This weekend I was in Austin for Harry Knowles’ annual Butt-Numb-A-Thon, an event I love. We had some really intriguing and amazing vintage films play and some hit or miss new films, but we also had a couple of footage presentations. I’ll say this up front: I hate these things. Ever since Fellowship of the Ring studios have been hot to show geek journalists and audiences 20 or 30 minutes of an upcoming movie; to me this ruins the experience of seeing the real film for the first time, and I’d rather just watch the unfinished movie than a big chunk of the film.
One of the footage presentations this year was the first 40 minutes of Cowboys & Aliens, Jon Favreau’s big summer blockbuster for 2011. It was incomplete, without FX and obviously missing insert shots and some other stuff. This makes it hard to judge what I was looking at, but I can say one thing:
Jon, make this 40 minutes into nothing more than 18 minutes.
What we saw was essentially exactly what was shown at Comic Con, except stretched out. Really stretched out. I am a fan of the concept of Cowboys & Aliens, and I am a fan of Favreau and of Daniel Craig, but what we saw was way too flat and way too empty.
I think the great stuff in the film will be coming in the scenes after what we saw at BNAT, which makes showing that opening act feel like a weird choice. That said, I do have some worries about the general script; much of what we saw were intros to characters in the Old West town, and Sam Rockwell is given some lines where he just nakedly lays out his character and his relationships in a way that sounds like he’s reading writers Robert Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof’s notes on the character out loud. Just cringe-inducingly on the nose dialogue.
Daniel Craig seems great; he has a true badass quality about him and he sells some really terrific moments of action and coolness. Paul Dano is impressive as a total weasel of a character; I think I’m going to like seeing bad things happen to him in the film. Olivia Wilde is intriguing, but had very little screen time in the opening 40.
The big question mark is Harrison Ford. He looked befuddled for much of the opening act, and even in scenes where befuddlement wasn’t called for. He’s playing a heavy, and he has the growl for it, but I have to wait until I see more to really figure him out.
I don’t think you’ll ever see the version of act one of Cowboys & Aliens that we saw; Favreau is obviously trying to create the flavor of a Western, but his pacing here is just too slack. Also too slack is the big action set piece - setting aside the unfinished effects (which, by the way, I kind of loved - alien spacecraft portrayed as just banks of lights feels right), the editing was too loose and the attack went on for way too long without enough high points. There’s a repetitive nature to seeing saloons and other Old West buildings blow up as people run around in confusion and shoot Colts into the sky.
After BNAT some of us discussed what the marketing point of the footage was. Some folks felt that it was to get across the fact that this is a serious film and the Western elements are done seriously. I think it’s just because Favreau really values that audience. He’s aware that Comic Con gave Iron Man a major boost, and ever since then he’s been very interested in catering to the geek crowd. I think he brought that footage because he wanted to do something cool for that audience, which I like and respect.
I’m still positive and hopeful for Cowboys & Aliens. I just hope that the next two acts are a little more thrilling than what we saw in Austin.