Cowboys vs Dinosaurs

Cole Amundson

I should disclaim at the start that I am friends, acquainted with, or have met in passing, a few of the crew members who worked on this movie.

Cowboys vs Dinosaurs is uh... well, about cowboys who fight dinosaurs. It’s the latest film in a line of ironic, intentionally bad movies a la Sharknado, Sharktopus, Airplane vs. Volcano, Raiders of the Lost Shark, Sharktopus vs. Whalewolf and other assorted combinations of “Shark vs. Noun.” These sorts of films try to capitalize on the popularity of cult classics, the “so bad they’re good” movies like Troll 2, The Room, and Plan 9 From Outer Space. But those films are beloved, and not always ironically, because their creators lack of self awareness, who have the ego to believe that they actually are creating great works of art. Sharknado and its ilk know they’re bad, and don’t aspire to be anything more. This phenomenon isn’t entirely new however, films like Mars Attacks, Black Dynamite, and Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse double feature play intentionally as camp, but they’re entertaining because of a shared reverence for B-movie/exploitation flicks. Which leaves us with Cowboys vs. Dinosaurs, a movie unsure of what it wants to be. It oscillates between melodrama, faux B-movie shlock, and earnest genre filmmaking. As a result it feels bland and uninteresting.

The movie is set in Livingston, and follows Val Walker (Rib Hillis) a strong, silent type stock character with a past he regrets, namely, getting injured during a rodeo, falling into a bender and hitting his girlfriend. Three years later he waltzes back into town to look for work. Meanwhile, an Iridium mine near town blows through a layer of rock, not to discover amber like a certain other dinosaur movie, but actual dinosaurs. The dinosaurs kill off a few dudes before the tunnel is blown up to put the dinos back in their place. Or so it seems. We then follow a group of girls, who despite the overcast conditions, decide to strip down to their bikinis and go swimming. Well actually they stand knee deep in the water for literally a minute before Sky (Casey Fitzgerald), a vague hot-blonde stock character, conveniently remembers that she has to go to work, another girl leaves with her. Leaving the other two friends and a boyfriend behind to get picked off by a velociraptor just moments later. Val meanwhile, having failed to find work (he only tried two places to be fair, at a ranch and at the mine, which was closed down for mysterious reasons) goes to eat at a restaurant, conveniently (and intentionally) the one Sky works at, the girl he hit those years ago.

I should probably mention now that it hasn’t been revealed that he hit her around at this point of the film. His backstory is delivered strategically throughout the runtime (though most of it gets out of the way in the first half), but thinking about this part of the movie with the full knowledge of his background is kind of creepy, she obviously doesn’t want him there, to the point of calling the sheriff/her dad (Vernon Welles). The sheriff, like any reasonable father, really wants his daughter’s borderline-stalker, abusive ex-boyfriend to leave, and Val complies but not before slugging him. Like, I get that people change but just give the girl a call, dude. The film ends their emotional arc with her falling back into his arms (obviously), but when you think about it for more than a second, it feels like the movie advocates giving abusive ex-partners a second chance, when you know, there’s better fish in the sea, even in small towns.

Anyway, the scene as it plays out makes it look like the sheriff is the bad one while Val is just a dude getting some grub. He is later thrown in jail where he reconnects with his drunken father (Eric Roberts) who, in one of the few genuinely funny moments of the movie, is introduced puking his guts out in a cell. Meanwhile, throughout town, locals are getting killed Friday The 13th style by raptors. Back at the mine, a vague, nefarious looking businessman with an evil accent is becoming frustrated by the slow progress in restoring operations. After giving a list of vague reasons to move forward with exploding the mine some more, they do, releasing more dinosaurs onto the unsuspecting town of Livingston. What follows for the second and third acts plays out like a bad zombie movie as opposed to a bad monster movie. I was half expecting the plot to involve a character who conceals a dinosaur bite from the other survivors, only to turn into one in the third act.
Obviously the plot is ludicrous, but the film relies too heavily on the ridiculousness of the situation to carry a viewer’s interest. The film does little to build tension between kills, the dinosaurs just jump in and kill within the blink of an eye. The film spends much of its time focusing on the interpersonal dynamics of these characters, but it doesn’t matter when the characters are uninteresting cardboard cutouts of characters you’ve seen in dozens of better films, and as a result the acting suffers. Only one character, Quaid (Kelcey Watson), is allowed to have any fun with the inherent absurdity of the premise. He blasts dinosaurs away with gleeful abandon, yells obscenities and steals every scene he’s in. He’s a breath of fresh air in what is otherwise an awfully sullen cast (of course excluding a drunken Eric Roberts).

Perhaps my experience would have improved if I was able to attend the premiere, and laugh alongside a live audience. Instead I had to settle for an online stream, with a spotty internet connection to boot. This might be a preferable way of viewing it however, as the low resolution covered up many of the flaws in the CGI work. But I’m not sure I would tell anyone to watch it. It never allows itself to get too silly without winking and nudging the audience, or never gets too exciting because of poor action staging and special effects work. Even the setting, which will be appealing to many in the region, is under-utilized. It failed to capture the local flavor of Livingston, and it might as well have been set in any other small town.    

Montana deservers better.

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