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.