Friday, July 29, 2011

Cowboys and Aliens

MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB (L) Roger Ebert (3 stars) Fr Dennis (3 stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB review -
Roger Ebert's review -

Cowboys and Aliens (directed by Jon Favreau, screenplay by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman and others, based on a graphic novel by Scott Michael Rosenberg the same name, and at least partly supported by Stephen Spielberg, who served as one of the film’s executive producers) has one of the most audacious and clearly _intentionally unreal_ plot-lines of a major American motion picture made in years:

Stock characters (Cowboys, Indians, Outlaws, Lawmen, shop-keepers, womenfolk, youngsters and even a cute and very faithful dog) from a typical  American pulp-Western story (set in the l870s in the American South-West) are confronted by a sudden, unexpected but existential challenge posed by a foraging/data-collecting/mining expedition (representing an advanced guard?) of a technologically superior alien race from outer space.

Similar stories of an otherwise divided humanity uniting to fight a common (alien) enemy have been put on film before, notably Independence Day and Signs.  Interestingly enough, I’ve probably enjoyed Cowboys and Aliens the most, precisely because it was so obviously a parable and set sufficiently back in time to be “safe.”  For instance, I remember a number of Servites (members of my religious order) from Latin America scoffing at the “message” of Independence Day finding offense that its climactic battle was fought on “The Fourth of July” and led by the Americans (how convenient ... as a propaganda piece, "Big Brother America leading the rest”).

In Cowboys and Aliens, the “cowboys” find themselves being suddenly treated as badly (or worse) by the technologically superior space-aliens as they were treating the technologically inferior “Indians." Both groups find themselves needing to cooperate to confront the new existential threat.  Indeed, even the “cowboys’” vocabulary changes as the threat presents itself, with the cowboys starting to talk about the need protect “their people.”  This of course is the message and echoes a famous speech made by Ronald Reagan at the United Nations during his presidency in which he noted that all our world’s differences would probably fall quickly aside if we were to face an existential threat from an alien race. 

The performances of the various human characters are excellent – Daniel Craig playing the Outlaw Jake Lonergan, Harrison Ford playing Col. Woodrow Dolarhyde, a crusty Civil War veteran turned rancher a with no-good lout of a son Percy (played by Paul Dano) and Dolarhyde's right-hand man, if Indian born, named Nat Colorado (played by Adam Beach) who Dolarhyde took under his wing, when he saw him orphaned.  (Nat was far more responsible and a better “son” to Dolarhyde than Percy ever was, but Dolarhyde could never bring himself to call him that because of his “Injun past.”).  There’s the Sheriff John Taggartt (played by Keith Carridine) his spunky grandson Emmett Taggartt (playe by Noah Ringer).  There’s a plainspoken, gunslinging preacher named Meacham (played by Clancy Brown) and hapless Saloon owner named Doc (played by Sam Rockwell) and his devoted if initially probably far more capable wife Maria (played by Ana de la Reguera).  There’s Black Knife (played by Raoul Trujillo) a young but wise for his age Indian chief  leading a local and recently decimated band of Apache Indians.  Finally, there’s Ella Swensen (played by Olivia Wilde) a beautiful and mysterious character who seems to know more about the alien threat these humans are facing and how best to defeat them (and who as is often the case in the sci-fi/horror genre turns out to have a special role to play).

Yes it’s a story.  Yes, it’s a preposterous one.  On the other hand, perhaps precisely because Cowboys and Aliens is so preposterous, I found it quite easy to enter and watch.  All these characters are symbolic and the whole story plays out around a town called Absolution – as classic and symbolic a name as one could come-up with for a good ol’ Cowboy and Indian Western story even if, in this case, it is mashed-up with “space aliens.” ;-).

Finally, while Cowboys and Aliens is certainly a preposterous story, I would note that in current UFO lore there _is_ place in New Mexico called Dulce Mountain where supposedly there’s an underground base from which space aliens have been conducting abductions/animal mutilations for decades if not for centuries. As I watched the movie, I could not help but think that, _fictional_ as it is, that it was at least partly inspired by these stories and Indian legends.

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