The wild west side: 'Cowboys & Aliens' and 'Attack the Block' face off(Read article summary)
Two summer blockbusters ask us how we like our alien invasions.
This past weekend brought us two similar yet very different alien invasion flicks – two similar but different genre mashing invasion flicks, if we’re being totally accurate. On the one hand, there was Jon Favreau’s big-budget ‘old west vs. outer space’ invasion flick, Cowboys & Aliens; on the other side of the movie spectrum was Joe Cornish’s low-budget ‘inner city vs. outer space’ invasion flick, Attack the Block.
While these two close-for-comfort films will likely have two very different lives at the box office, we want to look beyond the profit margins and examine the strengths and weaknesses of both films, the question of which is the more enjoyable of the two, and finally, some speculation about which has the best chance of longevity.
Of course this is all subjective, so at the end we’d love to hear what you guys think about each film, and both films compared to one another. If you’ve already seen both, feel free to hop to the comments now and let your thoughts be heard.
Cowboys & Aliens vs. Attack the Block
The premises of these films look strikingly similar on paper: Aliens show up in two unlikely places (the old west and the inner city) and the startled locals must defend against the invading hordes. However, a premise is just the frame work for a story, and its in the telling of their respective stories that these two films are significantly different.
For whatever reason, Attack the Block achieves a feeling of tension and suspense that Cowboys & Aliens can’t sustain. That difference makes all the difference. Because both premises are so out there, it’s tension that keeps you engrossed in the movie and away from the more critical part of your brain which does all that bothersome analysis and question asking. Unfortunately, the momentum of Cowboys & Aliens‘ abduction/redemption storyline isn’t enough to keep you from seeing all the plot holes peeking through, while the narrative momentum of Attack the Block will keep you overlooking its flaws.
Finally, although both these films’ stories sound like they were pulled from the back covers of movies found at the bottom of a straight-to-DVD bargain bin, Attack the Block has a narrative that actually takes the viewer on a well-traveled journey (in terms of both plot and character development) and even manages to offer a few clever twists along the way. Cowboys & Aliens is a story we’ve seen so many times before (despite its unique blend of genres) and the “surprises” were ones a lot of us saw coming long before we even sat in the theater. It’s still grand in scale, just in a predictable way.
VERDICT: It may be smaller in scale, but Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block script packs the bigger punch. I put that down to the movie having one man in charge of the vision (Cornish both wrote and directed the film), as opposed to Cowboys & Aliens, which suffers from the “too many cooks” syndrome that has been playing Hollywood blockbusters. With half a dozen writers, and big names like Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer offering their input, it’s a miracle that Jon Favreau (who started off much the same way Cornish is now) was able to string together all those ideas into even a semi-coherent vision.
It’s hard to break this one down. Cowboys vs. Aliens has some familiar (even cliched) character archetypes (the strong, silent gunslinger, the tyrant who runs town), albeit with a few modern tweaks here and there (Olivia Wilde’s more…wild old west damsel). However, the while C&A has the drawback of overly-familiar characters, it has the benefit of some familiar actors playing them. The presence of Harrison Ford alone guarantees an audience will see the film; add the presence of a recently-ascended star like Craig, a hot young rising starlet like Wilde – not to mention Favreau, a.k.a. “the director of Iron Man” – and the star power behind this film is shining at maximum wattage, even if the characters themselves seem a bit dim.
Attack the Block doesn’t have any big names to tout (especially for us Yanks over here in the U.S.), but what it lacks in star power it certainly makes up for in colorful characters. From its street gang protagonists to its wacky supporting characters, Attack the Block offers a treat that has just about gone out of style in movies: a big cast of characters who are all interesting and enjoyable to watch. I could go on at length about supporting characters before I ever mention the main characters – that’s how rich and colorful the characters are. Of course, some people have raised the objection that the main characters are street hoodlums undeserving of viewers’ attention or compassion – guess those people are selectively ignoring all those beloved movies that have assassins, mobsters, outlaws, thieves, gangsters, crooked public figures, prostitutes, and other immoral types as protagonists. But that’s another discussion.
VERDICT: Tie. It all depends on what you’re looking for. Some people go to movies to see familiar archetypes and heroes. Some people don’t like seeing hoodlums as heroes. Some people like to see fresh and original spins on cliched archetypes. Some people appreciate a good character no matter who they are, or where you find them. It all depends on taste.
There is no doubt that Cowboys & Aliens is a blockbuster movie made by some of the best minds in the business. Top-grade CGI visual effects by Industrial Light & Magic; practical old west set pieces, costumes and props; epic action sequences and stunts; unique cinematography and a shooting style that both honors and melds western and sci-fi films - C&A was crafted on a scale that few other movies can hope to match. Of course, while the craftmanship is pristine, the creative choices (alien design, their technology) aren’t above criticism. For all the secrecy surrounding aspects of this film, the big reveals aren’t all that enjoyable or effective.
Attack the Block plays like a film made in the 1980s, visually speaking. With the constriction of a much smaller budget, Joe Cornish and Co. had to get creative – and creative they got. The aliens in the film look like…well, hokey-looking creatures, but their “shadow skin, neon fang” design (see pic above) is effective in its mystery, simplicity and menace. The creatures in AtB come off as being scary things, and that’s pretty much as far as it needs to go. As for the action: there isn’t a lot to dazzle the eye (at all), but the low-budget stunts and sequences Cornish and Co. cobble together excel in the departments of effectiveness and creativity. The dated feel of the effects also give the film a sense of nostalgia which works with the subject matter. Gremlins, Killer Clowns From Outer Space, and Tremors all came to mind as I was watching this flick – which only made the experience more enjoyable.
VERDICT: Again this depends entirely on taste. Some people only go to alien invasion flicks in order to turn off their brains and check out some sweet eye candy. Attack the Block is not for them. Other people aren’t yet enrolled at the Michael Bay school of filmmaking, and like their action to be grounded in logic, relevance and meaning to the story. Those types will likely find Cowboys & Aliens to be yet another boring and arbitrary assault on the senses. But in terms of pure craftsmanship, it’s definitely Cowboys & Aliens who takes the prize.
Cowboys & Aliens tells its story with a straight face; director Jon Favreau said all along that his goal was to create a legitimate western movie, a legitimate sci-fi movie, and then mash them together. The result (by our account, and many others) is a movie whose parts would functionally equally well on their own, but don’t quite achieve the necessary cohesion when put together. The fact that both the sci-fi and western elements are taken seriously means that there is little room to enjoy the movie in that tongue-and-cheek manner suggested by the title. From the direction, to the performances, to the story beats, this movie hinges on the audience not busting into laughter over the ridiculousness of the premise.
On the other hand, Attack the Block has its tongue firmly planted in its cheek. Joe Cornish made a sci-fi movie that has traces of different genres in its DNA (horror, comedy, urban drama), and while this film also asks that you buy into what is ostensibly a ridiculous notion, it doesn’t not care at all if you lose it and bust out laughing at the lunacy taking place. In fact, it encourages that reaction at every turn. This film knows how ridiculous it is (and alot of other invasion flicks are), and makes sure to poke fun at that fact over and over again – a poking you’ll feel right in your funnybone (the metaphorical one, not the literal one… ).
VERDICT: Even if you can’t get behind the idea of aliens invading weird places, Attack the Block will at least make you laugh out loud with it, as opposed to just at it.
One film has one director primarily in charge of creating the vision of a small, cohesive, enjoyable movie experience; the other has a director in charge of a small army of people all tasked with crafting their own pieces of a massive puzzle that is ultimately supposed to fit together as an epic blockbuster. One is light-hearted independent storytelling, the other has shades of serious Hollywood big-business scribbled all over it. Sure, both Joe Cornish and Jon Favreau are great directors with their own style, wit, and palpable affection for movie-making. But it’s not just about the qualities of the director – it’s about how those qualities are put to use (or not). In this case, only one director really had his personal signature working in full effect to distinguish his film.
VERDICT: The only thing that’s still surprising is that it’s still surprising to some people that one of these projects would turn out better than the other. Joe Cornish takes the prize here. Let’s just hope that the new opportunities sure to come his way don’t get him tangled up in the Hollywood machine like Favreau seems to be right now.
And the winner is…
For me it’s Attack the Block all the way. It was just a better overall movie experience, in my opinion. While Cowboys & Aliens definitely offered much more in terms of a blockbuster experience, what it did right in that department wasn’t even as good as other blockbusters we’ve seen this summer (Transformers 3 is still king in that regard). Take away effects-driven spectacle and AtB quickly stands out as the better movie – funnier, more interesting, fresher and definitely hipper. It’s also more likely to live-on as a bonafide cult-classic;somehow, I don’t see the word “classic” ever being applied to Cowboys & Aliens, for any reason.
Which one was your favorite alien invasion flick? Or was it another invasion film in this year of the alien?
Attack the Block is currently playing in limited release.
Cowboys & Aliens is currently playing in theaters everywhere.
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