The last word I thought I’d be using about a movie called “Cowboys & Aliens” is “realistic,” but what I like best about this film is the way it uses the most speculative of fantasies for thoughtful exploration, not just six-guns vs. laser shooters. Perhaps “respectful” is a more appropriate term. Without any snarkiness or irony it shows us the way that frontiersmen a decade after the Civil War would rise to the challenge of an alien invasion the same way they battled nature and each other, making up in determination for what they lacked in knowledge and technology.
As co-star Brendan Wayne explained to me in an interview, we can’t make the kinds of iconic John Ford films his grandfather, John Wayne starred in because “you can’t really do cowboys and Indians without insulting history and culture.” But a fight against aliens doesn’t require any nuance or sensitivity and that makes it possible to revisit the archetypes that continue to define us as a culture in a way that is both traditional and new.
As for plot, the title says it all. A cowboy (Daniel Craig) wakes up with amnesia. He does not know who he is, where he got the injury to his abdomen, or how a strange metal cuff became attached to his arm. We learn at the same time he does that his fighting skills are excellent and he has no compunction about killing — or relieving his victim of his boots, guns, and horse. And he has eyes the color of the clear sky over the Rockies.
“What do you know?” asks the preacher (Clancy Brown) who discovers the gunman has broken into his home “English,” says the gunman. He seems to know how to survive, or at least how to recognize danger and the vulnerability of those who intend to attack him.
The preacher lives in a town where the hot-headed and arrogant son of the local rancher accidentally shoots a deputy sheriff. He and the gunman are jailed waiting for federal marshalls — or for the young man’s father. One way or the other, they will leave the jail that night.
The father, Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) arrives, determined to take his son home. The marshalls arrive to take him to federal court. And then the aliens arrive and even in this land where nothing is certain and no rules seem to apply, this is so far out of their experience they can only call the invaders “demons.”
This middle section is the most intriguing. The cowboys can’t go to Google or watch old movies to figure out what to do. They don’t have electricity or automatic weapons. They have to figure out a way to fight their demons using only the same qualities and resources they bring to staking their claim on the land.
They know how to track their prey. And Dolarhyde was a Colonel at Antietem. That means he knows military tactics. And what it means to lose his men. The gunman’s memory begins to return and they get help from some unexpected sources in time for a final battle. The film falls apart a bit here and the long list of writers and producers (including Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard) may have been a factor in a disappointing last act that shows evidence of compromise and lack of focus. The aliens themselves also seem under-imagined and the reveal of their ultimate purpose caused some laughter in the theater.
Director Jon Favreau (“Iron Man”) likes to avoid CGI whenever possible, and he makes superb use of both the mechanical effects and the Western landscape. The faces of Ford and Craig are a landscape of their own and both men provide heft and a sense of resolute determination that resonates with our deepest myths and reminds us why so many of them include cowboys.
No fair using Google or IMDB! In honor of this week’s release of “Cowboys & Aliens,” who can tell me the last time Harrison Ford saddled up in a Western?
“We have to realize that something important has happened,” one of the presenters said at Comic-Con. “We won. All around us in movies, television and books there are vampires, zombies, superheroes, magic, and aliens.” He was exaggerating, of course, but he was also right. Comic-Con describes itself as honoring “the popular arts.” There were banks of booths with comic books, of course, and movies, games, and television about zombies, vampires, superheroes, magic, and aliens, but Comic-Con attendees lines up for hours to see shows like “Glee” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” The upcoming series about 1960’s Pan Am flight attendants (or, as they were called then, stewardesses) had a booth and a bunch of very pretty young ladies in Pam Am uniforms giving out flight bags. As Washington Post “Celebritology” blogger Jen Chaney noted, the television shows were more buzz-worthy than the movies this year. They had longer lines and more enthusiastic crowds. What you don’t see at Comic-Con is anything about real housewives or cupcakes or bachelors with rose ceremonies. Comic-Con attendees love strong stories filled with imagination, excitement, and wit. And of course they like dressing up!
I heard about some upcoming projects still in the very early stages that sound like they could fill the legendary 6000-seat Hall H at future Comic-Cons. The ones I am most excited about are:
The movie adaptation of Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel. Last year, this amazing book was my favorite Comic-Con discovery, and since then it has been announced that J.J. Abrams will be directing a film based on this amazing story of an early 20th century robot, expected in 2013.
“Paranorman.” I was thrilled to get a sneak peek at the next movie from the brilliant stop-motion folks at LAIKA, the people behind “Coraline.” I spoke with writer-director Chris Butler about this story of a boy who can communicate with zombies. I was enthralled with the concept drawings and molded figures and sets they showed us (but sadly not allowed to take any photos to share with you) and delighted to hear that Jon Brion will be providing the soundtrack. Voice talent includes Kodi Smit-McPhee (“Let Me In”), Broadway star Elaine Stritch, John Goodman, Anna Kendrick (“Up in the Air”), and Christopher Mintz-Plasse (“Superbad”).
And three young authors whose books are being made into movies talked to a small group of reporters.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is the story of two rival illusionists in an enchanted Victorian-era circus.
Divergent by Veronica Roth, is the first in a Hunger Games-style trilogy about a dystopic future where civilization is divided into five factions. The sixteen-year-old heroine has to undergo a brutal initiation when she leaves her family to join a rival group. Roth told us the idea came from a vision she imagined of “a step into nothingness.” She wrote the book instead of doing her homework in an MA program at Northwestern.
Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion is the story of a zombie with a soul — and the memories of the teenage boy whose brains he consumed. He ends up pursuing the boy’s girlfriend — romantically, not carnivorously. The talented Jonathan Levine (“The Wackness”) is directing the film, starring Nicholas Hoult (“About a Boy,” “A Single Man”). He was thrilled to be invited to have dinner to “talk shop” with Stephanie Meyer, whose blurb is on the top of the book cover. When asked about the appeal of zombies he said, “They’re cool and we like to see things get eaten.”
After a promising beginning with the tart but sweet romantic comedy “Never Been Kissed,” director Raja Gosnell has been mired in the quagmire of movie junk food, “family” movies like “Scooby-Doo” and “Yours, Mine and Ours.” They are the cinematic equivalent of high sugar, high fat processed food: loud, crude, special-effects-driven, cheesy, and vacuous. His updates miss both the charm and the point of the originals. While the animated “My Little Pony” is not only back on television but it is suddenly hip, this latest version of the Smurfs combines an enchanted world of magical animated characters with live-action New York City and manages to get the worst of both worlds. It tries to appeal to kids with pratfalls, potty humor, and the substitution of “Smurf” for every possible noun, verb, and adjective. It tries to appeal to adults with pointless cameos by Tim Gunn and Joan Rivers. Gunn looks around with the disappointed expression he usually reserves for those Project Runway contestants who are an hour from deadline without an idea and Rivers delivers her one line as if she is hoping her face will look as lively as the expressions of the animated characters. It doesn’t.
The Smurfs were created by Belgian comic artist Peyo (Pierre Culliford), who came up with the idea after he and a friend joked around by substituting nonsense syllables for the words in a conversation. He created a community of magical blue creatures “three apples high” called Smurfs who have adventures, fight off the evil wizard Gargamel, and say things like “Oh my Smurf!” “Smurf-zactly!” and, heaven help us, “Smurf happens.” The film-makers are so proud of that last piece of wit they used it for the URL of the movie’s website.
Children enjoy the Smurfs because they are tiny, magical, sometimes mischievous but sweet, and able to defeat their foe, a human-sized wizard named Gargamel. Kids like being able to predict what each Smurf will do, not too challenging because each one’s name, Seven Dwarf-style reflecting his sole characteristic. (The only female Smurf is called Smurfette, because being female is all you need to know about her.) Children learn what it means to be “Greedy,” “Grouchy,” “Vain,” or “Clumsy,” from the characters with those names. And listening to the way the word “Smurf” is used in the dialog is a good introduction to the way language works.
This film takes six of the Smurfs out of their animated community, with its quaint mushroom houses and soft pastel colors. Grouchy (George Lopez), Brainy (“SNL’s” Fred Armisen), Clumsy (Anton Yelchin), the inexplicably Scottish Gutsy (Alan Cummings), Smurfette (the endearingly candy-sparkle voice of pop star Katy Perry), and elder statesman Papa Smurf (Jonathan Winters) are chased by Gargamel (Hank Azaria) and his cat Azrael, who want their magical blue essence. They are all sucked through a portal that lands them in live action Central Park.
Before they can find a way to get back home, they encounter a harried marketing executive (Neil Patrick Harris) and his pregnant wife (“Glee’s” Jayma Mays), toy store F.A.O. Schwartz, an apartment, an office, a prison yard, and many, many unfunny attempts at comedy about the words “blue” and “Smurf.” Also, in a plot twist apparently lifted from every single episode of the last two seasons of “Bewitched,” the Smurfs mess up their new friend’s advertising campaign for his imperious boss (“Modern Family” bombshell Sofia Vergara) but of course somehow it turns out for the best.
The kids in the audience enjoyed the pratfalls, laughing uproariously when Gargamel got hit by a bus, and happily squealing at the gross-out humor from a disgusting hairball, a smelly port-a-potty, and a chamber pot in the middle of an elegant restaurant. They liked seeing Harris get down with the Smurfs for a rousing round of “Rock Band.” It is good to see Smurfette get a chance to show her fighting spirit, though not so good to see her stuck with a plot line about wanting new dresses, and downright disappointing to see her have to stand on a heating vent in one of them for a Marilyn Monroe joke. This must be why Gutsy is Scottish – so his kilt can billow up when he stands on the vent, too.
The movie wants us to feel affection for the Smurfs and make fun of them, too. It is is raw and mean-spirited, with too many of the “Smurf” word substitutions more naughty than nice (“Who Smurfed?” “Where the Smurf are we?”). That’s Smurfed up.