Cowboys & Aliens? I'm laughing already! Oh, it's not a comedy.
Rainer Wolfcastle on his new movie, "Help, My son is a Nerd!"
Wolfcastle: "My son returns from a fancy East Coast college and I'm horrified to find he's a nerd."
Kent Brockman: "I'm laughing already!"
Wolfcastle: "It's not a comedy."
This quote was going through my head many times during my recent viewing of Cowboys & Aliens. You might recognize "It's not a comedy" as the talking point that ended up in virtually every promotional interview given by a member of the C&A team, pretty much from the point that the marketing campaign started. It's easy to see why that happened, "Cowboys & Aliens" is a whimsical title that suggests camp, or at least B-movie hijinks, much in the way that "Help, My Son is a Nerd!" primes the viewer to expect comedy.
I'm going to join the chorus on this one and agree that Cowboys & Aliens was a mostly disappointing experience. It's not a terrible movie, but it's not a particularly good one either. Genre mash-ups are hard because the filmmakers have to take two flavors that don't usually go together and make them taste appealing. Sometimes it works, and sometimes you let down fans of both genres. Take it from a guy who tried to mash up a Grisham courtroom thriller with a Superhero movie.
Unfortunately, Cowboys & Aliens plays it straight, trying to mesh the tones of True Grit with Predator. It's a fundamental miscalculation of everything appealing that the title promises. I have a hard time thinking of a successful mash-up film that didn't include some measure of comedy, as that sort of self-aware winking usually is what allows viewers to suspend their disbelief.
The first 30 minutes or so attempt to be indistinguishable from any other western. It wants us to accept this as the world of Unforgiven and Wyatt Earp. I'm not inherently against this verisimilitude. Just to name one example, the Nolan Batman films have worked remarkably well in their attempts to be more reality-bound than their predecessors. The Western aspect could have worked as the "straight man" in this routine. Where it goes wrong is in making the alien elements just as serious. The idea of gunslingers taking on H. R. Giger rip-offs is so inherently ridiculous that it's a crime the film doesn't even attempt to have a little fun with it.
This movie needed to be more in the vein of Tremors, an underrated Kevin Bacon film that tipped it's cap to the B-movies of the 50s and 60s while still being sophisticated enough for the early 90s. C&A seems scared to really cut loose and go over the top for fear of being cheesy, and that unfortunately makes the entire affair feel too earthbound.
And again I return to the message of "Know what your audience wants to see." If you entice an audience with a title, then what you give them had damn well come close to - or better yet, exceed - their expectations. I'd say this is especially true when trying to get someone to read your script. As much as we might mock the profanity and the whimsy often seen on the Black List scripts, those titles are memorable - and they tell the reader exactly what they're about to experience.
Your Bridesmaid is a Bitch
He's Fuckin' Perfect
As Scott Myers pointed out in announcing last week's sale of The Incredible True Story of Jessica and Drew Who Accidentally Boned on the Way to the Wedding, American Pie was once called, "Untitled Teenage Sex Comedy Which Can Be Made for Under $10 Million Which Studio Readers Will Hate But We Think You Will Love."
How ticked would you be if you picked up ANY of those titles expecting to laugh and instead ended up with something deep and emotional such as "Like Crazy?"The only way to overcome that potential hurdle is to deliver a damn good story - and Cowboys & Aliens definitely isn't up to the task. The film looks pretty, but with Jon Faverau directing and Steven Spielberg producing, how could it not?
I've got a host of other issues with Cowboys & Aliens, but that might be best left for another post. I'll just say that it would be nice to get some original creature design and not have aliens that look like generic versions of Predator or Independance Day critters.