Cowboys & Aliens

“The test of a first-rate intelligence,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in his 1936 essay collection The Crack-Up, “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” At its best, Favreau’s genre mash-up Cowboys & Aliens demonstrates the kind of smarts Fitzgerald describes, crossing two previously uncrossed streams of cinema narrative and making sense on its own terms. But the hold doesn’t last and the story dissolves into random nonsense, fun for a while but ultimately empty and unsatisfying.

Placed firmly at the intersection between a traditional western and an alien invasion sci-fi, Iron Man director Favreau’s film (based on the comic book by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg) is the first in a new breed of genre mash-ups that presages upcoming titles such as Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

The title tells you all you need to know, really. We’re in the Old West at the end of the 19th century. There are cowboys, like Jake the outlaw amnesiac (Daniel Craig) and crotchety Civil War Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) who live in the faded frontier town of Absolution, in the middle of a vast, rocky plain. And there are aliens, bug-eyed monsters from beyond the stars who descend on the town in whirring UFOs to wreak intergalactic havoc.

As the story opens, Craig’s hard-bitten Jake has woken up in the desert with no idea who or where he is. He has a gaping wound in his side and a mysterious metal bracelet on his wrist. Wandering into town, he meets Percy (Paul Dano), the trigger-happy weasel son of Ford’s true-grit Colonel who uses his father’s position as a rich cattle-baron to demand free whiskey and shoot up the place. Establishing himself as the hero, Jake stops the youngster with a single punch but he can’t stop himself from being thrown in jail alongside him.

When the Colonel rides into town to effect a rescue, he is stopped in his tracks by strange lights in the sky. A heartbeat later the aliens attack, snatching up the townsfolk, including Percy, with metallic lassos and whisking them away to parts unknown. Jake and the Colonel must put their enmity aside and join forces to mount a rescue. Joining them in the posse are saloon-owner Doc (Sam Rockwell), gun-slinging beauty Ella (Olivia Wilde) and the local preacher Meacham (Clancy Brown). On the way, they enlist the help of a tribe of Native Americans, who seem to recognise the ethereal Ella and are eager to mount a war party against their common enemy.

From that point on, Cowboys & Aliens barely pauses for breath but what the adventure lacks in coherence, it makes up for in spectacle. Despite the presence of two genuine superstars, the film’s biggest pulling power derives from its clever concept and execution. The story plays with the conventions of the standardised horse opera while joining them with the not-dissimilar tropes of the sci-fi blockbuster; questing discovery, survivalism and the battle for resources. The results are occasionally compelling, if only for the sheer audacity of the plot, but Favreau (and his five credited screenwriters) never settle on the right balance between fun and force and the film is surprisingly humourless and violent.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Very old rope is re-braided once more in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a special-effects heavy prequel that arrives a full four decades after Charlton Heston woke up in a world where apes rule, OK.

James Franco plays Will, a scientist working for a Machiavellian pharmaceutical corporation (is there any other kind in movies) working to develop a genetically-altered virus that will reverse the effects of Alzheimer’s disease. Well-meaning Will is racing against the clock, hoping to accrue the double benefit of making billions for his boss (David Oyelowo), who is funding his lengthy research, and curing his ailing father (John Lithgow), fast fading into dementia. It appears Will has reached a breakthrough when a chimpanzee named Bright Eyes, captured and used for laboratory testing, responds well to a particular strain of the drug. On the very day the board meets to approve a human trial, Bright Eyes escapes her cage, runs amok and is killed.

It transpires Bright Eyes had given birth to a baby and her outburst was a result of the protective instinct rather than an adverse reaction to the drug. Regardless, the promising trials are shelved. In the tradition of white-coated movie boffins since the dawn of cinema, Will must continue the research and so adopts the little chimp, taking it into his suburban San Francisco home and naming it Caesar. Three years later and Caesar has evolved into a super-chimp; he can use sign language, play chess and (in a witty cameo) put together a scale-model toy of the Statue of Liberty. Convinced his drug is responsible for the chimp’s newfound capabilities, Will injects his father with a shot. The next morning, Dad is playing the piano and reading Shakespeare. Meanwhile, in a preposterously shoehorned romantic sub-plot, sullen Will has met and somehow charmed zoo vet Caroline (Freida Pinto), who tags along for the remainder of the film, saying and doing nothing in particular.

Fast forward another five years and things have gone wrong. Will’s job is at stake, his father’s Alzheimer’s has returned with a vengeance and his neighbours are starting to freak out about the toothy-looking chimp who stares down at them from an attic window with an unnervingly human glint in his eye. When an interaction between chimp and neighbour goes wrong, Caesar is shipped off to a shelter for unwanted primates run by father-and-son sadists played by Brian Cox and Tom Felton. While Will attempts to free him by needling low-level government employees, Caesar sets about establishing himself as top-banana with the other caged monkeys and formulating his own plan of escape.

The doubled-up “of the” in the title hints at a clumsiness that pervades the film, an clunky, uneven narrative that struggles to make three-dimensional characters of human and ape alike. Specialist Andy Serkis (who played Gollum in Lord of the Rings and King Kong in Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake) invests Caesar with a full measure of personality through the indelibly human look in his eyes. Mostly, though, he looks like a computer-generated special effect. The Uncanny Valley is the name given to the phenomenon in computerised special effects where digital actors look almost, but not quite, like real actors. The same goes for monkeys, and goes double for monkeys that think they’re people. Even Franco doesn’t look like himself, and there’s no trickery involved in his performance, other than the fact that he seems to have been recently hit over the head with something heavy. I realise its important to emphasise just how clever Caesar has become, but the film does this at the expense of making Franco the dimmest scientific mind since Keanu Reeves’ cold-fusion engineer inadvertently blew-up the world in Chain Reaction.

When the apes eventually rise up against their human masters, director Rupert Wyatt gathers his forces to stage a pitched battle along a fog-bound Golden Gate Bridge. This shuddering action sequence gives a much-needed boost to proceedings, replacing the formulaic science-lab machinations, animal-welfare moustache-twirling and rickety romance with the sight of an angry 500lb mountain silverback charging towards the screen with his jaws bared. Soon after this, the first action in a war for supremacy, Rise of the Planet of the Apes comes to a dead stop: a hopeful gesture on behalf of the inevitable franchise to come but an unsatisfying conclusion to the film just watched.

Super 8

The creator of TV series Lost, producer of monster-movie Cloverfield and director of sci-fi reboot Star Trek JJ Abrams was doing OK just being JJ Abrams but for Super 8 he has written and directed a film his mentor and producer Steven Spielberg would have been proud of; an end-of-childhood adventure with supernatural touches that has the master’s imprint all over it.

The title derives from the small-gauge film format that was popular in the time before video and digital cameras. As a child, Spielberg made 8mm films with his friends in the streets and fields around his home town in Arizona. Firelight, the last of these amateur films, would be reused twenty years later as the beginnings of Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind and the story of its production, with a borrowed camera and home-made special effects, seems to have inspired the first section of Abrams’ story.

Set in the suburban homes of a rural Ohio town in the late 1970s, Super 8 opens as 12 year-old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is helping his excitable best friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) to make a zombie movie for a local film festival. With Charles as director and Joe handling make-up and special effects, the two enlist their friends, including new-recruit Alice (Elle Fanning) to help however they can; acting, holding a microphone, setting off pyrotechnics or stirring buckets of fake blood. Late one night, having snuck out of their respective houses, the kids are filming surreptitiously at an abandoned train station when a truck veers onto the tracks and causes a spectacular train crash. In the midst of the chaos, something escapes from a shattered freight trailer. Unnoticed by the fleeing kids but recorded on their camera, whatever it is escapes into the fields.

To say much more would spoil Super 8’s carefully-laid surprise but what follows will not startle those who have seen the films from which Abrams has spliced his cinematic DNA: E.T., Close Encounters and Richard Donner’s Spielberg-produced children’s classic The Goonies. The kids are so preoccupied with making their zombie movie they barely notice the uncanny things happening in the grown-up real world. We see a flash of Walter Cronkite on the evening news, talking about the nuclear disaster at Three Mile Island. Every dog in the town has vanished, cars and machines are acting strangely and a troop of soldiers (led by Noah Emmerich’s blank-faced sergeant) have quietly established a cordon around the town.

Abrams is telling his own story, from his own screenplay, but Super 8 is a hybrid; a combination of coming-of-age drama, comedy and science-fiction. It touches up against Spielberg’s favourite themes of broken family dynamics, suburban boredom and the feeling that, behind the closed doors of a small town, there are adult stories that remain secret and untold. There is a palpable sense of nostalgia here, not only for the time and place but for the kind of films American directors were making at the time; films that used the embryonic effects technologies to bolster their stories and bring life to their imaginations, rather than as a hammer to bludgeon audiences into submission. It’s no accident that Super 8 eschews the feeble, eye-straining attractions of 3D.

The movie is at its best when Abrams, like Spielberg, distils the innocence and enthusiasm of childhood into short, pithy scenes, particularly in the early set pieces when the pubescent protagonists are given the space to interact. There is a very clever use of the kid’s film-within-a-film, as the cash-strapped youngsters employ the ‘real-life’ movie that’s happening around them as a backdrop for their own fictional one. Later, Abrams attempts to blend the emotional and the fantastical into a seamless whole but the two elements of the story seem to float past one another, just failing to connect. His mostly young and unknown cast are uniformly superb, with Fanning in particular striking the right note of gumption and vulnerability, but the bonds that tie them all together feel more contrived than considered.

The pleasures to be found in Super 8 might be deliberately familiar, but they are robust enough to be handed down to a new generation. For his own part, Spielberg has two films set for release this year, his first animation The Adventures of TinTin, based on Belgian comic book author Hergé’s much-loved books and WWI drama War Horse, from the children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo. Spielberg has nothing left to prove but it will nevertheless be interesting to see if the real thing can match his imitator.

Captain America: The First Avenger

Already this year we’ve been introduced to a whole new order of superheroes, with The Green Hornet, X-Men First Class, The Green Lantern and Thor filling out the space previously occupied by Superman, Batman and Spider-Man. There is probably enough room in cineplexes for four new franchise heroes, but each iteration carries with it an unavoidable feeling of repetition; predominantly because most of these films are origin myths, telling the same story of how these heroes came to be and, the individual particulars aside, all following the same basic formula.

The latest superhero goes by the name of Captain America, so we know his military rank and country of origin before we begin. For those of you unfamiliar with comic book history, the character debuted in 1941 as a free-thinking do-gooder who spent the war years fighting the Axis powers and socking Hitler on the jaw. Now in 2011, Captain America is the last character to be introduced to cinema audiences before next summer’s much-vaunted superhero-extravaganza The Avengers, where he will join up with fellow Marvel Comics heroes Iron Man, Thor and The Incredible Hulk for a four-way superhero-extravaganza. This film acts as a set-up for that reunion but, luckily for audiences, it’s an entertaining summer blockbuster in its own right.

As the story opens, Chris Evans’ scrawny, asthmatic Steve Rogers wants to serve his country in World War II but is passed over by every recruiting officer. Determined to play his part, he is chosen by Army scientist Dr Erskine (Stanley Tucci) to undergo a top secret experiment that will transform him from 90 pound weakling into a muscle-bound super-soldier. Despite the misgivings of his commanding officer, Colonel Phillips (a wry Tommy Lee Jones), the now-muscular Rogers joins his best pal Bucky (Sebastian Stan) in a special secret division that includes British agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and boffin Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), who just so happens to be Tony ‘Iron Man’ Stark’s father.

With his alter-ego code name and a red, white and blue outfit (including his trademark indestructible shield) Rogers is ready to dish out starry, stripy justice to the Nazis. But before he can deploy to Europe, a red-faced Rogers is forced to perform in a travelling U.S.O. show, to raise money for war bonds. Once joined with the rest of the American troops fighting to push Hitler back to Berlin, Captain America meets his nemesis in Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), who also goes by the name Red Skull because, underneath the rubber mask that looks a lot like Hugo Weaving, he’s got a red skull.

An even greater threat than The Fuhrer, Schmidt runs an occult terrorist wing of the Nazi party codenamed Hydra, which is developing advanced weapons of mass destruction. Schmidt can do this because he has access to “the science of the Gods”, an energy source called The Cube that acts as a running thread through the Marvel Comics universe. Schmidt has also been injected with a prototype version of the same serum that transformed Rogers, sharing his superhuman abilities and making him a deadly opponent.

Director Joe Johnston, whose Wolfman reboot underwhelmed last year, does better with the grand sweep of a WWII adventure. The retrofitted steam-punk technologies allow Johnston to exercise the same talents with eye-popping special effects and sci-fi gadgetry as he did in his good-humoured adventure The Rocketeer, in which a 1930s pilot invented a futuristic jet-pack that allowed him to become a masked hero. Just like this summer’s X-Men prequel and the third Transformers installment, Captain America re-writes history to meet the needs of a superhero story, and executes the trappings of both genres very well, for a while.

After a bright, bustling opening, Captain America tumbles headlong into all of the customary pitfalls of an origin story. The time and effort expended explaining how the Captain came to gain his superhuman abilities means there is not enough room to expand on the character. Our hero’s amped-up metabolism, Peggy tells him, burns energy four times faster than the average persons. The same is true of the movie, which generates such a tremendous head of steam in the first hour, it is exhausted by the second half. The pace shifts into quick montages and clichéd vignettes, with all the compulsion in the story squeezed out to make room for an inevitable, unavoidable series of stare-downs and stand-offs.

How they’re ever going to create enough space for four of these lycra-clad legends in one movie remains to be seen.