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Monday, May 19, 2014

Summer Not-Busters: Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

Director: Jon Favreau
Starring: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde
Domestic Gross: $100,240,551

Just as the period from November to January is reserved almost exclusively for the films on which studios have pinned their Oscar hopes, the period of May to July is reserved for the films the studios hope will capture the world's imagination - or, at least, their wallets. Winter is the season for quieter, more serious pictures; summer is the season of bombast and fun. But, mostly, it's the season of money. On paper, Cowboys & Aliens probably seemed like a a no-brainer. A mashup of Western, the most American of film genres (albeit one which hasn't been hugely popular in decades), and Sci-Fi, starring Indiana Jones and the most recent James Bond, from the director of the Iron Man films. A lot of money makers were involved in bringing Cowboys & Aliens to the screen, yet it limped out of its summer considered a financial failure, and out of the collective imagination even quicker than that.

It may seem strange to consider a film which made over $100 million a financial failure, but the reality is that while $100 million is a lot of money, it's no longer the benchmark of unqualified success for a movie. After all, an increasing number of films make $100 million in their first weekend alone. $100 million used to be an exceptional haul - if you go back to 1981, only 3 films crossed the mark (one of them, incidentally, Raiders of the Lost Ark), by 1991 there were 8 films that hit nine digits, and by 2001 the number had ballooned to 20 - but by 2011 crossing $100 million was only good enough to put a film in the top 30, which is exactly where Cowboys & Aliens landed by the end of 2011, at #30. Now, $100 million and 30th place at the box office is a win if your film only cost $50 million to make, but Cowboys & Aliens cost $163 million (and that's just the production budget, not taking into account the cost after marketing), which means that even when you factor in the film's foreign sales ($74 million), it just barely matched its budget. With the talent it had in front of and behind the camera Cowboys & Aliens should have been a hit and with such a massive budget, it needed to be a hit. So what went wrong?

Cowboys & Aliens starts solidly enough with its hero, whom we later learn is an outlaw named Jake Lonergan (Craig), waking up in the desert, wounded, without any memory, and wearing a strange metal bracelet. Once he arrives in the town of Absolution, and after he has a run-in with Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano in what is becoming the archetypal Paul Dano role best described as "weaselly little asshole that makes you want to crawl into the screen and smack him"), Jake is recognized from his Wanted poster and locked up for transport to Sante Fe. Except for the mysterious bracelet, the film is pretty solidly in Western territory in its first minutes, with its strong, silent hero/outlaw establishing himself first by dispatching the three men who encounter him in the desert and decide to take him in on the assumption that there may be a bounty on him, and then through contrast with the men of Absolution which include the ridiculous Percy, who wanders through the town waving a gun around with impunity due to his father's power and influence, saloon keeper Doc (Sam Rockwell), a victim of Percy's humiliation tactics, and the Sheriff (Keith Carradine), exasperated by Percy's antics but at the mercy of Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), whose cattle ranch basically keeps Absolution afloat. The film is particularly engaged (and engaging) during this opening stretch, but once it opens the door to its Sci-Fi elements, it starts to run on autopilot.

So, Jake and Percy (who accidentally shot a Deputy in the arm while threatening Jake with his gun) are both loaded into a coach, the Sheriff ready to send them both off to Sante Fe even after Colonel Dolarhyde rides into town with his posse to insist that on his son's release. A standoff is underway, but then, in the distance, several strange crafts light up the sky. Next thing anyone knows, the crafts are bearing down on them, attacking the town and abducting several people, including Percy, the Sheriff, and Doc's wife. Using his bracelet, which has revealed itself as a weapon, Jake is able to shoot down one of the ships, but those who have been abducted are not on it and the alien that was on it escapes into the night. A new posse is formed which includes Jake and Colonel Dolarhyde, Dolarhyde's right-hand man Nate (Adam Beach), the Sheriff's young grandson (Noah Ringer), and Ella (Olivia Wilde), a mysterious woman who hints that she knows something about the origins of Jake's bracelet, and they set out after the alien and in search of those who have been abducted.

At this point, the number of screenwriters involved in bringing the film to screen starts to show. In addition the writer of the source material on which the film is based, there is one writer who gets "story by" credit, two who get "story by" and screenplay credit, and three others who share screenplay credit, including Damon Lindelof, best known to fanbases everywhere for ruining everything. That's seven people with some form of writing credit, and after the fairly solid setup work, a whole lot of half-formed ideas (each of which was probably full formed by the writer who added it, only to have it watered down to make room for everyone else's ideas) start getting thrown into the story. There's tension between Colonel Dolarhyde and Nate, who views the Colonel as a father but is rejected, due to his race, as a potential son; Doc's efforts to make up for his poor showing in his confrontation with Percy by proving himself as a member of the posse; Jake's outlaw past (which comes to include his old gang) and the bits of memory that keep coming back to him involving a woman he may have loved; Ella's past involvement with the aliens; and further racial tensions that arise when the posse is first captured by, and then forced to team up with, a group of Apaches. The film stretches itself pretty thin to incorporate all this character work yet, in the end, winds up with a bunch of characters who are barely distinguishable from each other.

This sense of sameness is particularly problematic when it comes to the characters of Lonergan and Dolarhyde who, were this a straight Western in which one character was allowed to be the villain and the other the hero, would make compelling adversaries but instead wind up seeming like the same man at different stages in his life. Craig and Ford are both fine actors and neither one specifically is a problem here, but they don't make a great match on screen because both are so reserved and bring such similar energy to the film, effectively cancelling each other out. I think if you were to sub out Craig for someone like Matthew McConaughey, or replace Ford with someone like Jeff Bridges, it would shake things up enough to bring a bit more fun to the film because, really, a movie about cowboys doing battle with aliens should be fun. But, despite being a film in which everyone who isn't one of the bad aliens gets to be a hero (with even Percy getting a sympathetic and happy ending) and the narrative concluding with what amounts to a group hug, Cowboys & Aliens is not a light-hearted or fun movie. It takes itself very seriously which, in the end, may be the one thing above all other things that sunk it at the box office.

Should It Have Been a Blockbuster?: No... although I'm almost certain that it deserved better than to wind up with a lower Cinemascore than The Smurfs, which was released on the same day and earned just under a million less opening weekend.

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