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Film Review: Cowboys & Aliens

Cowboys & Aliens (2011; Directed by Jon Favreau)

With a title as full-bore pulp fiction as Cowboys & Aliens, one might be forgiven in expecting something infinitely sillier than the final released product. Gunslingers on horseback emptying their chambers at buzzing spaceships, high noon shootout with laser blasters, saloon fistfights between grim, stiff-jawed outlaws and slimy bug-eyed extraterrestrials. That, you might be justified in thinking, would be the ticket. Go all in with the promise of ridiculous genre-colliding nonsense and just have a total ball with it.

Cowboys & Aliens is not that kind of movie, which we as an audience may be grateful for at times and may deeply regret at others. It’s helmed by Iron Man director Jon Favreau from a script by J.J. Abrams’ collaborators Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof, who based it on a story by three other guys, who based it on a graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg. Before you start humming “Too Many Cooks”, don’t forget Ron Howard and Brian Grazer producing and Steven Spielberg exec producing and the big-star influence of leads Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford. With so many particular creative minds and visions involved in the project, you’d think it would be a bit more imaginative or surprising than the violent and often cumbersome blockbuster end result.

Orci, Kurtzman and Lindelof know how to hook you with a tantalizing opening that promises fascinating mysteries to be unravelled (the first two hours of Lindelof’s television opus Lost are better than almost anything that followed on the show). Cowboys & Aliens begins with Craig’s then-nameless protagonist character awakening in the desert Southwest with a bleeding wound in his side and bizarre electronic bracelet attached to his wrist. Three mounted outlaws ride up and tell him they’re on the road to Absolution, ask him if he knows the way. Before matters come to blows, you might be fooled into thinking something deep and metaphorical is about to happen.

Whether sadly or not, it isn’t really. The amnesiac stranger with the gauntlet gizmo rides into the nearest town, is mended by the world-weary preacher (Clancy Brown, who always plays a preacher), runs afoul the callow, drunken son (Paul Dano) of a local cattle-trading kingpin, meets a beautiful woman (Olivia Wilde) who seems to know more about him than he does, and is arrested by the local sheriff (Keith Carradine). Though he has no memory of it, he’s apparently a wanted criminal named Jake Lonergan, accused of stealing gold from the cattle-trader Colonel Dolarhyde (Ford) and killing a former prostitute (Abigail Spencer). Before he can be shipped to federal jurisdiction in Santa Fe for trial, however, a disastrous calamity befalls the Wild West town.

Knowing genre fans will immediately have the assaulting force pegged as the titular aliens, but the pre-science-fiction 19th-century townsfolk call them demons or monsters. Either way, they swoop down from the night sky, blowing up the clapboard buildings, snatching people up with electronic lassos, and vaporizing anyone who tries to resist. Only Lonergan’s gauntlet, which switches on when the extraterrestrials are near like an otherworldly Sting, is an effective weapon against them; it’s of their own advanced technology, and releases powerful energy blasts that down one of their attack ships.

Seeing as the invaders have abducted someone who means something to almost all of the characters in town, including the sheriff, Dolarhyde’s son Percy, and the Latina wife of the town’s barkeep/doctor (Sam Rockwell), a motley posse coalesces quickly to track them down. Old hatchets are buried one by one, as Dolarhyde’s posse, the hostile outlaw gang that Lonergan once led, and a distrustful band of Apache warriors join forces to return the missing and perhaps to repel the aliens, who Wilde’s Ella has told them pose an existential threat to much more than just their sparsely-populated corner of New Mexico.

Cowboys & Aliens works very hard and spends lots of budget to appear as realistic a rendering of this premise as possible without ever stopping to wonder if that effect is especially worth the effort. The seriousness of this business is part of the problem; it’s trying to be The Searchers meets Independence Day, but the Duke would just shake his head and deride this load of nonsense. The CG aliens are well-designed and are formidable antagonists, but not much else, not that they’re required to be; their evident interest in gold drives their invasion plans, for which the party encountered by the cowboys is a mere scout group.

This association with resource exploitation, as well as the technological gap between the colonizing outsiders and the settled natives (Native and otherwise), aligns the aliens with the white American settlers who conquered the West in the name of Manifest Destiny. Cowboys & Aliens has little time for involved political metaphors about the implications of westward expansion; The Lone Ranger it ain’t, though it was a commercial flop of similar proportions.

But in between scenes of hard-edged masculine bonding and fights between, well, cowboys and aliens, the film at once carries the embedded suggestion of the brutality of Caucasian-American usurpation of Native lands and destruction of their way of life along with a heroic fantasy alliance of the West’s various antagonistic social factions. Unable to face up properly to the atrocities of white settlement and the stark divisions of Old West society (or of America at large), Cowboys & Aliens gradually erases them by uniting the marginalizers and the marginalized against a common external, hostile Other. It’s a frothy, generic mashup onscreen dream of the contemporary American mindset, where entrenched inequities and cultural vendettas are subsumed in favour of emotionally-charged resentment of an implacable enemy from away. The cowboy, that all-American symbol of individualist liberty, pioneering spirit and rogue heroism, opposes the alien, that symbol for threatening, unrecognizable Otherness descended from Cold War Red Scare paranoia. No guesses as to who gets to ride into the sunset.

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