Cowboys & Aliens

Fifteen producers, seven writers, four companies, and one genre.


Walking out, I wanted to kill everyone. All right, fine, more than usual.
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Reported on 25th of August, 2011

It is a strange phenomenon indeed that we pay our hard earned money to cinemas to make us tense for a few hours, only to relieve that tension. The explanation for this is like buying a lottery ticket; there’s a chance, however slim that may be in this year of 2011, that the relief will stay with you for a while, that it will resonate in the form of mood, sort of like a drug that makes you feel like crap, but with a fantastic hangover.

Cowboys & Aliens

9 August 2011 @ The Brighton Odeon


-$8.50 or, if one must be prosaic, and one must... 
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

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When I walked out of Beginners, for example, I was cheerful, and the mood stayed with me. Hello, inexplicable traffic jam! Thank you for giving me time to consider how wonderful my life is! And thank you for slowing me down: you can’t be too careful these days! But it’s not entirely like a lottery either, because when you pick and scratch, the worst case scenario is nothing. If you lose, no one reaches across the counter and hits you in the face.

Even so, such a scenario would be infinitely preferable to the psychic equivalent of having seen Cowboys and Aliens, the worst film so far in the worst year so far (and that includes Green Hornet, the parts I was awake for that is). Walking out, I wanted to kill everyone. All right, fine, more than usual. Get out my way, crippled orphan! I don’t actually need to be anywhere right now, but I need to be there right now. Oh now you want to hold the door open for me? How dare you?

The label 'sociopath' is not meant to hurt your feelings; it's meant to hurt your feelings the way a therapist would.

Suddenly I was in that frame of mind where everything in the world is someone else’s fault. Reflecting upon it, as I bum-rushed an old lady to catch the train, I thought about the combination of the deeply unsympathetic characters and a line that recurs twice: ‘It’s not your fault’. This was anathema to me: it was your fault (the crazy one talking out loud at your cinema, that’s me, by the way). You’re an asshole. You acted like an asshole, and something bad happened.

And, having no idea if this applies to the characters, the filmmakers or both, I plunged forward. You want to be psychoanalyzed? Then we’re going to delve into that guilt, or more specifically, the idea that you don’t deserve it. My diagnosis? This is a film is made by, and so about, and is somehow turning me into one of a growing number of sociopaths.

That may seem like a personal attack – to say that you lack the capacity to feel compassion for others, see yourself as the center of the universe and yet remain miraculously free of responsibility for your own actions – but my interest is purely therapeutic. The label ‘sociopath’ is not meant to hurt your feelings; it’s meant to hurt your feelings the way a therapist would.

To show that I am being fair, sociopathy is only one of two working theories; it could simply be a case of your being greedy bastards. Having watched the credits, revealing a staggering four major production companies (Universal, Paramount, Imagine and Dreamworks), I soon developed the theory that they had spent all the money talking about making it. With no money on the first day of shooting they had to conserve like films in the days where special effects were expensive. Well, more expensive than paying Steven Speilberg to scribble, ‘Sure. Go ahead’ on a napkin. What but absolutely no money could explain that nothing happens for the first half hour?

But it was their compulsive line-item meanness that caused the real problem; like the Hubble telescope, this may be the case of a typographical error gone very much out of control. Why not, someone must have said, get rid of the cover page of the script? We don’t really need it; we all know it’s called what’s-it-called. My goodness, we’ll save a total of 45¢ over a period of six months, almost one-tenth the amount you just paid me to say that last sentence. Which leads to a very odd situation. Sure, everyone who bought a ticket knows the aliens are coming, but the filmmakers don’t seem to have a clue. So we are treated to long and witless scenes of characters bellyaching about the Town Under The Control Of The Mean Boss, and The Mysterious Stranger Who Will Set It All Right, when we know (and the filmmakers don’t) that everything said will be rendered meaningless and dull by the arrival of the aliens.

Switching genres in mid-film is a time-honored tradition (From Dusk til Dawn, Executive Decision and (naturally) Hudson Hawk are all fine examples), and I’m certainly not going criticize that per se. In these situations it is incumbent, nay necessary, to entertain the audience, before and after. But there’s the pesky missing title page again. The filmmakers couldn’t know that cowboys and aliens together might, possibly, not be a subject to approach with the absolute solemnity of a Shoah documentary.

Hearing the title (no, not the Shoah documentary, Cowboys and Aliens), a funny image might pop into your head. Hold it in your mind, because this funny image is the most humor and wit you’re going to get. My friend Bob, who makes funny movies so he’s allowed to say, has long given up on Hollywood films for the simple reason that they lack any sense of humor. I think it’s worse that he would even think, in that the humor vacuum is growing in proportion with the ridiculousness of the subject matter.

This is strange, since absurd films actually require levity; something like Iron Man was much more entertaining for the very (and possibly the only) reason that it (or at least its lead actor) did not take itself too seriously. It would be strange if we said that Mr. Favreau directed both films (as well as the strangely somber Iron Man 2), so let us say instead that he sat in a chair during the making of both films. As films rapidly approach the event horizon of fun, what but sociopathy can explain the utter lack of humor in either situation, character or dialog, where the impossibility and silliness of the situation demands it? Well, maybe not sociopathy. It’s probably just things you need to have a sense of humor: the capacity to feel compassion for others, not seeing yourself as the center of the universe and accepting responsibility for your own foibles.

More information than our filmmakers had at their disposal.

More information than our filmmakers had at their disposal.

And here the missing title page and character disorders coalesce. Not knowing that the story was neither a western nor a science fiction film, the filmmakers set it in what they consider to be an entertaining, and increasingly popular, genre of Let’s Give Our Sociopath A Hug.

You may not be familiar with this kind of film because I made it up, but they are typically biographies of figures that commit mass murder, like Hitler, Stalin, and Ché (and apologies, of course, if this last historical reality spoils your T-shirt), and how they have issues, because their puppy died. The fact that they killed their puppy should in no way diminish our sympathy, or increase our confusion why we’re spending time with someone both repellent and banal. Of course gangster films (excepting Gomorra) fall into this category (poor Tony Soprano. He’s so complex!) But it can also include, and explain, the boring Episodes 1-3, which are about, from a story point of view, why Darth Vader is sad (Poor Darth Vader. He’s so, well, not complex.

He’s so simple!).

Perhaps this is personal taste, but finding out that someone horrible has his (sic…kinda) various reasons is infinitely less interesting than finding out why we would be so interested in his reasons in the first place, or, for that matter, why we always seem to be doing what tyrants, petty and otherwise, ask us to do. Like see their movies, for example.

But even if you find these types of characters compelling (as in the leads from Scarface or The Devil Wears Prada), one must at least make a show of complexity, drama and tension, the very opposite of whatever it was I was feeling watching Cowboys and Aliens. The characters therein, nasty or not, exist simply to fulfill their role, or ‘arc’ as a Hollywood type might have it. Such constructions are mechanical and cheap, the way one might see people if you were a…well, you get the idea.

Will Father learn to love Son? Will Boy become Man? Will Girl…well Girls don’t really do anything, do they? And, until Ms. Olivia ‘I left House to do this?’ Wilde is found, somewhat inexplicably and conveniently, to be an alien, she has absolutely no characteristics whatsoever. This includes no bodily features, as revealed, or more to the point not revealed, when she emerges from a lake soaking wet.

(Ah, PG. I remember when it meant The Deep and Airplane and not Jurassic Park: The Lost World. I also apparently remember movies you’ve never heard of, so allow me to explain. We began using the PG rating to sneak in quick shots of nudity and one use of the word ‘fuck’, and somehow wound up by showing child-age audiences people being ripped in half by dinosaurs. I could go on about how prurient America’s taste is, and how it’s okay to show people getting blown up, but god (literally) forbid we should see the hint of a body part (unless it’s flying through the air I suppose).

And so we’re all clear that I’m not a hypocrite (in this instance), I like nudity and violence. Take the extremely silly Les aventures extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc-Sec.’This is a film which features dinosaurs and a completely gratutitous nipple shot (remember all nudity is gratuitous, because all narrative is gratuitous – see how I let myself off the hook there. Pretty clever of me. To say that I’m pretty clever, that is). Mlle. Louise Bourgoin (keep in mind that this is the lead of the film) is shown taking a bath – for the first time in cinema history – with her breasts above the bubbles. ‘But that’s what the bubbles are for!’, rings the protest in Hollywood. And I respond, in the interests of democracy, why can’t we have both? It’s only fair: tat for tit.

I’m waiting for judges to rule on that last one. Screw it, I don’t care what they say. I’m leaving it in.)

Now that’s a parenthetical!

And this may be the greatest loss (no, not boobies), but potential. Cowboys and aliens suggest a classic David versus a very small boy without a sling story. The idea of pitting superior technology against old-fashioned cowboy ingenuity has opportunities galore, and something we would like to see, if not immediately, no, not immediately, not that, but at least at the end.

Instead Ms. Olivia Wilde is an alien, so they know what to do. Mr. Daniel Craig has one of their weapons, so he can shoot down their ships. And we arrive, step by tedious step, at a strange, storyless slaughter as nameless characters die for no reason, and larger characters check off the end of their artificially generated arcs: Boy acts brave: check. Boss nods ominously to Indian Chief signifying his newfound respect: check. Actor justifies being in this movie: okay, the judges are not going to allow that one.

Metacognition is the everyday ability to imagine what another person might be either feeling or thinking; it’s certainly hard to deal with real life without it, but worse still, makes it impossible to produce a decent film: these are characters that act, but don’t think or feel.

So, missing page, or sociopaths. Why can’t it be both? Scratch that: why can’t it be neither?

The Take

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Profits!
The movie I imagined from the title.
$1.00
Total Profits
$1.00
Losses!
If they can extract gold from the air, why don’t they just do that? Because then there would be no plot?
$1.00
But that can’t be it. There is no plot…
$2.00
…because it was written by the inexplicably employed and yet to be discredited uber-hack Lost Hydra. They don’t believe in plot.
$2.50
The depression over the fact that you can make terrible and unsuccessful films and still keep making them.
$4.00
Total Losses
$9.50

-$8.50

Thoughts on Cowboys & Aliens

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  1. Richard says:

    I have a third theory: it is an algorithm. That is: someone has come up with a formula for return on cinematic investment which has told them that Daniel Craig plus Harrison Ford plus Self Descriptive Title That Explains Whole Film = profit.

  2. Scott Scott King says:

    I hope this leads to: Bruce Willis Shoots Somebody!, or Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal Kiss! Okay, I would see both those. What is wrong with me?

  3. Nathan Marsak says:

    Your post had a lot of words in it, so I just decided to go down to the bottom to see what its tags were. After reading the tags, I immediately sold everything I owned and drove around town giving baskets of money to Artisan and Carolco and anyone else who makes movies, because of Olivia Wilde and Che Guevara. Kissing.

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