set piece involves a ragged band of bandits and Apaches doing battle with a vicious breed of planet-ravaging aliens; and one of those involves Harrison Ford’s cattle boss villain character turning out to be not such a bad guy after all, so it doesn’t really count. Favreau, somewhat disappointingly, doesn’t rely so much on wry humor to keep the humdrum machinery of the plot (credited to a committee of eight writers) churning along as he did in the Iron Man films. But for a time, there’s enough mystery on tap to compensate, what with Jake’s amnesia and the mysterious presence of the unearthly and unlikely gunslinger Ella (Olivia Wilde, her eyes dialed up to maximum haunting).

The initially giddy mood certainly has its hint of Spielberg-on-a-lark, in a Lost World manner. The bright and beautiful cinematography, breezy humor, and the deep roster of ace character actors populating the background acts as a jazzy frisson against the deeply C-grade scenario. But then the aliens get involved, and something just goes awry. Possibly it has something to do with the creatures themselves. (Why do modern film aliens so often seem to be hyper-efficient killing machines possessed of lightning-fast reflexes, iron-tough hides, and the homicidal instincts of a wolverine? The effect of that near-invincibility quickly transitions from frightening to enervating.) Once all hands are on deck for the great human crusade against the planet invaders, the film gears everything toward achieving a handful of crucible dramatic moments that will assure a smattering of whoops and applause from the thoroughly air-conditioned audience. Character and anything not of immediate service to the plot is jettisoned, including practically any dialogue where these 19th century characters experience any real mental dissonance over the implications of an alien invasion. It’s just: get’em, posse.

If nothing else, Cowboys and Aliens is a better summer night at the movies than most other event films have been. There’s more pure enjoyment here than Captain America and certainly more heartfelt drama than the cynical and shallow Super 8. But maybe Favreau would have been better off making a true modern Western, not this shiny bauble of a mashup that zips across the screen for a good two hours before disappearing without a trace. Let's just hope Spielberg doesn't try to recruit him for Transformers 4.


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