A few minutes into Cowboys & Aliens I found myself wishing I’d gone to the Smurfs movie instead. I was taking the sons of a friend to the movies, and I knew that the violence in the opening scene was more than she would have approved. For that matter, it was more than I was expecting from a PG-13 film.
Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) wakes in the desert with no boots, a wound in his side, a weird metal contraption strapped to his wrist and a bad case of amnesia. Three men ride up while he is trying to get the thing on his wrist off. Lingering close-ups of bloody scalps hanging from their saddles tell us that these are not nice guys. A fight ensues, during which we get more bloody close-ups, this time of a knife stuck in one of their legs, and then of Lonergan’s face as it is splattered with blood from the head he has just bashed in.
It wasn’t anything to which I would have objected normally, but it seemed unnecessary and perhaps a tad overly nasty, and certainly not something I really wanted those boys to see, or their mum to hear about. Fortunately, it didn’t seem to register much with the boys. Based on their comments after, they’d been more engaged by the aliens’ second set of hands, and by a cowpoke taking a dump in the river, than by the nastiness that discomforted me. But I was still a bit bothered…
After that bloody opening, Lonergan rides into town, where he is recognized as a wanted fugitive and arrested. As he is being loaded into a prison wagon, the aliens show up in insectile flying craft. They blast up the town and start hauling off townsfolk with metallic ropes that lash out and grab them. It’s one of the few moments of real wit in the movie, seeing the aliens lassoing townspeople like cattle.
The thing on Lonergan’s wrist activates, and he is able to use it to blast his way out of the prison wagon, and then to shoot down one of the alien craft. The alien pilot escapes and some of the townsfolk set off in pursuit, hoping it will lead them to where the lassoed people have been taken. They are accompanied by Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), the local cattle baron, whose ne’er–do–well son was one of those taken. Lonergan initially abandons them, but later comes back when his memory starts to return and he recalls that the aliens had kidnapped him and his wife and killed her. Also along for the ride is a mysterious woman (played by Olivia Wilde, seen most recently on Tron:Legacy and the TV show House), who seems to know something about the aliens and have her own cause for revenge. The group meets up first with Lonergan’s former gang, and then with a tribe of Apaches, both of whom ultimately join them in their assault on the aliens.
It’s fun to watch Harrison Ford as a cowboy—the last time we saw that was probably The Frisco Kid (1979), a fairly fun comedy Western directed by Robert Aldrich and co-starring Gene Wilder. We’ve seen him on a horse since, in the “Indiana Jones” movies, but he would have been good in more Westerns. And Daniel Craig is good, too—looking surprisingly gaunt after his sleek foray as James Bond, and appropriately haunted, making a fairly effective “man with no name” lone cowboy hero. But gaunt as he is, he’s still a bit too gym-toned for me. Think of the great movie cowboys—the long and lanky James Stewart, the even leaner Henry Fonda, solid (later chunky) John Wayne, and perhaps most particularly the rangy, languid menace of Clint Eastwood in his spaghetti Westerns. Craig’s eyes have got it, and his lined face, but somehow the body and moves seem more martial arts than open range.
The film lives up to its title. Cowboys happen. Aliens happen. And yet it all seemed a little… dull. The pursuit of the aliens is a bit hard to believe. No one riding around the hills, not even those Apaches, noticed that huge alien structure with spacecraft flying out of it? And there are so many subplots along the way—the outlaws, the Apaches, the mysterious woman, Dolarhyde’s backstory—that there isn’t much room for the things we most enjoy about movies with cowboys and movies with aliens, so it ends up feeling like, despite all those subplots, not a whole lot happens. There’s a ridiculous showdown between the Apaches and Dolarhyde before the final battle. And that final battle with aliens ends up offering nothing really new and no real surprises.
It’s actually a bog standard fantasy novel plot. Lonergan’s amnesia makes him the orphan with a mysterious past. His alien wrist device is the magic ring, sword, oracular pig, whatever. He goes off to hunt down the evil force in its lair, being joined along the way by a band, a fellowship. Together they defeat the evil, and harmony is restored in the kingdom. It’s not bad to follow that archetypal storyline. Lots of great books and movies have been made from it. Unfortunately, it feels like this movie ran out of inventive steam shortly after the elevator pitch one imagines got it started: it’s a Western—with aliens! and Han Solo!
In the beginning, there were moments that suggested it might have more to offer than that elevator pitch. The local preacher, Meacham (Clancy Brown), had that real, authentic Western feel initially, but his character degenerates into caricature pretty quickly. He’s there to bang on about absolution to the film’s other figures, particularly Lonergan and the town saloon keeper, Doc (played by Sam Rockwell, Zaphod Beeblebrox in the lamentable film version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy from a few years back). Doc’s name should have warned us that the scriptwriters were running out of ideas fast. The fact that the town’s name was Absolution, and that this emerged as a key thread in the script, might also have been a warning.
If Sergio Leone had made the film, no one in Absolution would have been absolved; damnation would have been more likely. But instead, we get the safe restoration of all the alien kidnap victims—though there seems to be no real reason they were taken, much less kept alive—and absolution for all the bad guys—Dolarhyde becomes a good citizen and his son is reformed; Lonergan is effectively pardoned by the sheriff, and even his outlaw gang seems to have been integrated into the community. It’s a “one big happy family” scene at the end, with all of them drinking together in the saloon. With one exception.
The Indians aren’t part of the celebration. The group of Apaches that the rescue team encounter join them in attacking the aliens because their loved ones have been kidnapped as well. But while the nasty outlaws get invited to the wrap party at the saloon, the Apaches seem to be absent. I guess it was easier to imagine vicious, smelly murderers getting recuperated by the shared experience of vanquishing alien hordes than it was Indians.
Maybe because there is a real fracture line in the film around Indians and the West, and Westerns.
Like most Westerns—like almost all Westerns—Cowboys & Aliens is set in the period between the end of the American Civil War and the “closing of the frontier,” when the last groups of free and independent Indians were brought under the heel of the federal government. And as in many of these Westerns, the Civil War lurks in the background, here in the form of Colonel Dolarhyde whose power and violent nature were shaped by that war, and whose war stories get told in the course of the movie’s quest.
Another great theme/setting for Westerns is the conflict between cattlemen and townsfolk, the range wars, and this is clearly also at play in Cowboys & Aliens, between Dolarhyde and the townsfolk—particularly in the beginning, when Dolarhyde’s son Percy rides into town and starts shooting things up. It’s straight out of any number of Wyatt Earp/OK Corral-inspired movies, with the confrontation between the forces of law and order and the unruly cowboys. The only twist is having Lonergan the outlaw stand up to the cowboy. (The cowboys riding into town to free one of their own from the sheriff’s hoosegow was the whole plot, really, of one of my favorite Westerns, Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo.)
So the filmmakers were aware of the West, of at least of Westerns. And were not without wit and intelligence, as in, for instance, the “lassoing” of the townsfolk, and the earlier scene where they “mutilate” some of Dolarhyde’s cattle. But given all of that, you might have expected something more to come out of the fact that aliens have invaded the West to mine gold, and that this makes them obvious stand-ins for the Europeans invading Indian lands for resources (land, buffalo, gold). But instead, the fallout (literally, of gold) from the defeat of the aliens means the town will grow rapidly, and while it brings the cowboys and townsfolk together, the absence of the Apache from the closing celebration is a clear token of things to come as far as they are concerned.
There’s a certain amount of irony around the title here. The title suggests that the aliens occupy the space of the Indians—Cowboys & Aliens instead of the normal “cowboys and indians”—but in fact, by invading the land to take the resources, they are more like cowboys. And the attack by the film’s cowboys—Lonergan, Dolarhyde and co., joined by the Apaches—on the alien structure is a bit like an Indian attack on a fort in an old western. It’s really the cowboys who are the Indians, not the aliens. But only until the closing. Then it is back to business as usual: the cowboys are cowboys again, and the Indians are missing in action.
The filmmakers missed a real chance here to be a bit wittier and smarter, and make more of a revisionist Western, by highlighting these ironical reversals, developing them more and having them lead somewhere. It’s clear that this was on their minds—or at least some of their minds, to some extent. Maybe it died on the cutting room floor to make room for the romance angle between Craig and Olivia Wilde, which frankly I thought was another unnecessary distraction from what I’d come to see, what the title promised: cowboys and aliens.
As for that also unnecessary nastiness which bugged me in the beginning, it continued, like an irritating, intermittent whine. The cowpoke dropping his drawers to take a dump in the river, which the boys found so interesting, didn’t do much for me, and I was even less impressed with the subsequent scene of Dolarhyde torturing this cowboy because he somehow suspected… what? That the cowboy was responsible for a whole herd of cattle being blown up, fried and eviscerated? How would that have worked?
Ford’s Dolarhyde is at the center of much of the nastiness that follows the first scene—with the torturing of the cowpoke and then a gruesome story he tells a kid about cutting someone’s throat. I don’t mind violence and blood. In their place, they can be crucial to a movie. I just didn’t think the nastiness was crucial to this movie, and didn’t see what it added. I suppose I was just super-sensitive because I knew how much flak I was going to catch from those boys’ mom when she found out. But no—it didn’t add anything, and took up screen time that could have been much more profitably and appropriately used.
I’m sure I would have been much more miserable at The Smurfs, and felt even more guilty about inflicting on the boys what I am pretty sure would be a really stupid movie rather than some blood and violence which was more upsetting for me, thinking of them and their mom, than it was for them.
The British Board of Film Classification gave Cowboys & Aliens a 12A classification, meaning that the film is not considered suitable for children under the age of 12, though they may go if accompanied by an adult. The wording for the American PG-13 rating seems a bit less strict, merely holding that “Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.” I might have thought twice about taking these kids, both of whom were under 12 (albeit just), to this movie if I’d know it had a 12A certificate, but the truth is, finally, that it was my bad. I grew up watching movies with cowboys and aliens—and Harrison Ford—and I thought this would be more like them. I should have known better, really.
Filed under: Movies, Film, science fiction, Westerns