Cowboys and Aliens: The Mild Bunch

07/29/2011 11:28 AM |

Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig in Cowboys and Aliens

Hey, it’s BlockBluster, our seasonal feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart find out during what sorts of movies regular people all over the country are making mashups. This week they go looking for gold but come out empty-handed from John Favreau’s Cowboys and Aliens.

SUTTON:
So, Henry, I took Cowboys and Aliens‘ title—a sci-fi remix of “Cowboys and Indians“—as a promise of clever colonial allegory, like an Americanized version of District 9, but it turned out to be something more muddled and, as far as I can tell, fundamentally conservative. The aliens here—a fusion of the extraterrestrials from Alien and Independence Day—are just worse versions of The White Man, right? They’ve come to earth to mine its gold and wipe out its human inhabitants, a threat that forges a temporary alliance between otherwise hostile communities: Native Americans, settlers and outlaws. The latter two groups are led by characters whose names could come from a Mel Brooks movie, appropriate since Cowboys and Aliens is immensely indebted to Blazing Saddles: ruthless rancher and Daniel Plainview-esque proto-capitalist Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) and loner with a gun Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig). The humans forget their petty differences for a day to fight the greater foe, and pave the way for America’s land-grabbing expansion. What did you make of Cowboys and Aliens‘ wacky Western symbolism, Henry?

STEWART:
I’m not sure that Cowboys and Aliens is so much indebted to Blazing Saddles, Ben, as it is that both movies share the same influences: they both lampoon (lightly, here) the genre’s archetypes, including in this case a man with no name, his unlikely pairing with a headstrong woman, a preacher with a taste for drink, a spoiled scion, local corruption, a coming railroad, and the exoticized Injun, with his painted face and strange magiks. You might as well say it’s indebted to True Grit. As for symbolism, well, it feels like there’s not much here, eh? For me, potentially, the most interesting aspect of the movie was how it plays with genre, mashing up science fiction with the Western. I mean, sure, why do we so rarely see alien invasion narratives outside of the 20th century? (Besides, I suppose, 2001‘s apes-visitng monolith, or episodes of Doctor Who.) So, I appreciate the conceit, but it’s not exactly smart, is it? I mean, is there any reason for overwriting the anxieties of one genre (race/science) onto another (race/settling down)? Especially when the movie’s racial politics are handled so cursorily?

SUTTON:
Well what were you expecting, Henry, Dances With Wolves? The Searchers? On second thought the title sums up blockbuster auteur (?) John Favreau’s logic quite plainly, really: this is mashup cinema at its most blatant (unlike, say, The Host‘s fine meshing of monster movie, family melodrama and environmental issue movie). This film has cowboys, Native Americans, aliens, Indiana Jones and James Bond! (I was surprised when it ended without a single train robbery.) With so many generic conventions to juggle, I guess they didn’t have time to craft a more nuanced portrayal of Cowboys and Aliens‘ Native American tribe. Perhaps to flesh them out too complexly would have drawn uncomfortable attention to the fact that not long after this movie ends, its protagonists must have killed them all and taken their land to make room for the railway. Instead they do stock Native American movie stuff: dance around a bonfire, concoct a hallucinogenic potion, fight valiantly, and behave more honestly and nobly than their white brothers in arms. I was hoping that Dolarhyde’s favorite farm hand Nat Colorado (Adam Beach) would turn out to be his son, implying a more problematic history between the tribe and the settlers, but alas, no, he’s merely “the kind of son I always wish I had.” Also, did you notice that the tribe was entirely male? That didn’t do much to help this movie’s gender balance, wherein the female lead is actually (spoiler) an alien, and the two other female characters are abducted early on and basically never speak again. But wait, Henry, maybe the aliens, with their giant torso vaginas, are this film’s symbolic tribe of female S&M dungeon master succubi?

STEWART:
Ha, right, Ben, except what emerges from those torso vaginas? Long, threatening (phallic) arms! It’s the perfect visualization of how mixed-up the gender roles are in this movie. Did you notice how wussy all of the men are? Jake Lonergan left his old gang for a woman (a symbolic representation of emasculation?), frequently hits men in the crotch to win a fight, and collapses to his knees while carrying his alien love-interest to safety—such a flawed Western hero! Then there’s Sam Rockwell’s character, who can’t “fire” a “gun.” (And he wears glasses!?) These guys, all coded as good (such as when they take the time to read prayers over a new grave; religious people are good, Ben), are a much more sensitive lot than, say, Harrison Ford’s character, who meanly commands one character to “be a man.” Boo! Ford is also the business-owning rich guy—boo again—unlike Jake, whose gold was stolen before he developed amnesia, or Rockwell, whose saloon seems to be struggling. Does class determine who’s “good” and “bad” in the script like sensitivity does, Ben? I mean, it is a movie in which the last alien baddie is killed by his own molten gold.

SUTTON:
Right, if there’s any one reading that the eight-person screenwriting team (!) seems to have had in mind, it’s the class angle. Much is done before the aliens’ arrival to establish the post-gold rush town’s dire financial situation and total dependence on the wealthy, ruthless rancher Dolarhyde (I guess calling him “Moneybags” would have been too obvious). Outside the town are countless gangs of bandits—like the trio Lonergan dispatches in the Hangover-style “what happened last night?” prologue—completing the conventional tripartite Western class hierarchy: the haves, the have-nots, and the takers. Perhaps the aliens’ great crime is circumventing and subverting that structure—they’re the ultimate bandits, basically—supplanting the wealthy rancher at the top of the economic totem and blowing up a bunch of his cattle in the process. But the poor folks rally and help Dolarhyde climb back atop his money bags, confident that the trickle-down from his about-to-boom father-son gold extraction enterprise will enrich their lives too. Is Cowboys and Aliens just pro-free market capitalism propaganda, Henry? I guess that’s why all those non-participants in the local economy—outlaws and Native Americans—had to die so violently in the climactic battle.

STEWART:
Yeah, and don’t forget—what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, Ben. Did you notice that the movie is basically about the redemptive power of violence? I mean, look at Paul Dano’s character—a spoiled brat who robs the poor and shoots innocent bystanders in the first act is a humble, honest worker in the last, because war makes people better, Ben. Or, at least it brings out everyone’s best. Like the Injuns, who prove their worth as warriors, possessing the wisdom of counterintuitive tactical strategy. Or the farmhand, who proves his love through battlefield sacrifice, humbling the crotchety Dolarhyde. Or Lonergan, whose actions in battle redeem him in the eyes of Dolarhyde. Or Lonergan’s entire former-band of thieves, which fights valiantly, a final absolution since most of them seem to die during that climactic action sequence. It’s violence itself, against an invading alien force that wants our treasure and natural resources, that makes honorable men out of scoundrels, that unites warring tribes of earthlings, as though to suggest that what these politically contentious (and effeminate) United States need is a good ol’ world war—or, you know, a War of the Worlds.

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