The inestimable @Darcysport, who’s sort of become my conservative conscience as far as movie-going goes, goaded me a little bit about last week’s Cowboys and Aliens comment, pointing out that Ed Morrissey liked it.
I retorted that I knew that, but I thought his whole equating the holocaust with KFC rendered his judgment questionable.
I can be obtuse that way.
Anyway, I knew Morrissey had liked it, and I don’t know much about his taste in movies, but it got me thinking: What if some of the negative reviews had not been based on the actual quality of the movie per se (that’s Latin for “I’m a pretentious dork”) but on themes that might be regarded as right-wing, and therefore not worthy of any praise?
We have a winnah!
OK, let’s say it up front. This movie is what it says on the label: Cowboys (check) and aliens (check). A mysterious stranger wanders into a town on its way to being a ghost town, and runs afoul of the cattle baron with a maniac kid, when the western clichés are interrupted by an alien attack.
And it works.
There’s some stupid here, necessarily. But way less stupid than you might expect. Way less than (say) Independence Day. Allowing for the fact that any alien invasion movie is going to have to have some stupid in order for earthlings to have a chance at fighting back, this movie does a good job of setting up the seeds of the aliens’ potential failure.
Director Jon Favreau does what he does best, I think: Deliver more than you expect from some thin material (see Elf). And how does he do this?
Primarily, he refuses to pad things out. Especially with summer blockbusters, you get lots of padding. Movies tend to be padding between special effects, and then the special effects are padded! (Think the Star Wars prequels.) Every scene here has a purpose: characterization, plot development and even the occasional special effect.
The effects are light in general. Favreau seems to have opted for filming real places instead of a bunch of people on a green screen, and the plot is pretty straightforward, too. So what you get is a lot of characterization.
I don’t get why action directors don’t figure this out: Action sequences (and special effects) are nothing if you don’t care about the characters. Super 8 knew this, but it lampshaded it to the point where the characterization felt forced.
Here you have The Mysterious Badass, The Upright Sheriff and his Ward, The Evil Cattle Baron, The Preacher, The Nebbishy Saloon Owner and his Hot Wife, The Indians—pretty much stock genre characters. But each one is imbued with a certain, unique life by their time onscreen, no matter how short.
The Outlaws and The Indians, e.g., have very little screen time between them, but you can tell ‘em apart with the short time they have. Favreau did the same thing with Ironman, you may recall: If there’s a character on-screen, they’re not just filling in a plot point or being sucked into a special effect. The characterization is positively thick, with The Hero being layered in a Jason Bourne kind of style and The Evil Cattle Baron being by turns merciless, racist, ruthless but also with a toughness that seems to come from an almost sentimental place.
In other words, there’s something to hang your hat on.
It doesn’t hurt that the lead is played by Daniel Craig, who lacks the bulk of a John Wayne, but is damned convincing as a wiry, tough bastard. There is one shot that reminds me so strongly of a comic book image—I don’t read a lot of comic books but I can’t remember where I’ve seen it—that I completely overlooked how impossibly well his clothes fit him.
While Craig does excellently, Harrison Ford almost steals the show as the Evil Cattle Baron. It’s a little weird to see him as a bad guy, but he’s more complicated. You could argue, even, that he’s the main character, since his story has the most clearly defined arc. (Craig’s arc is there, but it’s subtler.)
Olivia Wilde is about a million times more appealing than she was in Tron. Her role is a bit odd and she manages to bring a real warmth to it completely missing from Legacy. Sam Rockwell plays the nebbishy bartender while Paul Dano is the snotty son of the cattle baron—a role that probably would have gone to Rockwell ten years ago.
Clancy Brown plays the preacher man, once again. Seems like he’s a preacher a lot, though the only thing I can swear to offhand is his role as the evil radio preacher in “Carnivalé”.
It’s his character that really gets up and slaps you in the face with the movie’s right-wingedness.
It’s not really a right-wing movie, though, any more than Iron Man was. It’s just that, working in a genre where traditional American values are celebrated, it’s just going to come off that way. And I think that’s why it rubs some folks the wrong way.
And being rubbed the wrong way, they come up with stupid other reasons for not liking it, like “What do the aliens want with gold?” Really? That’s your idea of a plot hole. We’re told early on that gold is as rare on their world as on ours. What more do you need? A giant gold space laser?
This confirms my thesis that most people (including, say, Roger Ebert) react to movies on a gut level, then just sort of backfill the reasons why they hate something or like something to make it seem logical.
That’s why I try to let you know my biases and tastes.
Anyway, this movie is full of western tropes that seem remarkably right-wing now. The Preacher is a decent, tough man who tries to help out the bartender. The Indians are savages (though we do get a little Indian medicine magic). The gun is celebrated, whether six-shooter, Winchester rifle or alien laser doo-hickey.
The Cattle Baron is a racist, but he has a good heart.
I don’t know why that last should be “right-wing” except that political correctness seems to require certain things be signifiers of pure evil. Things like racism, or smoking.
There’s some smoking, too. The hero smokes! Primarily to look cool to his friends!
So, yeah, I’m willing to guess that this stuff shaved a few points of the ratings.
We all liked it. Me, The Boy, The Flower. We weren’t really blown away, but we agreed it was fun and under-rated.