When I was a little girl, all the kids in my neighborhood would gather on summer afternoons to play Cowboys and Indians. I had never met an Indian (heck, I had never met a cowboy, either) but I saw them on TV. I knew the Indians were the bad guys because they were different from me. The men had long hair, seldom wore shirts, slept in round tents, and grunted "How" when they talked. The women wrapped in blankets and carried babies on their backs. The cowboys were good because they wore boots and hats and talked in complete sentences. Their women wore eye makeup and beehive hairdos. They were like us.
My kids never played Cowboys and Indians. The game has long fallen out of favor, being considered insensitive to Native Americans. But they did play Aliens. A lot. (They still do, in fact, mostly on Xbox.) Space is the new frontier where we can still hold onto our prejudices — the ones that assert, "My kind are good; the other kind are bad." I realize that we never were fighting against Indians, really. We were fighting against "other," that unknown quality of beings that are different from us. We called them "Indians," but they were really just "aliens" all along.
So the only surprise about the film Cowboys and Aliens that opened this weekend is that no one thought of it any sooner. I awaited it eagerly, knowing that it would be laden with metaphor and ripe for a review.
Director Jon Favreau makes the point about aliens quickly and clearly. Daniel Craig plays Jake Lonergan, an amnesiac drifter with a mean right hook; and Harrison Ford is Woodrow Dolarhyde, a rancher who's mean and rich (his name says it all). Initially the setting is populated by groups of people who don't like each other: city folk who don't like ranchers, bandits who don't like city folk, and Indians who don't like anyone white. Interestingly, however, on a personal level there is a lot of interracial connection in this movie — the white innkeeper is married to a Mexican woman, for example, and the rancher has a close relationship with the Indian who watches over his son.
When space aliens appear on the scene and begin kidnapping local residents, all the groups band together to fight the aliens. The message is clear. It has been used by government leaders (and tyrants) for centuries: to establish local harmony, simply unite the masses against a common enemy.
The "western" part of this western works well. It begins as a classic western would — with a sweeping panorama of the desert, complete with sage brush and sandy cliffs. The story is character driven, and as we learn the characters’ back stories we discover why children behave the way they do when they become adults. Favreau's point seems to be that the more we know about why people act as they do, the more we will come to understand and accept them. This point is made with special effect in the case of Woodrow Dolarhyde, whose personality warms throughout the film. Through Dolarhyde we also learn the true meaning of fatherhood, as we see his maturing relationship with three young men: his son, Percy (Paul Dano); the Indian hand (Adam Beach) who looks out for Percy; and Emmett (Noah Ringer), an orphan boy whom Dolarhyde takes on. It's a little heavy handed, but an important value nonetheless.
The casting is excellent. One of the standouts is Paul Dano as Percy, Dolarhyde's spoiled, juvenile delinquent son who shoots up the town with impunity, knowing that Daddy will fix things for him later. Another is Clancy Brown as Meacham, the local minister who spouts aphorisms while toting a gun. He's a practical kind of preacher, and I liked his philosophy, which offers such wisdom as "It's not who you were, it's who you are," and "Whether you go to heaven or hell isn't God's plan but your choice." Sam Rockwell is endearing as Doc, the innkeeper who must learn how to shoot a gun and "be a man." And 12-year-old Noah Ringer is marvelous as Emmett, the boy who also learns to be a man during the quest to destroy the aliens. My only complaint is Ella (Olivia Wilde), the obligatory girl who comes along for the ride. Her role eventually deepens, but for half the film she is simply a drain on the landscape.
However, as much as I loved the idea of this film, the manifestation of the idea doesn't quite work. The alien part of the movie is simply too alien for a western. For one thing, westerns are slow-paced and character-driven; space aliens have no character. The two simply don't mix. Moreover, the metaphor is so heavy-handed that the aliens never really enter the story. The humans never even question who the aliens are, where they came from, or how they are able to fly through the sky. We're just supposed to know what they represent — invaders seeking to plunder the minerals under the soil and turn them into fuel. Sound familiar?
This is the second "alien encounter" film produced by Steven Spielberg this summer, but oddly, although the aliens in both films look nearly the same, the message of the two films couldn't be more different. In Super 8 the message is "An alien is just a friend you haven't met." Here, the alien gets caught on earth while he's just passing through, and the nasty government scientists kidnap him. In Cowboys and Aliens the beings from outer space are plundering invaders and the message is "kick their asses back where they came from."
It was nice seeing the Indians, townies, ranchers, and even bandits becoming friends. I especially liked seeing the development of Dolarhyde's character. But I'm not sure I like the idea that we can only become friends by uniting against an enemy. The film tries hard to please, but the metaphor overpowers the story and collapses from its own weight.