When Humans Fight Back

Franz Drameh, Alex Esmail, John Boyega, Jodie Whittaker, and Leeon Joness in Attack the Block. Photo: Matt Nettheim/Courtesy of Screen Gems

The inevitable blockbuster Cowboys & Aliens is an agreeable time-killer, but I’ll bet a couple of clever kids could make a livelier movie with a Woody puppet and a Predator doll. The filmmakers—Jon Favreau and five credited screenwriters—missed a chance to fool around with two disparate homegrown American genres and come up with something freaky and surprising.

The movie is more Western than sci-fi, but the cowboys are like Indians. I mean, Native Americans. I mean, people going about their business when all of a sudden a horde of plundering imperialist invaders descends on them. Now the boss-man capitalist, the outlaw, and even the Native American chief have a common enemy. It starts with a start: Muscular, blue-eyed Daniel Craig wakes up in the desert with a wound in his side, a weird metallic bracelet locked on his wrist, and no ­memory—although, like Jason Bourne, he can effortlessly waste baddies. He’s haunted … but by what? Favreau is clever enough to withhold the pertinent plot details. With a narrative this hackneyed, not knowing is more fun than finding out.

No spoilers, folks. But I will say it’s delightfully disorienting when the first shoot-out is about to erupt and then—what the heck … ? The camera makes like Spielberg’s, tracking in on characters gazing in wonder at a glow on the horizon that turns out to be mini ships that whiz in and snatch up shrieking earthlings.

It’s too bad the aliens (amusingly dubbed “demons,” there being no sci-fi frame of reference in the Old West) are a cosmic letdown. Their ships are clearly computer-generated and move too fast to generate awe. And the aliens—apart from a Nazi-like surgeon—are mostly CGI, too, and indistinguishable. They do have one odd aspect: mandibles that open to reveal human-looking hands, which pop out and grab stuff. Behind those hands are exposed internal organs ripe for stabbing, an anatomical quirk that strikes me as, evolutionarily speaking, spectacularly nonadaptive.

Rumor has it that Harrison Ford insists on having his parts beefed up, so even in a supporting role (town boss) he has a lot of drawn-out scenes in which he gruffly bonds with sheriff Keith Carradine’s grandson and abuses his Native American top man (Adam Beach). Gorgeous, cat-eyed Olivia Wilde stands around as a woman who—what on earth is she standing around for? Don’t think, just ogle.

NB: Cowboys & Aliens is yet another PG-13 movie that will be seen by millions of kids that glamorizes tobacco use. Hero Daniel Craig sits puffing contemplatively after a big action scene, and, later, a lit cigarette saves the day when one of Craig’s henchmen nervously drops a pack of matches meant to light a mess of explosives. It could be argued that tobacco use was rampant in the old West so this is historically accurate. It could also be argued that aliens with disintegrating ray guns were not, therefore the film is baloney anyway. So why make cigarettes look cool—unless you have a deal with Big Tobacco?

Joe Cornish’s terrific low-budget British thriller Attack the Block could be called Homies & Aliens, and it has what’s missing from Favreau’s impersonal Hollywood product. It’s wall-to-wall sci-fi pop-culture bric-a-brac, yet it feels organic. There’s something more at stake than the fate of a movie-ish Earth.

The film centers on a roving gang of hooligans, mostly black but with token black-acting whites, who live in a South London housing project or “council estate.” In the opening scene, they mug a white nurse (Jodie Whittaker), who gets away when something big falls from the sky and destroys a nearby car. As Moses, the leader, John Boyega (in his film debut) has the poise of a young Denzel Washington and a gift for appearing courageous and frightened at once. Moses’s problem is his pride—he can’t be shown up—which is why he chases the alien, kills it, and carries it on a stick like a trophy. It’s only later he understands that his macho instinct for revenge has caused much of the carnage.

Not all, though. These are nasty creatures—described by one teen as looking as if a monkey had fucked a fish—that rip people to shreds with iridescent fangs. But the splatter is secondary. Attack the Block is the story of kids on their own, with no viable authority figures, one even wondering if the creatures weren’t sent to kill black boys because “We ain’t killing each other fast enough.” To defend the block, the gang—which now includes the nurse they mugged—grabs samurai swords and guns and fireworks. It’s their chance to prove they’re more than society’s castoffs.

Cornish, like Edgar Wright (who directed Shaun of the Dead and was an executive producer here), can parody a genre in a way that revitalizes it, that reminds you why the genre was born in the first place. The movie is in a different galaxy than Cowboys & Aliens: It has, in both senses, guts.

In Mysteries of Lisbon, the prolific Chilean-born director and egghead Raúl Ruiz has achieved something remarkable, at once avant-garde and middlebrow: the apotheosis of the soap opera. Based on a novel (unavailable in English) by the (also prolific) nineteenth-century Portuguese author Camilo Castelo Branco, the film unfolds on what looks like the most sumptuous puppet stage ever created, the occasional cuts to an actual puppet stage suggesting this might be the dream of a young puppeteer named Pedro (João Arrais), an apparent orphan in a boarding school run by the supremely empathetic Father Dinis (Adriano Luz). The characters, however, are anything but puppets: They have depth, wayward passions, and a Catholic penchant for deathbed repentance. They are tragically madcap.

The film, which is 257 minutes long (cut down from six episodes originally made for TV), tells the story of Pedro’s origins—not just the tragic tales of his parents but of those who saved his life and continue to determine his fate. Point-of-view is passed like a baton. There are multiple narrators, flashbacks within flashbacks, crisscrossing story lines, incredible coincidences, and characters who shed one identity and pick up another. The camera mirrors the narrative flow. Shot on digital video by André Szankowski, Mysteries of Lisbon is limpid, legato, full of fluid tracking shots and lengthy takes, the images painterly, the space layered. It’s not a probing camera, but it’s always in the right place to capture what’s important, the furtive glance or frenzied glower.

In the large cast of Portuguese and French actors, Luz (with multiple personas) is the most intensely likable, Ricardo Pereira as a seducer the most devilishly intriguing, Clotilde Hesme as a vengeful orphan the most beguilingly beautiful. The film is like a Barry Lyndon that breathes, the proportion of period detail to people just so. You can study it, like a painting, and then realize, with a gasp, that it has got hold of you like a fever.

Cowboys & Aliens
Directed by Jon Favreau. PG-13.

Attack the Block
Directed by Joe Cornish. R.

Mysteries of Lisbon
Directed by Raúl Ruiz. Unrated.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.

When Humans Fight Back