My concern was that the science fiction and western elements of Cowboys & Aliens would not be able to meet halfway. Can you blame me? On paper, I cannot think of a more awkward pairing of genres. I envisioned a disaster along the lines of The Warrior’s Way (which fused the western with martial arts), or going back much further, Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (the western and horror, which I happened to catch one Saturday night on an episode of Elvira’s Movie Macabre). Thankfully, director Jon Favreau and his screenwriters managed to combine the two without making it seem unnatural. Stylistically, the film is a precarious balancing act; make it too jokey or too serious, and you will immediately lose the audience. The film is nothing close to camp, but on the same token, it’s not so somber that it fails to be kind of fun.
Even so, the plot is straightforward but thematically murky, and the characters, while competently written and performed, feel strangely aloof. It even calls into question the science fiction element, which seems less like an opportunity for idea making and more like an excuse for action and special effects. There’s nothing innately wrong with an escapist alien invasion movie – I think most of us had a great deal of fun watching Independence Day. But specific scenes make it clear that Favreau was trying to dig a little deeper; the more you attempt to send a message, the more out of place stunts, pyrotechnics, and CGI become. The latter are typically relied upon for padding stories founded on flimsy ideas. If you don’t believe me, feel free to watch the Transformers movie of your choice.
Adapted from the graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, the film takes place in the Southwestern desert circa the late 1800s. It tells the story of a man (Daniel Craig) who awakens with a start in the middle of nowhere with a wound on his side and a strange metal shackle around his wrist. He has absolutely no memory of how he got there, or even of who he is. He is, however, in full command of his ability to speak, as well as his capacity to take on men with guns. Desperate for answers, he wanders into the small desert community of Absolution, where he discovers he’s a wanted outlaw named Jake Lonergan and is soon arrested. He’s especially high on the hit list of Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), a gruff, hard-hearted cattle farmer and former military man. One night, as Lonergan is about to be transferred to another city, strange lights appear in the sky, causing the shackle to light up. Absolution is then attacked in a blaze of alien firepower, and a number of the locals are abducted like fish on hooks.
A handful of the remaining townsfolk, including Lonergan, set off to find their loved ones. For Dolarhyde, it’s personal; his cowardly, reckless, and bratty son Percy (Paul Dano) is among those abducted. At Lonergan’s side is Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde), who always seems to know more than she lets on. She wants Lonergan to regain his memory as badly as he does. Fragments slowly but surely piece themselves together, hinting at a woman he loved, a robbery, and gold pieces that mysteriously melted together before being sucked out of the house through the roof. We also get flashes of a metal slab, some bizarre-looking restraints, and glowing instruments of torture. As his memory resurfaces, the people of Absolution and a tribe of Apache Indians cross paths, and since they have a common enemy, they quickly join forces. This will have a profound effect on Dolarhyde, known for slaughtering Indians, and on the Apache chief (Raoul Trujillo), who up until now never trusted a white man.
Thematically, it seems clear that the alien invasion is an allusion to the European settlers and their hostile takeover of Native American nations. There is, however, a flaw to this interpretation; whereas the settlers immigrated to the New World in search of religious freedom, the aliens in this film are merely miners that see Earth as a resource for gold. Because of this, the film’s other major thematic allusion – Manifest Destiny – suddenly falls flat. The aliens are not forcefully developing new territories in the arrogant belief that it was wise and apparent. Their hostile treatment of humans is never adequately explained, apart from a vague reference to us being like insects to them; if aliens are invading my planet, they better have a damn good reason apart from bloodlust.
As for the aliens themselves, I’ll stay true to the secrecy of the ad campaign and not describe them to you. All leads to the discovery of the mother ship, for lack of a better word, and the inevitable journey into its core. What could have been an over-the-top display of preposterous gizmos is instead, thankfully, a modestly designed series of rooms and passageways that still manage to look otherworldly. To be sure, Cowboys & Aliens is, from start to finish, a monumentally ridiculous movie. The filmmakers seem to have realized this from the very start, and thusly took no extra steps to overcompensate. That’s fine, I guess, although I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Favreau and his team actually had dug a little deeper. Even escapist entertainment is entitled to some degree of meaning.
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