Friday, July 29, 2011

A Traditional Western Clothed in Sci-Fi Chaps -- Reflections on "Cowboys & Aliens" (2011)

Cool, but not as cool as this image would have you believe.

When I first heard Jon Favreau was directing Cowboys & Aliens, I was intrigued. I love a great western, and of course I'm all in favor of sci-fi. Maybe this movie could be like a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup, or like Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles -- a masterpiece of seemingly mismatched genres. I got all geeky inside imagining horse riding cowboys sideshooting wicked aliens on a desert terrain. It seemed odd, but somehow like a crazy fantasy straight from the mind of an eight-year old boy.

Well, Cowboys & Aliens is pretty much what I imagined it would be. And while I was satisfied with the finished product, I was also somewhat disappointed, too. There's a part of me that feels like a highly paid group of writers has a responsibility to go do the unexpected, avoid the predictable and cliche, and entertain us ceaselessly. Cowboys & Aliens is, by no means, a bad film, but it never pushes the envelope on either genre it plays with, often choosing to cling tightly to the traditions of each. Where it could have been audacious and daring, it is instead traditional and, occasionally, generic.

Basics: Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the middle of the desert with amnesia and a strange metal bracelet on his arm. He winds up in the small, western town of Absolution where he is pegged for an outlaw and forced to face off against the law. When aliens attack, the metal bracelet acts up and Jake discovers he has an unexpected connection with these flying "demons." The aliens abduct several members of the town, including the son of the town bigwig, Col. Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), so the remaining group forms a posse to track down the aliens and save everyone.

Supporting Stars: Most classic westerns relied on a great supporting cast to make them memorable. One of the things Cowboys & Aliens gets right is its casting. The leads, of course, look and act the part, but it's the bit players that make this world feel lived in. Sam Rockwell plays the pacifist saloon owner Doc with a terrific intensity. Keith Carradine, as Absolution's hand-tied Sheriff, is moral and kind. I also enjoyed Olivia Wilde's performance as Ella, a mysterious lady with a unique connection to Jake and the device strapped to his arm.

Alien Issues: The strongest element of this movie is the western story -- Jake's amnesia and the way he has to learn how bad a scoundrel he is is enough to make a movie by itself. The strength of this storyline highlights the weakness of the alien aspect. The aliens are, once again, a silent species who seem more willing to take and destroy than anything reasonable. Their design is similar to that of the creature in Super 8. Once we discover what their motivation is for abducting people, it's awfully underwhelming. There's definitely a reason "cowboys" comes first in the title.

Socio-Political-Historical Metaphors: I don't think I would be so critical of the movie if it weren't for the obvious parallels made between the Cowboy/Alien conflict and the Cowboy/Indian conflict. You see, the aliens are like the Americans who are here raping and pillaging and taking the land we had first. It's like we become the Indians, which makes our cowboys come to truly understand the plight of the Native American. As if being abducted by opportunistic aliens is enough to create sympathy for the years and years of raping, pillaging, and sequestering endured by Native Americans.

While Cowboys & Aliens is uneven, it's not a wholly bad film, and has some fun moments. I think my expectations were a bit higher considering the film's pedigree. If the title had been even more obvious, like Snakes on a Plane, perhaps I would have had been even more forgiving. Nonetheless, this is a decent movie with some enjoyable moments and a strong cast that elevates weaker material.

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