As the age of genre mash-ups overtakes us—vikings and aliens (Outlander), staid literary folks and zombies (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies)—we are awash in two great tastes that hopefully go great together. So why not throw together two classic genres, the western and the alien invasion flicks, for a grand cinematic romp? Based on the idea from a Platinum Studios graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, Jon Favreau (Iron Man, Iron Man 2) delivers Cowboys & Aliens.
Working from a script by Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman (Star Trek, Transformers), Favreau balances the needs of both genres he’s working with and remains true to them. On their own, the western story and characters as well as the alien invasion story are pretty familiar to those even nominally interested in either.
“God’s been real swell to me. Either he ain’t up there or he doesn’t like me very much.” –Doc (Sam Rockwell)
A stranger rides into town, though it opens more like Jason Bourne waking up in the middle of the New Mexico desert. The amnesia-stricken Jake Lonergan, played by Daniel Craig (Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace), reaches for a bloody wound at his side and discovers a strange bracelet cuffed to his wrist. His only clue to who he was is a tintype photograph.
The town is introduced of the town, the aptly and ominously named Absolution. The movie cleverly unfolds a cast of what could be stock characters, except since they are so wonderfully cast, the clichés become familiar. Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano, There Will Be Blood), the spoiled scion of the local cattle baron, Col. Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), bullies the townsfolk and carelessly falls on the wrong side of Craig’s knee. Deadwood‘s Keith Carradine plays Sheriff John Taggart, who tries to maintain order though thoroughly beholden to Ford’s Woodrow. Ford plays against type—a few decades ago, he might’ve portrayed Lonergan—chewing up scenery as the presumptive black hat in this story. That is, until the stranger’s wrist manacle springs to life and aliens strafe the town.
The stranger demonstrates his usefulness. Craig has the yeoman’s task of keeping the movie straight, not giving into potential pitfalls of hamminess. He walks the tightrope between ruthlessness and sensitivity, his version of James Bond except in a cowboy hat.
“I’ve seen good men do bad things and bad men do good things.” –Meachum (Clancy Brown, The Shawshank Redemption)
The stranger unites the people. Cowboys & Aliens owes a debt to John Ford’s The Searchers, a movie about a Comanche abduction of a white girl whose would-be rescuers are led by John Wayne’s racist uncle. In another example of the writers twisting the familiar, the Indians were swapped out for reptilian space aliens. A united posse—cowboys and Indians, cattle barons and downtrodden townsfolk, the stranger and the colonel—go after the abducting alien horde.
“I can’t absolve you of your sins if you can’t recall them.” –Meachum
The idea of sin has changed over time or rather, the images we use to describe it have. The oldest Old Testament idea about sin was that it was a load to carry, a burden which had to be removed. In the New Testament, the picture of sin was that of a debt one had to pay (or be punished), one which could be cancelled.
The characters each have their burdens they are carrying. Lonergan with his life as a thief and wanted man, not to mention the guilt over his wife’s death. The Colonel, having to “be a man” from an early age, forced into battle time and time again, carrying the toll of it in his soul. Doc, already struggling with the lack of respect he has also carries how he failed his wife. Everyone with a past they seek redemption from, seeking absolution.
We don’t have to be perfect to be dispensers of God’s grace. Martin Luther spoke of Christians as being simultaneously saints and sinners. It has taken me quite a while to understand that God’s not interested in fixed vessels. We have it in our heads that we need to be perfect, have our act together, be the “best” representatives that we can be because how else can we be used by God. We’re called into a new way of living. In our imperfection, in our brokenness, we know each other’s pain and weakness—without room for judgment—and can best be there for one another. We can be the consoling arms of God for one another.
Confession unloads and heals us. It not only has to be heard, but forgiveness has to be received. And we can pronounce absolution in the name of Christ to one another. Just as the picture of sin changes in the Bible, so has the images of atonement: sacrifice, reconciliation, justification, victory, redemption all of which are ours in Christ’s forgiving work for us.
Olivia Wilde takes on the messianic role in this movie as Ella Swenson. Her story is a familiar one as she came from “a place above the stars” and has taken on human form so that she could walk among people. She even has her own transfiguration moment involving a fire which becomes the biggest risk in the movie as it violated the conventions of both westerns and space operas. As a picture of Christ, it is her sacrifice which makes a free life and final victory possible.
“Whether you go to heaven or hell isn’t God’s plan. It’s yours.” –Meachum
Cowboys & Aliens isn’t flawless. The second act feels like a series of serial-style cliffhangers, the script writers rolling their d20s to determine what the band of heroes would encounter next (Bandits! Indians! Aliens!). Nor is it satisfactorily explained why the aliens want what they want or why they need people at all. It doesn’t explore its conceit as deeply as it could—as if the movie makers essentially say “we got cowboys and aliens! What more do you want? Shut up!” A hint of camp might have collapsed this movie (Wild Wild West says what?) and it gets by on its easy, video game action of shooting at aliens. It’s content to be a popcorn movie and that’s not a bad thing as it delivers what it promises (there ARE cowboys AND aliens! Shut up!). Beautiful and fun, Cowboys & Aliens is the perfect mix of action and humor.