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Watching the Future
by Derek Johnson

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Watching the Future columns.]

Installment 17
Cowboys & Aliens Attack the Block: Who Will Win?

The aliens are here. Again. And they're out to wreak havoc. Again.

The War of the Worlds What started as H.G. Wells's commentary on imperialism in 1898 has turned, each summer, into an update on the art of special effects, possessing at best the merest sliver of intelligence that Wells and his myriad successors bring to any First Contact tale. Indeed, the Martian tripods loom large each time visitors arrive to cinema screens, often with far more noise but with far less visual frisson no matter why they decide to make Earth's prime real estate their battlefield. I imagine Herbert George spins in his grave faster with each retelling of his classic novel (and by now some enterprising MIT grad should hook him up to a generator), from Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers to Independence Day to Steven Spielberg's The War of the Worlds (the author's name nowhere in sight in the title), in which (however ironically) Captain Scientology defends our Pale Blue Dot from the villainous xenoimperialists with heavy-handed sentiment, bookended by Morgan Freeman's droning voiceover.

The War of the Worlds Now and then alien invasions provide audiences with more than a cheap thrill, be they the guise of retooled tripods (Byron Haskin's The War of the Worlds) or shapeshifters (Christian Nyby's The Thing from Another World or John Carpenter's The Thing) or even us (in two versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, directed by Don Siegel and Phillip Kaufman, respectively). Sometimes the aliens aren't even aware of us, as in Gareth Edwards's Monsters. Alas, too often (as in Battle: Los Angeles) they simply want to wreak havoc because... well, just because. Often the answer eludes the characters because they elude the filmmakers. Or perhaps they know the answers, but they just don't care overmuch about them.

Take Cowboys & Aliens, for example.

Taken from a crummy graphic novel, the movie follows a memory-wiped Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig), who wakes bloodied and bruised in the Arizona desert to find a mysterious metal device latched to his wrist. After a very brief showdown with Indian hunters, he rides into the town of Absolution to learn that the town's boss, the menacing Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford, who looks as if he fell out of bed before each take and growls through the entire picture), wants him hanged for robbing a stagecoach carrying a fortune in gold. Along the way Invasion of the Body Snatchers Lonergan scuffles with Dolarhyde's spineless son Percy (Paul Dano), banters (somewhat) with the elusive Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde), and ultimately becomes prisoner of Sheriff John Taggart (Keith Carradine). And then the aliens arrive, splintering the buildings with lasers and snatching townspeople, including the wife of saloon owner Doc's (Sam Rockwell) wife and Percy's son, before Lonergan manages to shoot down one of the alien drones with the device on his wrist. So, of course, Lonergan and Dolarhyde must put aside their differences to track down the aliens and rescue their fellow Absolution citizens.

Looking at the title alone, one wonders how Cowboys & Aliens could possibly fail. Granted, the blending of western and science fiction is nothing new, either in print (Howard Waldrop's "Night of the Cooters," which tells the story of The War of the Worlds from the point of view of the Wild West) or on film (though those attempts often fall flat; see Moon Zero Two and Outland), but it should provide a decent two-hour escape from the summer heat. The teaming of Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, to say nothing of supporting performances by Carradine, Rockwell and Wilde, promises the kind of chemistry that makes the best popcorn movies crackle. Jon Favreau, one of the few directors who can unselfconsciously straddle the worlds of independent cinema and big budget blockbuster, should provide the requisite winking irony and breezy pace to make it all work.

Not surprisingly, it never quite does.

Cowboys & Aliens For all of its potential, Cowboys & Aliens never knows what kind of movie it wants to be. Favreau and screenwriters Damon Lindelof, Alex Kurtzman, Robert Orci, Mark Fergus and Hawk Osby (not to self: always be wary when a movie has more than two screenwriters) seem to want to juxtapose the conventions of the Western with those of science fiction, yet self-consciously saddles the movie with tropes and outright clichés (a little Blazing Saddles here, a little Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid there, and ladling everything with imitation John Ford and Sergio Leone) instead of providing the postmodern spin the material almost demands... which also caused the graphic novel to suffer. Moreover, the science fiction elements, although efficiently handled, feel borrowed from other sources (including, bizarrely, Karen Joy Fowler's Sarah Canary) when they don't just seem silly. (Why are the aliens here? The reasons are the most mundane I've yet heard.) It hits some of the right notes -- no problems with the cast, really, or some of the period details -- but as one leaves the theater Cowboys & Aliens already begins to fade from memory. Maybe Favreau couldn't put his heart into it. That would explain why Cowboys & Aliens lacks energy.

Attack the Block Fortunately, Attack the Block has energy. And drive. And commentary. It's everything Cowboys & Aliens wants to be, only much more so.

Made for about what Harrison Ford took home to grouse through Cowboys & Aliens, Attack the Block follows a gang of teenagers living in a public housing project in Lambeth. Their attempt to mug a nurse named Sam (Jodie Whittaker) is interrupted by a meteor crashing into a nearby car. The gang, led by Moses (John Boyega, who has Big Star written all over him), chase a pitch-black three-foot-high alien into a shed and kill it. Shortly after taking it to their friend Ron (Nick Frost), who agrees to keep the unusual being in his "weed room," strange creatures with pitch-black fur and glowing teeth hunt them, ultimately requiring that the South London block's denizens, none of whom have much love for Moses and his group, work together to defeat them, which also means turning to Sam, the very woman whom the group mugged.

True, on paper Attack the Block shows little to hold much interest. A very small budget (especially by Cowboys & Aliens's standards, though still made for one thousand times what it cost Gareth Edwards to make Monsters) and a cast of unknowns (though the presence of Nick Frost should bring in fans of Spaced and Shaun of the Dead) could have made director Joe Cornish's (who also wrote the screenplay) loving homage to 80s science fiction and horror movies not much more than a long-running in-joke. Fortunately, Cornish gets strong performances from his cast and crew, especially Boyega, who generates more intensity than Favreau can muster from Daniel Craig. He shoots each scene with the knowing humor that generates genuine suspense and tension (a scene in which the headless aliens, which resemble a cross between large dogs and small bears, attack a police van is particularly exciting, as is the scene where Moses and his gang hide in the apartment of some neighborhood girls) yet never loses sight of its more absurdist pleasures (two of Moses's friends hide from the creatures in a garbage dumpster throughout most of the movie), especially in its dialogue. When gang member Pest (Alex Esmail) makes reference to Ron's "weed room," Sam asks for clarification. Pest explains, "It's a room, filled with weed, that belongs to Ron..." That Cornish also provides some commentary on block life adds weight to the picture, and the 88-minute running time ensures that it doesn't drag.

Even better, while the aliens in Cowboys & Aliens resemble the slimy, Lovecraftian beings we've come to expect with little imagination and much CGI, Cornish renders the aliens in Attack the Block with a combination of animatronics, rotoscoping and people in suits. He uses CGI to take away detail, making the aliens all the more frightening, an effective blend of old and new special effects techniques. His love and passion for each facet of his movie shines in each scene.

And it's Cornish's passion for Attack the Block that sticks to the viewer long after the credits have rolled. And Cornish commentary, while different from the concerns expressed by Wells, means that it is about more than just a quick fix of summer entertainment, but it fits the bill precisely as such. Cowboys & Aliens would like to be the contender but fails by trying to please everybody; Attack the Block, smaller, smarter, and more deft, only wants to please itself, and in doing so wows audiences more easily.

Copyright © 2011 Derek Johnson

Derek Johnson's critical work has appeared on SF Site, SF Signal, and Revolution SF. He lives in Central Texas with the Goddess.

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