Back in the brutal cold of winter, when the promise of warm summer nights spent basking in the glow of countless blockbuster explosions and superhero battles felt like nothing more than a distant dream, a trailer for one of those far off event films played at my local multiplex. It was chock full of everything summer blockbuster audiences flock to: Directed by Iron Man’s Jon Favreau! Dazzling explosions! Spaceships! Gunfights! Laser Blasts! Seat-rattling sound effects! And most importantly, James Bond and Indiana Jones together in one movie! An epic western mixed with an alien invasion! Then, the title card came up – “Cowboys & Aliens”.
As the text faded from the screen, something about the combination of those words caused the audience I was with to chuckle and snicker. I knew right there that the mainstream audience wasn’t sold and the film was doomed. In a Summer already packed to the rafters with big-ticket sequels, giant robots, and more superheroes than you could shake a power ring at, this movie with the blunt yet high-concept title was going to get lost in the shuffle. I however, held out hope that it would still be an awesome combination of Daniel Craig pseudo “man-with-no-name” bad-assery and Alien-level extra-terrestrial menace. Unfortunately, while it’s heads and shoulders above similar Old-west meets technology disasters like Wild Wild West and Jonah Hex, Cowboys & Aliens is a mildly entertaining clash of clichés rather than a compelling mixture of genres.
The plot is set in motion when outlaw Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) awakens in the desert with no memory of who he is, and a strange alien weapon strapped to his wrist. He eventually makes his way to the town of Absolution, a small mining community that barely survives thanks to the cattle trade lorded over by the fearsome former war hero Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). After getting into some trouble in town, Lonergan runs into the mysterious Ella (Olivia Wilde), and is taken into custody by sheriff Taggert (Keith Carradine). However, before Lonergan can be delivered to Federal Marshalls, Dolarhyde rides into town and demands Jake’s head for robbing him of some gold bullion. At this point, alien spaceships appear in the night sky, snatching townsfolk with high-tension ropes. After the attack, Lonergan and Dolarhyde band together with the survivors to track down the aliens and rescue their captured loved ones.
With a title like Cowboys & Aliens, one would expect the aliens to be a unique and frightening presence in the film, but once again, we are subjected to generic grunting creatures in the ID4/Battle L.A./Cloverfield mold that do not communicate their motives or intentions to the humans at all. We know nothing about them other than what a key character reveals about them late in the movie in an out-of-nowhere exposition dump. They also happen to be inexplicably dim-witted for such an advanced species.
For instance, why does a technologically advanced alien race come to Earth and capture humans one by one with simple wires shot from their ships? Do they not have tractor beams or transporter technology? Why not simply fly over the town in the giant ship, capture as many humans as needed, then annihilate the rest of the entire town? Why engage the inferior humans in hand-to-hand combat on the ground when you could simply rain laser beams down upon them? I understand that in order to make it seem believable that a technologically inferior race has a fighting chance against the monsters some liberties must be taken, but these plot holes are just a little too nonsensical to overlook.
Despite being populated by stock western characters like the badass drifter, the vicious cattle baron, the honorable sheriff, the bumbling saloon owner, the beautiful prairie woman, the obligatory black-toothed outlaw gang, and of course a tribe of stereotypical hootin’ and peyote-pushin Apache Indians, The classic western aspect of the film is its strong point. But considering how ineptly handled the aliens are, unfortunately that’s not saying much.
Harrison Ford is eminently watchable as always, even though he lays the “surly cattle rancher” shtick on a bit too thick at times. Daniel Craig is captivating in his usual steely eyed way, dismantling humans and aliens alike with a graceful brutality. Sadly, it’s a one-note role that never develops much of an arc. Olivia Wilde, who manages to make a frumpy prairie dress look impossibly hot, spends most of the film spouting the exposition necessary to help Lonergan regain his memory and get the audience up to speed on his fairly predictable back story. Veteran faces like Clancy Brown, Keith Carradine, and Sam Rockwell do the best they can with the so-so dialogue that their old-west ciphers spout in between the explosions.
Jon Favreau continues to lose steam as a big summer blockbuster director. Continuing a trend that has only gotten worse since the second half of the first Iron Man film, Favreau drops the ball when it comes to delivering truly spectacular action sequences that have a sense of danger for the characters involved. Although Cowboys & Aliens is competently shot and has a decent narrative structure, it’s ultimately pulled down by clichéd dialogue and a flat screenplay that surprisingly took five screenwriters to produce.
Cowboys & Aliens promises an intriguing mash-up of two successful genres, but delivers only an adequate summer diversion, nothing more. The whole thing sort of stays on an even keel, shuffling along like a drifter on horseback who sticks to the safe main path and never deviates into unknown frontiers. It’s shame, there might have been more satisfying adventures off in the caves and valleys.
When I was around 4 or 5 years old, I liked to root around in my parents’ dresser a lot. One day during one of my raids, I came across my Father’s high school class ring, and my heart leapt. At that age, there was only one person that I knew who wore a ring – The Green Lantern, champion of justice and venerable member of the Super Friends. I immediately slipped the ring over my middle finger and started “flying” all over the house, pointing my “power ring” at my dog, pretending to catch her in a glowing green baseball mitt after a fall, or smashing a bad guy in the face with a giant, green, glowing fist. Decades later, Hollywood has turned one of my beloved childhood heroes into a slick, $200 million production, but it pains me to say that my adventures around the living room with my Dad’s class ring were far more entertaining and exhilarating than this colossal disaster of a superhero film.
In a nutshell, Green Lantern is about a squadron of space cops (called the Green Lantern Corps) who patrol sectors of the universe, using the power of a ring imbued with the green energy of will. Each ring-user can create any object they imagine out of the green energy (usually giant fists and weapons). The rings have a weakness though – they are near powerless against the yellow energy of fear, embodied by an evil cloud of yellow tentacles with a giant head called Parallax. Parallax is wreaking havoc around the universe, and mortally wounds the strongest Green Lantern, Abin Sur (Temura Morrison). His ship crashes on Earth, where his ring must choose a new wearer to take up his mantle.
The ring chooses Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds), a cocky, irresponsible test pilot who tries to escape from the fearful memories of his Father dying in a plane crash by being as daring as possible in a fighter jet. He tests jets for Ferris Aircraft, which is managed by his (presumably) ex-girlfriend Carol Ferris (Blake Lively). The ring transports Hal to the Green Lantern Corps home world of Oa, where he meets Sinestro, the leader of the Corps, and a bizarre menagerie of CG-created aliens who all bear the ring. Meanwhile on Earth, Hector Hammond, a nerdy scientist, is infected with Parallax’s fear energy while examining Abin Sur’s remains and gains telekinetic powers. Hal must then decide if he has what it takes to stop both Hector and Parallax from wiping out the Earth.
Joyless, disjointed, and dull – Green Lantern suffers from a terribly written screenplay, and a narrative that beats the audience senseless with another tedious origin story, gobs of exposition, and a painfully boring romance. The editing is dreadful, resulting in one of the worst-paced films I have ever seen, (And I sat through Jonah Hex!). A sloppy, un-satisfying climactic battle then materializes out of nowhere without any rising action or buildup to speak of.
All of this ineptitude is rather shocking, considering the film was directed under the normally capable helm of Martin Campbell, who gave us two of the best James Bond films of all time – Goldeneye and Casino Royale; not to mention the Saturday matinee fun of The Mask of Zorro. But despite the colorful and mostly well-crafted CGI effects, and the creative constructs that Hal creates with this power ring, there is no fun to be had here.
Ryan Reynolds does the best he can with the material that he is given in this absolute mess of a screenplay, so Green Lantern’s failure should not rest squarely on his shoulders, but he is still woefully mis-cast in the role (it should have gone to the runner-up Bradley Cooper). I was dreading the snark; the endless wise-cracks and mugs for the camera that are the trademarks of a Ryan Reynolds performance, but aside from a few minor quips, Reynolds usual shtick is completely replaced with a generic affability. Blake Lively, as Hal Jordan’s love interest Carol Ferris, while not reaching January Jones-levels of awfulness, is still very wooden. Her character suffers the same fate of many females in comic-book adaptations: she drowns in1940’s damsel-in-distress and 1980’s empowered- business woman tropes, and in the end is nothing more than a cheerleader for Hal to believe in himself enough to save the world. However, kudos should be given to her character for recognizing Hal Jordan behind the goofy, CGI domino mask, thus making her the single smartest female character in the history of comic-book movies.
The romantic storyline, and anything on Earth that pulls us away from the far more interesting events taking place in outer space, completely drag the film down because the relationships amongst the characters are so poorly defined. One of the most atrocious examples of this occurs at the obligatory “party/fundraiser/press conference” (a trite scene that every superhero origin film has so that all the central characters can be in the same place when something catastrophic happens), when Hal and Hector Hammond bump into one another. The characters share a “Hey, how’s it goin” moment, and act as if they have known each other for years, yet this is the first time the audience has seen them together, and has had no visual clues or any expository dialog whatsoever to enlighten them to any prior relationship. This inexplicably and inexcusably happens several more times over the course of the film, as it’s implied that Hector had/has an obsession for Carol, and a rivalry with Hal for the affections of Hammond’s father, a slimy Senator played by Tim Robbins, whose talents are completely wasted on this arbitrary role.
James Newton Howard, best known for his subtle musical cues in film like The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, is a complete mis-match for Green Lantern. The result is one of the weakest superhero scores of all-time. As a long-time comic book reader, I should have felt a sense of awe and wonder as the camera panned over the Lantern’s visually spectacular home planet of Oa, but with the subdued music, it all fell flat. A colorful superhero like this deserves triumphant, bombastic music, but here the score is hardly noticeable at all, and when it is noticeable, it’s for all the wrong reasons. Themes derivative of classic scores like John Williams’ immortal Superman seep through constantly (there are several moments where actual segments from the main Superman theme begin to play!)
The bright spots in Green Lantern (ironic – due to the title and nature of this film) are difficult to find, but some shine through the garish CGI sludge. Mark Strong, coming off excellent villainous roles in Sherlock Holmes and Kick-Ass is a spot-on Sinestro, the stern, driven leader of the Green Lantern Corps who (SPOILER ALERT) eventually leaves the Corps behind to become Green Lantern’s arch-nemesis. Strong is terrific, imbuing the character with honor, gravitas, and a burning passion to see the Corps use any means necessary to preserve the peace. Sadly, he is given nothing to do with all that fire and rhetoric, aside from make a couple of speeches, and appear in a post-credit reveal that needed far more build-up in order to make sense.
He and the rest of the key Corps members – Geoffrey Rush as Tomar Re, and Michael Clarke Duncan (lazily and too obviously cast) as the Corps drill sergeant Kilowog – are truly wasted in this film as characters who are simply there to dump a ton of exposition on Hal, explain the powers of the ring to the audience, and serve as flying deus ex machinas to save the day in the very end. The training sequence on Oa between Kilowog, Tomar Re, Sinestro, and Hal was one of the truly fun moments in the film, but it was cut far too short to have any real impact. I would have liked to have spent more time on Oa, learning more about the different Corps members as well as the blue-skinned Guardians (the enigmatic beings who created the rings). Alas, it was not meant to be.
So, after the surprising quality of Thor and X-men: First Class, the Summer of 2011 has its first superhero dud. Hopefully the upcoming Captain America: The First Avenger, The Dark Knight Rises, and the promise of an epic superhero team-up in The Avengers, can stave off the inevitable comic book movie backlash that is sure to follow in the wake of this blunder.
I’m a little late to the game on this, but MTV aired this exclusive new trailer for JJ Abrams Super 8 (which opens this Friday), during the
Twilight Awards Movie Awards last Sunday night. I could not be more pumped to see some soft-lit, lens flarey, vintage 70’s-looking Spielbergian goodness this weekend!