Cowboys & Aliens: Attack of the Crab People

Cowboys & Aliens OnesheetThe two irresistible smiles for the past few decades in Hollywood movies have been Julia Roberts‘ face-splitting grin and Harrison Ford’s lop-sided half-smirk. Ford has a Cary Grant quality that’s impossible not to watch. From his Han Solo days, he’s played variations on McGruff, the Crime Dog, at least in delivery. He doesn’t speak his lines so much as growl them. The  characters he plays have been so wounded by life that they hide behind a veneer of irascibility and outright menace. Part of the audience’s yearning at a Harrison Ford movie is for the moment when the veneer slips, and it’s always accompanied by that lop-sided smile, like the sun edging from behind clouds. Maybe the world isn’t so bad after all. Maybe love and trust do exist. This is the arc of his performance in Cowboys & Aliens, though here he takes gruffness to an extreme that rivals Eastwood’s performance in Gran Torino.

Eastwood—or at least the “man with no name” he played in the Leone trilogy—also seems to be the model for Daniel Craig’s character. Together, he and Ford grunt and throw snake-eyes at each other for a good part of the movie. You wonder whether the movie would have been stronger if the characters had been less alike. However, as older and younger versions of the iconic western hero, they work well enough for producers to be talking about future pairings. I suggest they be included in the next Smurf movie as Gruffy and Scruffy.

Craig wakes up in the desert with a strange wound, no memory, and a bit of wrist bling that would make Flavor Flav drop his clock. The western element of the movie is laid out with all the paint-by-numbers predictability of an old Roy Rogers movie: evil cattle baron (Ford), out-of-control son (played with weaselly goodness by Paul Dano), mysterious stranger (played with McQueen-like restraint by Craig), and beautiful barmaid (played with alluring mystery by Olivia Wilde). When the aliens make their grand entrance, it’s a relief to leave this dusty, flea-bitten story-frame behind.

Even with the aliens, though, the movie never rises much above familiar types and images. The aliens look like very pissed-off king crabs that have been turned inside-out. The Sleeper (who stayed awake for the whole movie, by the way) noted that movie aliens these days are either of the junk-heap variety (Transformers) or the goopy lizard variety (Super 8). Aren’t we ready for a new breed of alien? At the showing we attended, the movie was preceded by a commercial for an insurance company that showed a rampant alien attacking a neighborhood. When your movie’s alien is no more impressive than the alien in a commercial, your movie’s in trouble. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—Hollywood, try harder.

And by the way, would a species that can cross the universe, etc., have to lasso their victims one-by-one? Couldn’t some slimy type in the alien weapons division have figured out a way to speed up the process? I was also disappointed by the reason the aliens have come to earth, which I’ll leave for you to discover, but it seems like a lot of effort for not very much (though I’m sure Mr. Flav would disagree).

Don’t get me wrong. I liked the movie, but I would have liked it more if it hadn’t been so over-hyped. Like Super 8, it’s a solid b-movie (where “b” stands for “bug hunt”). But the better the cast and the better the special effects and the more the hype, the higher your expectations from such a movie. We got something more from director Favreau’s Iron Man, where the edgy humor made the movie rise above its genre. But Cowboys & Aliens sinks somewhat under the weight of its two genres—western and sci-fi—and never allows Favreau’s genre-bending wit and insights to shine through. With something like nine credited screenwriters, you’d expect more.

Most under-utilized special effect in the movie: the great Walton Goggins.

Green Lantern: Bye Bye CGI

Green Lantern Onesheet  I’m not in the mood to jump on the bandwagon in criticizing Green Lantern. Because that would make me a hater. And besides, with production and marketing costs reported at about $400 million, and projected worldwide income at only about $270 million, it would be cruel to add more fuel to the fire. People might lose their jobs over this. Knowing Hollywood, though, they’ll just get promoted.

Instead, I want to think aloud about the state of that all-American classic—the effects-driven movie. After all, what’s wrong with Green Lantern? It’s got CGI up the wazoo. It’s got a hero in tights. It’s got likeable stars. It’s got a Syd Field written-by-the-numbers story. What could be the problem?

Maybe it’s not the movie’s fault. Maybe we’re suffering from a CGI overdose.

When you see a character in a movie fly, is it really possible any longer to be amazed and delighted? No, no, it isn’t. The same thing is true of movie cars that jump into the air when they explode, of buckling skyscrapers, of massive alien spaceships hovering over cities. These effects just aren’t enough anymore. It’s the same old thing. Once you’ve seen Earth annihilated over and over again, it’s hard to get worked up over the next great inter-galactic threat.

You couldn’t possibly be surprised by these effects unless you have the memory of a gnat.

Only a few effects-driven movies have had truly original and lasting images, ones that still strike us as amazing. Alien was new in several important ways: a creature whose looks and behavior we hadn’t seen before, a gritty vision of the future we hadn’t seen before, and an alien habitation that was both repulsive and fascinating. I’d put Predator in this group, too. Not a great movie, but a great creature. Blade Runner, of course, for its noirish vision of the future, an outgrowth of the fantastic Metropolis, whose effects still haven’t been matched—or totally understood—since it was released in 1927. And while we’re back in the old days, add 1902’s Voyage dans la Lune, whose effects fascinate in part because we know they weren’t all camera tricks. What else? 2001, whose eerie crispness has been copied so often that we forget its impact when it first came out. What about Star Wars, you ask? Dont’ ask. The first one looks dated. By the way, whoever thought those overweight, middle-aged extras looked like X-wing fighter pilots? And watching the more recent chapters is like watching a three-card monte game on a street corner. You know there’s a trick, but you just can’t see how it’s done. Terminator 2’s relentless quicksilver villain was a brand new creep-out. And I’d add Iron Man as the first superhero/CGI movie I can remember that was its own send-up of superhero/CGI movies.

I can remember when serious filmgoers moaned that, after Jaws, every move would be effects-driven. That came to pass so quickly and completely that we think a movie’s boring if it doesn’t have special effects.

But maybe now the wheel has turned. Maybe the failure of Green Lantern means we’re done with effects-driven superhero movies. For all the CGI we’re seeing in movies these days, we’re seeing precious little that’s new, that truly amazes. What we’re getting are copycat movies with interchangeable parts—same old heroes, villains, and effects with just a few cosmetic changes.

So let’s put down the matte painting, the miniatures, the keyboard, etc., huh, fellows? Let’s get back to real movies about real people.

There. I feel so much better for not making fun of Green Lantern.  I mean, I could have said that, back in the day, we had no idea that all it took to save the world was a mood ring and a lava lamp. And I could have said that Parallax, the bad guy, looks like that spud you left in the oven too long.

Parallax, Villain

And I could add that Muammar Qaddafi should learn a lesson from his brother, Hector Hammond, about the downside of evil. And what outrageous dermatology bills must these guys have?


But I feel better for not indulging myself.

Let me know about a truly amazing effects-driven movie that I’ve missed—one that adds something we truly haven’t seen before.