Guardians of the Galaxy (2014; Directed by James Gunn)
James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t begin quite like any other comic-book space opera (though it’s not like there are very many of those kicking around, anyway). A young boy waits in a hospital, listening to a mix tape on Walkman headphones. He’s called into a room where his stricken mother, weakened by chemotherapy, tries to take his hand in her dying moments. He shrinks from her touch, evades the sharp sting of loss and pain. She fades away, and the boy runs screaming out of the building, where a spaceship waits to abduct him and whisk him away to the stars above.
Years pass in the space of a pop song verse, and the boy has grown into a loose, cocksure galactic rogue, lip-syncing along to that same mixtape in the ruins of an alien world. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) introduces himself presumptuously as Star-Lord when he’s caught red-handed snatching a mysterious, sought-after orb in those ruins. The sequence visually references the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark and the character clutches at the brass ring of late ’70s/early ’80s-vintage Harrison Ford, John Milton’s Satan for the film genre geek generation. Indeed, Guardians of the Galaxy, despite its many contemporary concessions, longs for the aesthetic milieu of 1970s American popular culture, that fracturing landscape of AM radio, long-haired rock and matured Motown, disillusioned hippies and distrust of institutions, and the revolutionary shifts in cinema under the blazing stewardship of a new generation of uncompromising young ambitious firebrands.
James Gunn is probably a bit too bright and self-aware to seriously conceive of himself as an heir to Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, or any of their aesthetic iconoclast contemporaries. He did write not one but two Scooby Doo movies, after all; a surefire safety pin to any inflated balloon of self-regard, that. But Guardians of the Galaxy, an adaptation of a quite recent Marvel Comics property (itself a relaunch of a galactic superhero squad whose adventures were mostly published in the 1970s), wrily and repeatedly lets the air out of its own balloon to keep it from becoming too inflated at any point.
Back to that orb, the MacGuffin of this particular cosmic venture. Quill is confronted about his snatching of the object as soon as it’s in his hands by the henchmen of a genocidal zealot named Ronan (Lee Pace). Unrecognizable behind blackened facial paint and a metallic cowl/cape, Pace intones ponderously and carries a large hammer like a exiled Asgardian. Among his subordinates are two sisters, the daughters of a much greater space warlord named Thanos (played by an uncredited Josh Brolin and likely to play a larger role in the inevitable sequels). Green-skinned Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is sent after the desired orb, which hides a very powerful secret behind its unpresupposing exterior.
Gamora catches up with Quill on Xandar, capital planet of the Nova Empire, where he’s been incapable of selling the orb to a prospective dealer put off by Ronan’s interest in the item. With his space pirate abductor and mentor Yondu (an excellent Michael Rooker) on his trail for a perceived (and probably actual) betrayal, Quill also must contend with a pair of bounty hunter after the orb: a big-mouthed, heavily-armed talking raccoon named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his living tree companion, Groot (Vin Diesel voices his only, repeated, memefied line: “I am Groot”). A four-way dust-up over the orb between Quill, Gamora, Rocket, and Groot lands them all in a penal colony (the Nova Corps guards who arrest them are played by John C. Reilly and Peter Serafinowicz, just a couple of the small roles in the film filled by very fine comic character actors). There they make the acquaintance of a muscular, tattooed/scarred individual named Drax (Dave Bautista), who nurses a grudge against Ronan for killing his family and possesses both a large vocabulary and absolutely no sense of humour (which, assuredly, is pretty hilarious in combination).
This crew of misfits bands together to escape the prison and sell the orb for shared profit, though revenge against Ronan motivates Gamora and Drax in particular. Guardians of the Galaxy is oddly a narrative of moral education, as Quill and Rocket in particular learn to subordinate their pursuit of personal enrichment to the greater good of the universe and the people in it. Furthermore, all five of these “losers” (ie. beings that have lost much and are fundamentally damaged) find a sense of unlikely unity and belonging in each other’s company and collaborative efforts to right wrongs across the vast expanse of space.
If this all sounds like a bit of a generic comics superhero story, you can rest assured that Guardians of the Galaxy only intermittently presents that way and Gunn’s screenplay (written with Nicole Perlman) is lightning-quick to wittily undercut it when it does. The slow-motion hero shot of the team walking awesomely towards the camera, Tombstone-style, includes a crotch-grab from the crude Rocket (a character whose balance of appealing and annoying characteristics doesn’t ultimately fall on the right side of the line). Drax’s sincere pre-climactic battle expression of affection for his compatriots includes an innocent reference to Gamora as a “green whore”. And Pratt’s Quill is always quick with his endearing dude-bro sparkle: when the seemingly unstoppable Ronan approaches him with deadly intent for the final blow, Quill’s response is to dance and sing and call him a “turd-blossom”.
This iconoclastic impulse, displayed in the midst of a big-budget summer release from the currently indefatigable blockbuster spectacle factory of Marvel Studios, may not be as strong as that which animates, say, the dizzying sugar-high satires of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. But like its crackerjack 1970s-heavy soundtrack (ostensibly the mixtape from Quill’s mother that gives his universe some emotional coherence), this nose-thumbing habit on the part of Gunn and his movie aligns it with the essential questioning of institutional authority and the fundamental nature of the American Dream that characterized the wildly diverse film output of the 1970s. Guardians of the Galaxy also suggests a fine pop song with its aesthetic appeal, throwaway wit, and brief but penetrating stabs of emotion. It breezes by in a burst of slick, violent, energetic delight. It’s what Marvel Studios films, in their generally successful but often joyless quest for a balance between storytelling coherence, character integrity, and sociopolitical resonance, often forget to be: tremendously, often transgressively, fun. In that way, Guardians of the Galaxy is not quite like any other comic-book movie, and we should be glad for that.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014; Directed by Dean DeBlois)
Picking up several years after the events of How to Train Your Dragon, its more confident sequel matures with its adventurous, inventive, and sensitive protagonist, Viking dragon-rider Hiccup (Jay Baruchel). After converting not only his hyper-masculine, warlike chieftain father Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) but his entire island hometown of Berk to the gospel of human-dragon symbiosis, Hiccup has moved past his awkward outsider phase into young adulthood and social acceptance. Berk reflects his tinkering spirit and dragon-whispering prowess, having built itself into a hub of dragon stables, saddleries, forges, dental operations, and even a Quidditchesque species of dragon racing involving hilariously animated, deeply concerned sheep as key projectiles. Once a fortified, inward-focused, harsh stronghold against outside threats, the fear has lifted from Berk and its people (Berkians? Berkish? Berkings?) and, following the lead of their intrepid young hero, the place has opened to the world.
Mounted on his own dragon, playful, loyal fellow misfit Toothless (a design mixture of a cat, a salamander, and the big-eyed extraterrestrial from director Dean DeBlois’ Disney feature Lilo & Stitch), in a partnership of equals, Hiccup has begun mapping nearby lands, often accompanied by his fellow dragon-rider girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrara). On one such excursion, they discover a grand, spiky formation of hardened emerald ice and are nearly captured by a band of dragon-trappers led by Eret (Kit Harington). Eret tells Hiccup and Astrid that he captures dragons for a forbidding warlord named Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), who dominates the creatures using intimidation and fear and is building a dragon army for purposes undivulged.
Having persuaded his stubborn father and the rest of Berk to accept the advantages of peaceful coexistence with dragons, Hiccup has great confidence in his ability to likewise persuade Drago to take a gentler, more respectful tack with the intelligent beasts. Stoick, however, has a terrible history with Drago and sees things quite differently, encouraging a more direct and aggressive response to the intelligence concerning Drago’s military ambitions. The generation gap in perspectives on sociopolitical relations between father and son that was at the heart of the first Dragon film has largely been bridged, but persists in their respective ideological preferences for hard realpolitik and soft-power diplomacy when faced with an opposing and potentially malignant force.
Into this respectful but philosophically divergent father-son dynamic comes a mother to jostle the Oedipal alignment. Valka (Cate Blanchett hazarding a slight Scots accent) was thought by Stoick to have been killed in a dragon attack, but she has in fact become a sort of guardian shaman for a vast secret dragon colony. Hiccup encounters her in one of the film’s many impressive, exciting airborne sequences (once again a major highlight, for which visual consultant Roger Deakins no doubt again deserves considerable credit) and soon discovers a kindred spirit and dragon-lover. The colony is constructed around a mountainous “alpha” dragon, a ice-spewing horned behemoth that heaves itself about in benevolently-dominating bulk like a beachmaster of elephant seals. But Drago and his forces threatens first this natural dragon utopia and then Hiccup’s constructed human-dragon collaborative society of Berk with a brutal challenge to the equilibirum of each, as well as to Hiccup’s own close family circle.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 tops its predecessor as a jaw-dropping visual spectacle, and polishes the more irritating edges of that earlier effort to a smooth sheen. The gaggle of goofy teenaged Viking sidekicks (including a cocky dude, bickering twins, and an overweight geek) have a diminished role, and the main running joke in their midst (the female twin, voiced by Kristen Wiig, has a major crush on the hunky Eret) is actually consistently funny. The sweet nature of the first film in the series concentrates here into a surprising emotional heft at times, and DeBlois’s story challenges the core relationships in Hiccup’s life with character-revealing conflict and tragedy. It’s exactly the sort of tonally varied, richly felt, entertainingly pitched, and narratively strong cinematic text that Hollywood tends to find so difficult to create and to sustain.
The film is also not without thematic power and subtext, though not all of these subtexts are to its credit. The villainous killer Drago is the franchise’s sole non-Caucasian cast member, a hint of racial stereotyping that undoes some of the decent work at crafting self-possessed female characters like Astrid and Valka. Moreover, although Drago’s focus on strength and will to power when it comes to “training” his dragons is contradicted by Hiccup’s deeper bond of friendship with Toothless, his basic insight on the social relations of dragon society as being based on these same premises is not overturned. Drago’s authoritarianism is reflected in the natural hierarchy of the dragons, grounded as it is in strength and power rather than in something closer to Hiccup’s vision of cooperative, peaceful understanding. Opinions on dragon training approaches differ in How to Train Your Dragon 2, but the instinctual nature of those dragons hardens quite consistently in a single direction.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014; Directed by Jonathan Liebesman)
It may simply be the sad fate of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise that no single property produced can possibly live up to the promise of that glorious name. At once gleefully absurd and dully descriptive, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s title for their enduring comic-book creation conjures the suggestion of a rich popular culture cocktail, a mix of contemporary American youth culture, science fiction warnings of biological experimentation, and pop-orientalist martial arts enthusiasm. It evokes such runaway suggestions of a pulpy collage of superficial influences and generic elements that no single narrative text can contain them, let alone distill them into a wholly entertaining package.
The latest cinematic kick at the heroes-in-a-half-shell can falls pretty far short of this mark. This result may well have been expected by a film produced by blockbuster hucksterauteur (I just coined that phrase and sort of dig it) Michael Bay, directed by style-averse CGI-epic lens jockey Jonathan Liebesman, and starring the well-meaning but helplessly vapid Megan Fox as intrepid reporter and Turtle-ally April O’Neil. But Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles makes its selling job that much harder with a lazily ironic and detached tone that is dismissive of its own subject matter.
This undercutting approach is referenced explicitly in an early scene. In a New York City terrorized by a shadowy criminal gang called the Foot Clan, junior reporter O’Neil longs to produce Hard Hitting Journalism exposing this underground organization. Instead, she shoots fluff pieces about exercise on trampolines in Times Square. Expressing her frustration to her wisecracking cameraman Vern Fenwick (a strictly second-rate effort by Will Arnett), she’s told that people need something simple and positive in the face of serious events. People love a little bit of froth on their coffee, Vern tells her, though she replies that he probably means foam, and they digress.
This exchange seems like a clear hat-tip to the intent of this particular take on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (as well as a touch of meta-frustration on Fox’s part at her pigeonholed career, for which she at least partly has Bay to thank). Other movies based on superhero comics may invoke political, philosophical or historical contexts and embed metaphors and subtexts about society and culture in their mass-appeal blockbuster frames, but we’ll be having none of that here. Indeed, as O’Neil begins to get closer to the quartet of reptilian vigilantes battling back against Foot domination of the streets from the subterranean shadows and more is revealed about their true, unbelievable nature, the movie snidely waves that nature away as silly nonsense. First April and then later Vern scoffs at the very concept of mutant turtles, who are ninjas, who are teenagers. It’s a ridiculous concept, but the movie can only openly express that thought if it embraces that ridiculousness, which this particular film is entirely too unimaginative to achieve.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is not Macbeth or Hamlet, and no one expects it to be. But just as the Turtles need to learn to believe in themselves in order to defeat their arch-nemesis Shredder (Tohoru Masamune), this movie needs to believe in its own premise to survive and thrive. There is some measure of hope that such a belief is held on the more technical side of things. The Turtles themselves, animated via motion-capture technology, are wonderfully detailed creations, imbued with real personality and charisma. Leonardo (Pete Ploszek mo-caps, Johnny Knoxville voices) is a mature leader without being a stick in the mud, Raphael (Alan Ritchson mo-caps and voices) is a hard-bitten lone wolf who yearns for his own path. Michelangelo (Noel Fisher) loses his now-dated surfer-dude vibe but replaces that with a chatterbox, hip-hop-inflected awkward charm that feels contemporary but not inappropriate, while Donatello has evolved with tech culture and is pure hacker-nerd (Jeremy Howard and the CG animation team craft the entire role as a perhaps-dubious tribute to the late Harold Ramis).
Unfortunately, as compellingly rendered as its central heroes are, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles prefaces their appearance with not only derisive laughter but also hampers their adventures with poor plot turns. April’s entire interaction with her television newsroom colleagues seems facile and unrealistic to any viewer that knows anything about journalism (or at least anyone who has watched State of Play and Season Five of The Wire). She bursts into a meeting about the nightly newscast’s lead story and demands her evidence-free experiences with a Turtle attack on the Foot at the docks be given airtime instead of building her story and then bringing it to her editor (played by Whoopi Goldberg, speaking of brusque disbelief). Even when she does put together some material, she fails to show her editor a cellphone photo of the Turtles flipping over rooftops when it could have saved her job (though she does show it to the philanthropic billionaire ex-colleague of her dead scientist father who inadvertently created the Turtles and now has dark plans for the mutagens in their blood, played by a mostly-wasted William Fichtner). Multiple moments in the film’s first couple of acts beg questions and explanations that go unoffered, when a leaner, smarter movie streamlining our path to ninja fight scenes would be vastly preferable.
Once plot ceases to matter and these action sequences swing into top gear, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles gets much more fun. A fantastic, careening chase down a snowy mountain slope (which is implausibly 45 minutes from Manhattan, but this is no geography lesson, after all) is the entire film’s high point, packed with ecstatic motion, exhilirating G-force shifts, and animating Turtle personality. It’s a model of what the entire film could have been, save for one sour, tasteless moment where Vern ogles April’s ass that sadly reminds us what much of the rest of the film really is.
As time passes and the TMNT property slides into the post-modern cultural fever swamp, it becomes ever more apparent that the flawed but good-humoured 1990 live-action feature film, with its Jim Henson Company creature work and slyly sophisticated perspective (Bush I Era street gang paranoia and War and Peace name-checks and all), remains the most successful adaptation in this most mainstream of formats. Liebesman and Bay get some key features right and whip up a froth (or is it a foam?) that admittedly tastes nice from sip to sip. Unfortunately, the coffee that this froth/foam tops off is strongly caffeinated and without flavour. To be honest, it’s hardly worth even the laboured analogy just constructed to describe it.
Gravity (2013; Directed by Alfonso Cuaron)
“Either way, it’ll be one hell of a ride.” These words, spoken by distressed astronaut Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) as her harrowing and dangerous ordeal in space nears one of two, entirely opposing possible conclusions, reflect a stoically humourous existential acceptance and evoke a catchphrase-reliant action movie scenario. Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is definitely more the former than the latter, though its elegant long-take sequences of motion, collision, and corporeal peril are visionary evolutionary successors of the played-out “action scene”. Gravity is not quite as relentless as you might have heard, but it’s a shining, next-level model of what Roger Ebert memorably called the Bruised Forearm Movie (though it’s less frequently remembered that he coined the term to apply to the mixed-bag Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which deserves it much less than either its franchise predecessor or successor).
Years in the making, Gravity is 80% fashioned entirely in a computer, set almost entirely in Earth’s orbit, and features only two fully visible actors (Bullock and George Clooney, who plays an experienced, wisecracking mission commander). Yet for such an involved technical exercise, it’s a richly textured humanistic film, almost experimental in its direct experiential flow but also completely accessible to a wider audience (if you don’t believe that, check the box office numbers). A critic whose name eludes me said of The Lord of the Rings that artists get lost in productions of such size, difficulty and technical complexity. The aesthetic result of that decade-old trilogy demonstrated that Peter Jackson survived those films with his vision intact (though perhaps not the comparably massive passion project that followed them), and the same can definitely be said of Alfonso Cuaron and Gravity.
Gravity opens with a minutes-long single shot that begins with a space shuttle and its space-walking crew appearing as a miniscule dot at the curvature’s edge of the planet, floating into view while performing a routine servicing of the Hubble Space Telescope, cracking jokes and trading personal details. Floating weightlessly with the astronauts, the camera never looks away, never cuts to another angle as the destructive debris field of a damaged Russian satellite (those Russians, ever the antagonists, even when totally unseen) brings silent disaster down (or, more accurately, around) upon them. A conventional perspective would demand the slapping of a descriptive superlative like tour de force on this sequence, but such a term emphasizes artifice and Gravity has not a smidgeon of that, despite its elaborate technical construction. Or, I would argue, it has no artifice precisely because of its elaborate technical construction.
Cuaron has developed the use of long takes into his particular aesthetic signature. Y Tu Mama Tambien and Children of Men both utilized long, unbroken single shot sequences to tremendous dramatic effect; even his game-changing, aesthetic-shifting Harry Potter film, The Prisoner of Azkaban, used long (if not quite unbroken) takes to create the impression of a continuous flow of images during the elegant, beguiling Time Turner sequence that forms the film’s climax. Gravity is the most complete illustration of the power of this effect, expanding on the vivid irruption of tragic, disastrous occurences into the casual, content stream of everyday interpersonal interaction demonstrated in the memorable car ambush in Children of Men. The depiction of these events gain an added vividness and immediacy through the employment of this uninterrupted camera perspective. It’s a impressive display of technical craft, but it’s not merely Cuaron showing off. There’s a specific affect that he’s looking to achieve through these shots, and he does achieve it very strongly in Gravity.
The achievements of Gravity as a piece of exquisitely-crafted filmmaking and as visceral, transporting entertainment are ample, but its political or metaphorical resonance is less so. Cuaron (who co-wrote the screenplay with his son Jonas) plays with general, syncretic religious imagery (Christian and Buddhist icons feature prominently in successive Russian and Chinese spacecraft that Stone occupies), and his closing shot is a connection to human evolution that constitutes Gravity‘s sole overt reference to that seminal space movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
But Gravity is much more invested in its characters’ perspective and developing psychology in the face of crisis. Bullock, a consistently undervalued actor who receives some perfunctory critical praise from time to time but is obviously quite beloved by mass film audiences, is a compelling, sympathetic, relatable presence at the centre of the movie. It’s to Cuaron’s credit, in terms of specific emotional affect as well as of progressivism in onscreen representation of women, that he focuses on her rather than the charming but more sarcastic and detached Clooney. Bullock doesn’t even really need the slightly cloying backstory element of a dead daughter (who is named Sarah, which is always the name of an unglimpsed dead child mentioned only in dialogue and must therefore be a screenwriter in-joke at this point) to generate sympathy and engagement. She’s that good, and the film around her is up to her level.
It is worth considering Gravity in wider terms, nevertheless, as a metaphorical statement on the current state of manned space travel. Its release followed hard on the heels of NASA’s announcement of the suspension of manned space missions, and despite the criticism of that policy change in scientific and wider circles, Gravity comes across as an imaginative worst-case scenario that justifies its wisdom. If Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, whose release followed the more minimal Gravity by a year, was an aesthetic and intellectual argument for a human re-engagement with the exploration of space in the face of changing funding priorities, then Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is a visceral first-person exemplification of the mortal threat of space, which amazingly is yet to claim a human life (the atmospheric explosion of Challenger and break-up of Columbia aside) but by the end of this film has claimed the entirety of mankind’s flimsy orbital infrastructure. Gravity is a species of horror-suspense film with the hostile but impassive emptiness of space as its masked slasher monster, and it emphasizes the hanging-on-by-our-fingernails margin of survival for people in this unforgiving environment rather than the existential and philosophical possibilities of adventure into the stars. Either way, it’s one hell of a ride.
It’s distinctly possible that the specifically-focused protests in the town of Ferguson, Missouri, where white police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed 18-year-old black man Michael Brown in August to intense local and international popular outrage, have become extrapolated into a wider movement offering some form of pushback against endemic killings of black youths by white police across the United States. The protests that have sprung up across America and elsewhere have coalesced around a simple and resonant gesture/slogan: “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”.
Although the Hands Up movement has been percolating in American social justice circles since Brown’s shooting in August and the street unrest that followed it, its scope has expanded greatly in the last couple of weeks after nearly consecutive grand jury decisions came down not to indict Wilson nor the NYPD officers involved in the death of African-American Eric Garner on Staten Island in July. In neither case were the victims of police “pacification” armed; in Garner’s case, there was clear, unambiguous video evidence of possible unnecessary force on the part of police (even some conservative commentators, rarely willing to denounce police violence when it’s directed at visible minorities, were shocked at the lack of charges). Other cases of fatal police violence are attracting more mainstream public interest as well, most notably the gut-churning shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland in November. After the grand jury in Missouri declined to pursue a prosecution of Darren Wilson, St. Louis Rams players controversially utilized the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” gesture in solidarity with the protestors in Ferguson.
Leaving aside the particulars of each case or the divergent attitudes towards police authority and employing of violence that reactions to them reveal in ideologically-aligned groups, much is evident about the nature of American society and culture from the symbolic genesis of this protest movement. Most immediately striking is how an expression of supplication and deference to the implied threat posed by the armed subaltern of state power has become a volatile image of resistance to hegemonic discrimination. Since the civil rights movement of the 1960s, non-violent protest in America has focused on small, mundane, quotidian injustices, at least to begin with, rather than leaping immediately to larger-scale minority discrimination, where positive modifications to existing conditions are much less likely. So protestors initially fought for the right to sit wherever they wanted on a public bus or at a lunch counter rather than taking a grander, riskier stand against income inequality or housing discrimination.
Even taking this deeply-rooted incremental approach to wearing down the resistance of a white supremacist-tilted system into account, asserting the right to surrender to police without being abused or killed demonstrates not only how far America still has to go when it comes to reducing racial inequality but also how helplessly deferential even the beaten-down underclass of the country continues to be to the web of state power that oppresses them. “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” emphasizes the fact that, in the case of Brown as well as of Garner and Rice, the deceased African-American males were uniformly unarmed (though Rice had a replica gun used to justify his gunning down) and inherently vulnerable. The police were in a position of power over them, and abused that power with fatal consequences.
But that inherent vulnerability and assumed position of power is an intertwined problem outside of the leveraging of consequence-free police violence against black male bodies. Whether their results are deadly or not, the built-in prejudices of state power in America are among the strongest factors in the denial of equal rights and protections under the law to African-Americans. The threat of violence on the part of the police compels deference from African-Americans at the least and self-damaging or self-incriminating obedience at the most. The Hands Up movement, though reliant on a potent image that has begun to see widespread penetration into the American cultural consciousness and may yet compel some fundamental shifts towards greater social justice, is predicated on a deference to the very state power whose chronic overreach that has made protest necessary. Very gradual change can be something worth believing in, but it’s not certain that the symbolic terms of this demand for change promise future rollbacks of discriminatory conditions in a way that is desirable.
Cowboys & Aliens (2011; Directed by Jon Favreau)
With a title as full-bore pulp fiction as Cowboys & Aliens, one might be forgiven in expecting something infinitely sillier than the final released product. Gunslingers on horseback emptying their chambers at buzzing spaceships, high noon shootout with laser blasters, saloon fistfights between grim, stiff-jawed outlaws and slimy bug-eyed extraterrestrials. That, you might be justified in thinking, would be the ticket. Go all in with the promise of ridiculous genre-colliding nonsense and just have a total ball with it.
Cowboys & Aliens is not that kind of movie, which we as an audience may be grateful for at times and may deeply regret at others. It’s helmed by Iron Man director Jon Favreau from a script by J.J. Abrams’ collaborators Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof, who based it on a story by three other guys, who based it on a graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg. Before you start humming “Too Many Cooks”, don’t forget Ron Howard and Brian Grazer producing and Steven Spielberg exec producing and the big-star influence of leads Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford. With so many particular creative minds and visions involved in the project, you’d think it would be a bit more imaginative or surprising than the violent and often cumbersome blockbuster end result.
Orci, Kurtzman and Lindelof know how to hook you with a tantalizing opening that promises fascinating mysteries to be unravelled (the first two hours of Lindelof’s television opus Lost are better than almost anything that followed on the show). Cowboys & Aliens begins with Craig’s then-nameless protagonist character awakening in the desert Southwest with a bleeding wound in his side and bizarre electronic bracelet attached to his wrist. Three mounted outlaws ride up and tell him they’re on the road to Absolution, ask him if he knows the way. Before matters come to blows, you might be fooled into thinking something deep and metaphorical is about to happen.
Whether sadly or not, it isn’t really. The amnesiac stranger with the gauntlet gizmo rides into the nearest town, is mended by the world-weary preacher (Clancy Brown, who always plays a preacher), runs afoul the callow, drunken son (Paul Dano) of a local cattle-trading kingpin, meets a beautiful woman (Olivia Wilde) who seems to know more about him than he does, and is arrested by the local sheriff (Keith Carradine). Though he has no memory of it, he’s apparently a wanted criminal named Jake Lonergan, accused of stealing gold from the cattle-trader Colonel Dolarhyde (Ford) and killing a former prostitute (Abigail Spencer). Before he can be shipped to federal jurisdiction in Santa Fe for trial, however, a disastrous calamity befalls the Wild West town.
Knowing genre fans will immediately have the assaulting force pegged as the titular aliens, but the pre-science-fiction 19th-century townsfolk call them demons or monsters. Either way, they swoop down from the night sky, blowing up the clapboard buildings, snatching people up with electronic lassos, and vaporizing anyone who tries to resist. Only Lonergan’s gauntlet, which switches on when the extraterrestrials are near like an otherworldly Sting, is an effective weapon against them; it’s of their own advanced technology, and releases powerful energy blasts that down one of their attack ships.
Seeing as the invaders have abducted someone who means something to almost all of the characters in town, including the sheriff, Dolarhyde’s son Percy, and the Latina wife of the town’s barkeep/doctor (Sam Rockwell), a motley posse coalesces quickly to track them down. Old hatchets are buried one by one, as Dolarhyde’s posse, the hostile outlaw gang that Lonergan once led, and a distrustful band of Apache warriors join forces to return the missing and perhaps to repel the aliens, who Wilde’s Ella has told them pose an existential threat to much more than just their sparsely-populated corner of New Mexico.
Cowboys & Aliens works very hard and spends lots of budget to appear as realistic a rendering of this premise as possible without ever stopping to wonder if that effect is especially worth the effort. The seriousness of this business is part of the problem; it’s trying to be The Searchers meets Independence Day, but the Duke would just shake his head and deride this load of nonsense. The CG aliens are well-designed and are formidable antagonists, but not much else, not that they’re required to be; their evident interest in gold drives their invasion plans, for which the party encountered by the cowboys is a mere scout group.
This association with resource exploitation, as well as the technological gap between the colonizing outsiders and the settled natives (Native and otherwise), aligns the aliens with the white American settlers who conquered the West in the name of Manifest Destiny. Cowboys & Aliens has little time for involved political metaphors about the implications of westward expansion; The Lone Ranger it ain’t, though it was a commercial flop of similar proportions.
But in between scenes of hard-edged masculine bonding and fights between, well, cowboys and aliens, the film at once carries the embedded suggestion of the brutality of Caucasian-American usurpation of Native lands and destruction of their way of life along with a heroic fantasy alliance of the West’s various antagonistic social factions. Unable to face up properly to the atrocities of white settlement and the stark divisions of Old West society (or of America at large), Cowboys & Aliens gradually erases them by uniting the marginalizers and the marginalized against a common external, hostile Other. It’s a frothy, generic mashup onscreen dream of the contemporary American mindset, where entrenched inequities and cultural vendettas are subsumed in favour of emotionally-charged resentment of an implacable enemy from away. The cowboy, that all-American symbol of individualist liberty, pioneering spirit and rogue heroism, opposes the alien, that symbol for threatening, unrecognizable Otherness descended from Cold War Red Scare paranoia. No guesses as to who gets to ride into the sunset.
Tombstone (1993; Directed by George P. Cosmatos)
Tombstone is an ungainly Western with plenty of spurting blood, flashing machismo, slick one-liners, and exactly one character who transcends the frothy generic interplay. It also engages many active themes in the modern discourse of American public masculinity but then so do most Hollywood films of the 1980s and 1990s of its broad, firearm-action-centric type.
Set in and around Tombstone, Arizona in the 1880s, the film lays out the violent narrative of the Earp Brothers and their struggle against an outlaw gang called the Cowboys. Wyatt (Kurt Russell) and his brother Virgil (Sam Elliott) and Morgan (Bill Paxton) arrive in Tombstone with their wives looking for a change of scenery and an honest, profitable life free of the sort of tense entanglements that characterized Wyatt’s past. That past, particular a stint as a peace officer in Dodge City, has made Wyatt Earp famous in the town before he can even step off the train. Before the three couples can even take off their boots in a lodging house, Wyatt has run off the petty tyrant dealer (a young Billy Bob Thornton) of a local saloon and gambling house and earned a stake in the house’s earnings, evidently by virtue of his innate badassery.
While Wyatt carries out a hesitating courtship with intriguing actress (and future wife) Josephine Marcus (Dana Delany) and fails to connect with his laundanum-addicted spouse Mattie Blaylock (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson), the Cowboys’ lawlessness and degradation increasingly threatens the Earps’ hopes of undisturbed pecuniary prosperity. Their leader Curly Bill (Powers Boothe) “accidentally” shoots and kills Marshal Fred White (Harry Carey, Jr.) in the main street while drunk, is arrested by the Earps, but walks due to a lack of witnesses and threats of retribution from the gang. Virgil takes up the marshal mantle with Morgan and eventually the reluctant Wyatt as deputies, and with the help of gunslinger, gambler, drunk, and tuberculosis sufferer Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer) take their escalating conflict with the outlaws to the OK Corral and well beyond.
The thematic and moral lesson here is clear enough, with Russell’s stiff-jawed Wyatt Earp as its main actor and exemplar. Initially following that most American muse of individual economic success, Wyatt and his allies obey the clarion call of moral law and social order, marshalling violence with steely dedication to rid the wild frontier of anti-social criminal rapine and make it safe for socially-sanctioned capitalist enterprise (itself not indisposed to rapine of a distinct sort). Their enemies are immoral multitudes to be righteously killed, marked off convieniently by red sashes. There is little doubt about their implacable evil, as Tombstone opens (after a curiously perfunctory Robert Mitchum narration) with the Cowboys slaughtering the entire wedding party of a Mexican lawman who tried to shut them down; there’s a dramatic slow-motion shooting of the priest, and an evident imminent rape of the bride that is very quickly shunted to the background of the scene in favour of sharpshooter Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn) quoting Revelations. As much violence as the Earps and their allies muster, it is always already justified in dispensing with the existential threat of the Cowboys, the inherent enemies of property-owning, law-abiding Americans. It’s the common conception of right-wing justice emblazoned on Wild West myth, or more likely vice versa.
Like most patriarchal power-fantasies, Tombstone renders these male-centric events in homosocial terms. Yes, Wyatt is married, but his activities with his brothers – running gambling houses, playing billiards, busting up outlaw gangs – are much more key to his sense of self than his hopeless relationship with Mattie. Yes, Wyatt romances Josephine, but his friendship with Doc Holliday is much more important; Russell has concluding scenes with each in the denouement, and his profession of devotion to the sickly Doc Holliday is much more deeply felt than his profession of devotion to Josephine. It’s hard to blame him for the latter: Kilmer’s sweat-drenched, sashaying, degenerated Southern gentleman rogue is by far the most intriguing presence in a movie overfull of grim men’s men, and he’s usually given the best lines, too (“I have not yet begun to defile myself.”)
Also like most patriarchal power-fantasies (or at least the dumber ones), Tombstone experiences serious pitfalls of storytelling, emotional engagement, and aesthetic quality. It couldn’t help that it had a troubled production, with writer Kevin Jarre canned as director with the film overbudget and behind schedule when he refused to cut down his extended, unwieldy script. Replacement George P. Cosmatos was apparently a mere front behind the camera for leading man Russell, who later claimed that he ghost-directed the rest of the shoot using elaborate secret hand signals. Tombstone still presents as a film whose numerous subplots were chopped down and whose main plot had some of its nuance and detail compressed in favour of shootouts and flinty tough-guy quips. Those quips are sometimes championship-quality (“You can tell them I’m comin’, and Hell’s coming with me!”), but they don’t complete the picture and don’t quite make for a true classic of the Western genre.