cupidsbow (cupidsbow) wrote,

3 Film Reviews: Cowboys/Aliens, Killer Robots, and Musketeers

Three action films made for teenage boys. My thoughts, let me show you them.

Cowboys and Aliens

I see a title that contains the words "cowboys" and "aliens" and I immediately think: Han Solo vs the Aliens franchise.

I mean, obviously.

Hiiissssss the aliens would go, or try to, because Han would have shot 'em all before the "sssss" part.

So, when I decided to go and see this movie, with these two words married together in the title, I expected three things. First, there must be larger than life gun-slinging cowboys, with horses and hats and posses and questionable morals and excellent survival instincts. Furthermore, I'm going to be weighing them against Han Solo, because these are no longer simple earthbound cowboys, even if they stay on Earth for the whole movie; these are cowboys having a space adventure. The genre here is space opera, people -- the western-in-space edition (points at icon). Second, I'm expecting a shitload of alien peril. The Earth itself should be in danger, preferably. In other words, the "and" in the title should really be "vs" as far as I'm concerned.

Third, and most importantly, I expect a certain amount of race-fail, because it's inherent in the western genre (I'm not saying I condone or like this, but if I only went to see movies with politics I knew I'd condone or like, I would see zero movies a year). That said, I still expect the movie to be working very, very hard not to draw obvious racist parallels between the aliens and Native Americans. An element of racial awareness is just a base-level expectation for westerns made in the post-Dances-With-Wolves era (not that I'm claiming that movie got race politics right), but given that aliens are usually a thin disguise for racist stereotypes in sci-fi movies, I expect a greater level of racial awareness than that in this movie. I AM WATCHING AND JUDGING.


Criteria 1: Gun-slinging cowboys 9/10

Okay, so I actually got Han Solo (well, his crotchety grampa, anyway). Plus James Bond in cowboy mode. I'm good here.

If you are wondering, minus 1 point for not creatively getting around historical racism and sexism to have a more diverse set of cowboys. I expected the cowboys to be relentlessly white and male, but was hoping I'd be wrong. I'm not counting the Native Americans in the film as "cowboys" for obvious reasons.

Criteria 2: Alien peril 5/10

Meh. They were cardboard cutout aliens with no personalities. And oh, how ironic, they wanted gold. Ha ha ha. Not.

On the other hand, the flying saucers were very cool -- they upped the tension whenever they appeared, and the Earth was, potentially, in peril. Plus, inside the mothership, they had anal-probe chairs. LOL.

Criteria 3: Limited race-fail I honestly don't know how to score this, but I think it has to be 0/10

Okay, so the race politics in this were absolutely fascinating. Like a trainwreck, I mean. Let's see what the writers did.

  • The aliens invaded the Earth in order steal the resources and kill the natives.

  • In the face of this invasion, the cowboys and Native Americans team up to fight the common enemy.

  • In other words, the aliens usurp the role of the evil colonising force in the American landscape, and all the humans living in there are now the indigenous population, including the (white) cowboys.

So, the sci-fi trope of using aliens to represent problematic racial identities has been used here to shift the blame for white colonisation onto the aliens, and turn the white colonisers of North America into victims along with the Native Americans.

I just... I don't even...

That's brilliant in a supremely horrible kind of way.

As if that wasn't enough, the film also paints Native Americans as noble savages, and martyrs, and sidekicks, so all that type of racefail is still there. The one thing it doesn't do is make the aliens out to be the "Indians" of old style "Cowboys and Indians" movies, which the title clearly invokes, and which I'd been worried about. I'd hardly call that enlightened racial politics, though.

I just can't get over the aliens, though. Using the racist tradition of scape-goating through sci-fi aliens to actually shift the "problem" of white privilege from the white cowboys -- it's both way more subtle than I was expecting, and much more ethically problematic.

Given the sophistication of the weaselling out of responsibility for white colonisation, plus the same old noble-savage treatment for the Native American characters, the only judgement I can make is that the film achieves a total race-fail.

The moral of the film: Han Solo is still the coolest cowboy in the universe, but even he can't make being a racist asshole play well.

The verdict: 4.5/10. It's actually at about a 6.5 in terms of enjoyableness if you can ignore the racist narrative, which I could while watching, but can't in hindsight.

Watch the original Star Wars trilogy, or read Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan saga instead. Alternatively, SF Signal has a whole heap of space opera recommendations listed; the classic novels are pretty much all in there.

Real Steel

On paper, the premise for this film is wins all the points in the world as far as I'm concerned: killer robots, tick; Hugh Jackman being a loveable rogue, tick. Those two things are all I really need to be told before I'm stumping up my money and putting my bum on that seat.

That said, I have been sold a similar set of promises before (Universal Soldier - Jean-Claude van Damme; Soldier - Kurt Russell; I, Robot - Will Smith; Star Trek: First Contact - Alice Krige, etc.).

If you have seen a substantial cross-section of such films, you will understand when I say that I had my expectations set suitably low. However, as long as there actually were fighting robots killing each other, and a loveable rogue, I would be content.

So let's see how the film did, judging it against these two onerous criteria.


Criteria 1: Killer robots This criteria was done pretty well, and I'd give it 7/10.

There were lots of robots, ranging from the shiny to the scrappy, and lots of robot carnage. There was even a robot graveyard. The fights were shot pretty well and had good tension, and were integrated into the plot (such as it was). And there was some recognition of the social consequences with a shift to robot fighting, in terms of human fighters becoming obsolete.

It loses the 3 points because... First, they were non-sentient robots, which are not required, but allow for useful things like subplots, conflict and characterisation. Second, there were some fascinating implications in the set-up which were not explored, like the fact that these robots had no "Three Laws". They were just big machines, like cars, but unlike cars, people didn't require a licence to drive them. So in one scene, a robot breaks public property, and it's just played for laughs. In another scene, human thugs beat up the protagonists, and there's no acknowledgement that these protagonists have a killing machine in the back of their trailer. To counterpoint this, the very first fight is between a robot and a bull, so it's clear people do use these robots against more than just other robots. Avoiding a deep exploration of all of this is understandable in a kids film, but had sinister implications that are both interesting and creepy. Very, very creepy. Which brings me to...

Criteria 2: Loveable rogue OMG: 1/10

It gets 1, because Hugh Jackman is very pretty, and he took his shirt off.

Otherwise, they completely forgot to put the "loveable" into the rogue, and honestly scriptwriters, please take note: THAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PART.

Instead the character is one of the biggest scuzzbuckets I've ever had presented to me as an anti-hero. He's cruel to animals, it's heavily implied he's a womanizer, he's irresponsible, a liar, and sells his own kid, whom he abandoned at birth. Charming. Not.

The kid is a cardboard cutout "adorable kid" so doesn't really offset the horror of Jackman's character. The only actively likeable characters in the whole film are the bookie and the non-sentient robot, Atom (haha, nice shout-out to Astoboy).

The moral of the film: Being a shit human being doesn't matter, because having a kid watch you fail over and over makes everything worthwhile. Naaawww.

The verdict: 4/10. What a dud.

I don't know what to recommend to you -- I love this genre, but it tends to be crap. Maybe try Blade Runner, or Terminator 1 & 2 instead. Alternatively, here are some other robot/cyborg/android movies: Box Office Mojo List.

The Three Musketeers

This is the latest of a very looooong chain of adaptations of Dumas's book. There have been some pretty good ones, and I have seen many of them (and also read the book), so this movie needed more than 3D to make it stand out.

What I expect from a good swashbuckler are the following: Swordfights! Witty repartee! Fabulous villains! Also, it makes things much more enjoyable if I fall in momentarily love with (at least) one of the protagonists. I know that sounds like a pretty arbitrary category, but in this kind of film I feel that the vicarious love story is meant to be pretty central -- the hero is usually doing it all for love, you know? So if I don't fall in love too, at least for a few minutes, then the film has failed in one of its objectives.


Criteria 1: Swordfights 8/10.

The fights are mostly fast-paced, cinematic, not too gory, and very athletic. Good fun. However, there's a lack of repartee during them, and the final swordfight on the roof of Notre Dame is surprisingly ordinary. Where is the villain being hoist by his own petard??? Dudes, that is an integral ingredient!

Criteria 2: Witty repartee 2/10.

It only gets a score at all because of Orlando Bloom's Duke of Buckingham. Everyone else's dialogue feels like it was stolen from another film. I suspect Bloom's is actually equally terrible, but he twirls his villainous moustache and lifts his scathing eyebrow so well, it sounds awfully witty anyway.

Criteria 3: Fabulous villains 6/10

Milla Jovovich's Milady is awesome and steals every scene she's in. Orlando Bloom pulled a fast-one here and accidentally became the star of the movie, which frankly surprised me, as his acting chops have always rested firmly on looking pretty, which admittedly he does very, very well. However, in this film, he takes looking pretty to new and deviously political ends. The moment he steps out of his Warship wearing blue brocade is actually a highlight of the movie. If only there had been more politically motivated brocade-focused oneupmanship. That would have been my kind of movie!

All of that said, the actual villains, Cardinal Richelieu and Captain Rochefort, are forgettable. In a film of this genre, forgettable villains is unforgivable. The only thing worse is forgettable heroes. Speaking of which...

Criteria 4: Falling in love with a hero/ine 4/10

Once again, the film only scores in this category at all because of Milla Jovovich and Orlando Bloom. They were totally my movie girlfriend and boyfriend. And while I loved them and found them awesome, that is just not how this kind of film is meant to work.

Unfortunately, the sad truth is that the four musketeers were wet. The best of them in terms of potential loveability was Aramis, and if you have read the book, you will know just how wrong, wrong, wrong that is. *shudders* Porthos was charming but forgettable. Athos worked the puppydog eyes well, but we never got enough of the backstory with Milady to really believe it. D'Artagnan was pretty but lacked any charisma. That's considered hot now? God, I'm getting old.

The moral of the film: Red-heads are ethically inferior to all other people, because they always have an intrinsic "flaw", such as being fat, effeminate, disabled, or women. This is probably because there are no people of colour anywhere in the world to have such "flaws" instead.

The verdict: 5/10. Passable, but you'd be better off seeing one of the older adaptations. Or The Princess Bride.

If you want some other options, here's Steven Hart's list of the Best Swordfight Movies of All Time, which includes a Three Musketeers film.

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Tags: commentary, meta, movies, review
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