Y’know, there’s a movie out there that’s waiting to be made that I’ve wanted to see for forty years or more. I must have mentioned this before - but here’s the pitch. I love War of the Worlds. I love the imagery, the time setting, the thought of Martians in huge steampunk machine laying waste to Victorian England. I like the whole thought of a historical era clashing with a science fiction concept.
But there’s another story there - there has to be. The whole world was at war with the Martians, so it stands to reason that they landed in America, in the Old West. Now, imagine the Martian tripods in Dodge City, decimating one of those ravine straddling trestle railway bridges as a train approachedor out on the pirarie - or a pitched battle between the Cavalry and the tripods in Monument Valley.
Sadly, although it approaches that kind of concept, this is not that film. Close, but no cigar. I guess the closest in visual execution I’m going to see to the dream movie that unreels in my head is the giant mechanical spider sequence laying waste to the Western town in the otherwise lack lustre Wild, Wild West of a few years ago.
Don’t get me wrong, Cowboys and Aliens isn’t a bad movie, but it isn’t what I’d hoped. I’m glad I’ve seen it and I will almost certainly re-check it out on DVD when the time comes, but right now, having just seen it, my impression is that it’s an uneasy mix of two genres.
Imaginative, yes - but ultimately, it’s neither fish nor fowl and I guess that’s largely the reason behind its poor box office perfomance.
It’s been announced that Disney have cancelled their long planned project to bring the Lone Ranger back to screen and had famously already cast the incredible Johnny Depp as Tonto. Officially, the reason behind the sudden cold feet is the the underwhelming response of moviegoers to Cowboys and Aliens. Disney couldn’t justify spending over $200 million on a genre that doesn’t attract audiences and they’re laying the blame on the fact that westerns don’t bring the crowds in.
Fair enough, but I don’t think it’s either the western that’s at fault, or the fact that the western is uniquely American and there’s a theory that it would play poorly internationally due to this.. In fact, that’s complete nonsense. It didn’t exactly harm the box office of the Coen brothers True Grit, however misguided remaking that classic was, in the final analysis.
I would go so far as to say that the major flaw in this film is that the western audiences are, generally not the same audience as the sci-fi crowd and this uneasy mix is out of their comfort zone. There’s too much alien fighting in this for it to be a "proper" western, so that section of the paying audience is, if you’ll pardon the pun, alienated. On the other hand, the sci-fi effects whiz bang crowd have to wait half an hour before that element of the movie hits so their patience might be running thin by then - having waited a quarter of the film’s length.
The plot is simple - here is the main thrust, as spoiler free as I can make it. Aliens attack an Old West town with their ships, abducting several of the townfolk. A posse is dispatched to track and retreive them. Among the posse are mysterious stranger Daniel Craig and cattle baron Harrison Ford. Gunfight ensues. And that’s basically it. The whole 100 minute or so running time.
The opening with Daniel Craig was good, moreso because I’m not really a fan of him as James Bond. This is the best I’ve seen him in a film. His character’s past is a mystery and he may even be an outlaw. He has gunfighting skills (think "Shane" with amnesia and a sci-fi gizmo on his wrist) Asked what he knows, is answer is simple - "English".
Harrison Ford plays a rich, bullying cattle baron used to getting his own way and stampeding anybody who gets in his way. Ford plays this part well, and is clearly relishing his role in what is, up to the end of the first thirty minutes, kind of a stereotypical western. Then, the aliens attack, and this pulls us out of the western we’re now enjoying. We’ve got immersed in the local power struggle and the characters involved. Then we’re swept violently away to a whole different movie - and we never quite recover.
My other problem with the film is that it felt padded. There was more interminable horse riding than we really needed to see. Establish the posse’s pursuit, yes - but don’t overdo it.
Ultimately, it’s an interesting mix of two completely different ends of the film spectrum, it has excellent photography and the performances are as good as any I’ve seen this past summer but it needs some fine tuning.