Following last week’s look at the odd history of the science-fiction Western, I offer a more detailed defense of 2011’s Cowboys & Aliens (warning: spoilers ahead). Like my article on Addicted to Love, this was written as an entry for Lovefest, an ongoing series organized by commenters on film website The Dissolve. The only requirement for Lovefest is that it is an appreciation of a movie that flopped, was panned by critics, and/or is generally forgotten.
The title Cowboys & Aliens promises a high-concept romp. In interviews featured on the Blu-ray, writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman and director Jon Favreau mention that the title alone of Scott Mitchell Rosenberg’s comic book series got them excited, and perhaps Universal’s marketers assumed that audiences would be similarly turned on by the prospect of B-movie thrills in a genre mash-up. Further, the involvement of Favreau, known for witty banter and a slyly comic approach (whether directing Will Ferrell in a Christmas comedy or setting the template for Marvel’s superhero franchise with Robert Downey, Jr.), probably fed expectations that this would be more of the same.
Instead of the fun promised by the title, however, audiences got a fairly serious, even grim, drama that was surprisingly gruesome for its PG-13 rating and included moments of outright horror. (In the same featurettes, the filmmakers mention the inspiration they drew from Alien, but I don’t remember that being highlighted in the trailers.) There is some comic relief and plenty of action, but it’s not really a lighthearted movie. One never really knows how a movie will perform, but considering the talent involved and that audiences and critics claim to want original* blockbusters, a less generic title and more accurate marketing might have given the film a better chance. While a viewer might agree with everything I have to say and still not find this movie to their taste, fans of other maligned films like John Carter and The Lone Ranger will probably find something to enjoy in Cowboys & Aliens.
*In this case, “original” is a fuzzy concept: Cowboys & Aliens is original in the sense that it is neither sequel nor remake (even the comic book on which the film is based is hardly a well-known property, and appears to have been optioned solely for the name and concept), but it treads in well-worn pathways, featuring characters who are familiar by type if not by name.
Set in 1875 New Mexico, Cowboys & Aliens begins with a man (Daniel Craig) waking up in the desert, injured and with no memory of who he is. On his wrist is a strange metal shackle; in his pocket, a picture of a woman (Abigail Spencer). After brutally fending off an assault by three highwaymen, this literal Man With No Name makes his way to a depressed mining town called Absolution. He makes the acquaintance of a pragmatic preacher (Clancy Brown) and a strange woman, Ella (Olivia Wilde), who recognizes the shackle and says she can help him recover his memory. An obvious man of action, the stranger can’t help but insert himself into a scene caused by Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano), a bullying, loudmouthed twerp who takes advantage of the protection of his father (Harrison Ford), the local cattle king whose business keeps the town alive.
Provoked by the take-no-shit stranger, Percy fires his gun carelessly, hitting a nearby deputy in the shoulder. The sheriff (Keith Carradine) has no choice but to lock Percy up, but he quickly realizes that the newcomer is Jake Lonergan, wanted for stealing a shipment of gold that belongs to Colonel Dolarhyde and for the murder of a prostitute; Lonergan gets locked up, too.
As night falls, the sheriff prepares to deliver both Percy and Lonergan to a judge in Santa Fe, and Colonel Dolarhyde and his men show up to stop him. Dolarhyde is first shown torturing a man whom he suspects of killing one of his herds (actually the work of the titular aliens, of course), and he has no qualms about using force to free his son or enacting rough justice on the man who stole from him.
Just as all of these strands of plot are coming together, the aliens attack from the air, causing explosive mayhem with their lasers and pulling townspeople into the air with lasso-like snares. When the aliens’ ships come in range, the bracelet on Lonergan’s wrist lights up, and he finds that he can use it as a powerful blaster; he shoots down one of the gliders, but it is too late to halt the attack completely. In the chaos, Percy is among those captured, as are the sheriff and the wife of Doc (Sam Rockwell), the town’s meek doctor/barkeep.
From here, the main plot is set in motion: Dolarhyde takes command of the situation and plans a rescue party, believing that the townspeople were taken alive for a reason. (“If they wanted ‘em dead, they’d be dead,” he says. “This was a round-up.”) Joining the search party are the tenderfoot doctor, who doesn’t even own a gun, and a young boy, Emmett (Noah Ringer), the sheriff’s grandson; Ella also joins for her own reasons, but Lonergan chooses not to go, even as Dolarhyde urges him to add his strange weapon to the search.
Where Cowboys & Aliens is most successful is in taking the premises of classic Westerns and alien-invasion stories seriously. The Western townspeople, while stock character types, are neither fools nor gifted with period-inappropriate knowledge. The film begins with several mundane plots in motion: there are no cardboard slasher victims, standing around waiting for the action to start. Further, they behave as any nineteenth-century person of average education might when faced with something beyond their understanding: when the aliens strike, some wonder if they are being attacked by demons, and they probably wouldn’t seek out trouble if they weren’t trying to retrieve their kidnapped loved ones. The film doesn’t count on the characters to relay exposition about aliens: we see the action through their eyes and fill in the details with our own genre experience.
As Lonergan’s memories gradually return, he visits an abandoned cabin, where he remembers bringing the stolen gold to his lover (the woman whose picture he had, and whom he is accused of killing), with the intention of starting over somewhere far away. In the first of several eerie flashbacks, the gold coins are melted into slag and sucked through the roof of the cabin by a mysterious force, and then one of the aliens’ skyhooks pierces the roof and captures the woman.
After finding nothing at the cabin, Lonergan joins the search party, which has been tracking an injured alien. The main tracker, a Mexican Indian named Nat (Adam Beach), is Dolarhyde’s hired man and Percy’s companion and protector, but is more importantly everything Percy isn’t: brave, competent, and honorable. To Dolarhyde, however, Nat is just a thick-skulled Indian.
After losing the tracks in a rainstorm, the party comes across an upside-down riverboat, stranded miles from any river. The searchers hole up in the eerie, decaying boat for the night, and several character arcs begin to unfold: the preacher helps Doc practice shooting; Dolarhyde reluctantly takes Emmett under his wing, giving him a knife for protection; Nat inadvertently reveals how much Dolarhyde has been a father figure to him, but is rebuked.
Will Doc learn to shoot in time to help save his wife? Will that knife come in handy just when Emmett needs it? Will Dolarhyde come to appreciate the surrogate son who has been in front of him the whole time? Most importantly, will Lonergan regain his memory and redeem himself after his former life of crime, coming to an understanding with the similarly hardened Civil War veteran Colonel Dolarhyde? If you can’t guess the answers to those questions, then you haven’t seen very many Westerns or sci-fi action movies.
It is worth emphasizing that Cowboys & Aliens presents a distinctly cinematic version of both the genres it combines: it is primarily an action movie with a secondary focus on character. Neither the history of the West nor a philosophy of science have any particular bearing on events, other than an awareness of the passing of the Indian in the face of white migration (something that is at the heart of many Westerns, but which is also, as we shall see, of thematic importance to Cowboys & Aliens).
As mentioned, the characters are archetypes of Western fiction; their familiarity helps us take sides right away. Also, whether consciously or not, Cowboys & Aliens exploits the fact that early filmed sci-fi took advantage of the rocky, arid terrain of the Southwest to stand in for alien planets. (The association of science fiction with desert landscapes has long literary associations, as well.) The same caves and canyons around Hollywood that were backdrops for Johnny Mack Brown and Tom Mix served just as well for the surface of the moon or the planet Mongo a few years later.
This is more than just convenience or historical association: it contributes vitally to the tone of the film. In an essay entitled “The Alien Landscapes of the Planet Earth: Science Fiction in the Fifties,” Vivian Sobchak points out that lonely, desolate places on earth have more power to awaken terror than visions of advanced technology that inevitably become dated with the passage of time. In Sobchak’s words, “What we wonder at today, we may laugh at tomorrow. But the desert and the beach, the wind and the sea, the black lagoon and the frozen stretches of Arctic ice do not date, and will never lose their power to awe and disturb us.”
The power Sobchak describes is what the romantics called the sublime, the combination of wonder and terror one experiences in the face of the vast works of nature such as the storm, or the sea . . . or the desert. It is what often makes even the lousiest Western worth watching for its panoramic vistas of the great plains, the deserts of the Southwest, or formations such as Monument Valley. Against the grain of much modern filmmaking, Cowboys & Aliens was filmed on location in New Mexico: all of its settings are real, physical places, even the spaceship interior sets; the aliens and their technology are brought to life with a mixture of CG and practical effects; and the daytime scenes are filmed with natural light. (Director of Photography Matthew Libatique is best known as a long-time collaborator with Darren Aronofsky, and had previously worked with Favreau on the first two Iron Man movies.) It is as real as a film about cowboys fighting alien invaders can be, and its sense of place is a powerful asset.**
**It also sounds great: composer Harry Gregson-Williams had the job of effectively scoring two movies, but his score fits together and bridges the gap between genres very effectively.
In the films Sobchak was writing about (largely low-budget monster and alien-invasion movies such as Them! and It Came From Outer Space), the scope and ruggedness of natural settings are only part of their effectiveness in setting mood: they are also isolated. The tension in these films is in part a product of their settings’ loneliness and distance from help, and the frisson generated when encountering something that doesn’t belong where no one should be: “strange inhuman footprints on an impressionable beach,” to cite one of Sobchak’s examples. Cowboys & Aliens features exactly that trope, with Indian tracker Nat following the trail of footprints left by the alien.
Tracking is an important part of Western lore, and the Indian scout is one of several archetypal characters the movie presents. The anxiety and eeriness of seeing the alien footprints is only slightly greater than that a settler might have experienced upon finding prints in unknown territory: do they belong to friend or foe? In that strange world west of the tree line, the unknown almost always represented danger.
Another common visual motif of science fiction is the juxtaposition of the natural and the artificial, or the primitive and the high-tech (in his essay “The Science Fiction Film Image,”*** Fred Chappell identifies this as one of five types of incongruity that can make an image recognizably science fictional: “the spaceship in the wilderness” and “the spaceman among alien aborigines” are two examples he gives). The riverboat, already made eerie by its landlocked, overturned state, is half-overgrown with weeds, and rain water filters through its cracked floors and ceilings. It’s an image of nature and technology in collision, and its wrongness foreshadows the searchers’ ultimate destination, a tower-like spaceship hidden among the rock formations of a remote canyon. In Cowboys & Aliens, the aliens are the spacemen, the humans the aborigines, a very effective reversal of common imagery (more about this momentarily).
***Both Vivian Sobchak’s and Fred Chappell’s essays are found in the Monarch Film Studies volume Science Fiction Films, edited by Thomas R. Atkins.
Unbeknownst to the group, the injured alien is also hiding in the riverboat, and this sequence of the movie recalls Alien’s “haunted house” formula; the first clear view of the alien reveals it as a tall, vaguely humanoid creature with a mixture of reptilian and insectoid features (including, most disturbingly, a breastplate that opens to reveal a pair of tiny, grasping forelimbs for fine manipulation, a clear nod to the mouth-within-a-mouth of H. R. Giger’s xenomorph). The alien picks off a few members of the party, including the preacher, and escapes.
The next morning, after picking up the alien’s fresh tracks, the party runs afoul of a gang of robbers: some of Lonergan’s old crew, now run by a dufus named Hunt (Walton Goggins). Lonergan, still not completely recovered from his amnesia, plays along and asks Hunt to take him back to the gang’s camp. It’s there that he learns that he had left the gang high and dry, taking their share of the stolen gold in order to run away with his woman. The gang isn’t too willing to have him back, and they threaten the members of the search party. Another aerial attack by the aliens interrupts them.
Ella is taken by one of the aliens’ lassos, and Lonergan manages to jump onto the ship carrying her, blowing it up with the blaster; they both land in the water, but Ella is wounded by the ship’s alien pilot, who also escaped the crash of his craft. Lonergan carries Ella back to the search party, but it’s too late: she is dead.
The party is surrounded by an Apache tribe on horseback who take them back to their encampment. Dolarhyde’s anti-Indian attitudes come to the fore, but Nat is able to translate and keep the two groups from killing each other. When Ella’s body is thrown onto a funeral pyre, it releases a burst of energy and she comes back to life: she is the last of her kind, one of another race that had already been wiped out by the aliens, and who has been following them to make sure no other world suffers the same fate as her home. Finally we get a little exposition: the aliens are part of a scouting mission, looking for gold (“It’s as rare to them as it is to you,” she explains) and abducting humans to perform tests and analyze their weaknesses in advance of a full invasion force.
Even when it’s clearer what is happening, there is no outpouring of foreign names or history, no grand mythology of which this film is only a single episode; in an era of incessant franchise-building, it’s refreshing to see such a self-contained story. (If the film’s poor performance has one bright side, it’s that we weren’t subjected to a series of increasingly convoluted and unsatisfying sequels.)
Because of its singularity—there is only a single scout ship, destroyed by the humans by the end of the movie—and its remoteness from civilization, this is a story that can take place without rewriting known history. It has a level of plausible deniability: even if the characters were to share their story at some point, who would believe them? (I don’t know if it was intentional, but this alien-invasion story fits neatly with the nineteenth-century “airship mysteries” that are sometimes cited as proto-UFO phenomena, not to mention the various hoaxes that filled newspapers of the time.)
In a sweat lodge ceremony, the Apaches help Lonergan recover the rest of his memories in a deeply unsettling sequence: a hard-to-place memory of his lover lying next to him is revealed to be her vivisection at the hands of an alien scientist, before her disintegration right before Lonergan’s eyes. In the flashback, he is strapped to a table, awaiting his turn to be tested and then exterminated. He remembers how the alien’s carelessness gave him the chance to steal its weapon and use it to escape, his mind still scrambled by a hypnotic light the aliens used to keep their captives docile.
At this point, all the threads come together for the big finish: Nat helps Dolarhyde reach an accommodation with the Apaches (who have also lost many of their people to the aliens) by explaining that Dolarhyde raised him like a son, even though they were not blood, and Lonergan rides out to convince his old gang to join the fight. The townspeople, gang members, and Apaches converge on the aliens’ base, a spaceship half buried in the ground in a remote canyon, disguised to look like the rocks around it. (I personally love scenes where erstwhile foes join together to defeat a common foe, like the gangsters and G-men standing up to the Nazis in The Rocketeer. If Cowboys & Aliens could be described as Independence Day in the Old West, at least it has more nuance than that film.)
The images of alien footprints and the alien vessel in the canyon are doorways from which the Western transitions into science fiction in Cowboys & Aliens, but they are also reminders that the Western is already a kind of science fiction, a historically-based example of Isaac Asimov’s definition of science fiction as “that branch of literature which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance upon human beings.” Although not always the central focus of Western stories, the telegraph, the railroad, the Winchester rifle, and even the horse—introduced by the conquistadors, and which transformed the plains tribes before settlers had even crossed the Mississippi—are clear examples of new technologies affecting entire civilizations. (Technological superiority alone does not account for the relentless expansion of colonists at the expense of Native peoples, but it is surely a significant factor.) Even if white settlers had been wholly benign, Native culture could not have avoided changing through contact and trade with them.
Cowboys & Aliens puts all its human characters, white and Indian alike, in the position of natives faced with conquerors who vastly outgun them (and will also outnumber them in the event of a full-scale invasion). The Apaches and whites, who otherwise would have no cause to trust or associate with each other, have a good reason to work together here. The aliens see humanity as a mere inconvenience, almost beneath notice, fit only to exploit and experiment upon; they sweep in and take what they want, in a pattern of conquest that (according to Ella) has happened again and again. Human beings are even compared explicitly to cattle, first by being roped up and taken, and then by being penned while they await slaughter. The movie doesn’t hit us over the head with it, but it isn’t subtle.
The film is at its most horrifying not when the searchers are being picked off by a lone alien in the upside-down riverboat, but in Lonergan’s memories and his return to the spaceship. Watching his lover disposed of as a science experiment; finding piles of pocket watches and glasses from past victims; the prisoners herded together as a nameless mass awaiting their turn—and Lonergan remembering himself as one of them: these are images not just of genocide, but of Holocaust, the scientist-alien (whom the filmmakers in their commentary describe tellingly as the uber-alien) as Dr. Mengele. It is this, more than anything else in the film, that likely made it so hard to swallow for audiences who only wanted a Western lark with a twist, an afternoon with the kids to sit in air conditioning and eat popcorn, and it makes the cannibalism and Indian slaughter of The Lone Ranger seem measured by comparison.
Finally, a few words about the cast: it’s loaded with well-known stars and terrific character actors, but as we all know that doesn’t always lead to a good movie. In this case, however, the cast has great chemistry; most of the actors are familiar faces with experience in Westerns and do many of their own stunts, adding to the sense of lived-in reality. Daniel Craig is a natural as a bad man who finds himself capable of heroism, and Olivia Wilde’s otherworldly beauty makes her an excellent choice for her role; the supporting cast is also a pleasure to watch. I’d like to single out Harrison Ford, however, for the best performance he’s given in years. Colonel Dolarhyde is the kind of tight-lipped grouch Ford has been playing for the last decade-plus, but here he doesn’t come off as a pampered, over-the-hill star marking time until he can get back to flying his plane. His anger, his disappointment in his son, and the bitterness that has grown into a thick shell around him feel genuine, and his last scenes with Nat are moving in the best hey-I’m-not-crying-it’s-just-getting-awfully-dusty-in-here guys’-movie tradition. In the interviews on the Blu-ray, Ford mentions that he’s playing the old man role, mostly talking while Craig does all the stunts. It’s an exaggeration, but it points to a relationship that plays out on screen, with the grudging respect that develops between the two men unfolding naturally. Harrison Ford is really acting in this one, guys: see it and believe it.