So much has been written eulogizing the American western that to continue heaping laments on it can only be seen as repetitive and utterly redundant. Needless to say, the Western has been more or less dead for a long time now, with a few fleeting reprises every now and then reminding us how great they used to be. Sometimes very rarely, like the excellent 2007 film 3:10 To Yuma or the Coen brothers’ recent True Grit (both, it should be noted, are remakes), they remind us of how great they could still be. Cowboys & Aliens is not one of those Westerns, nor even that fond reminder of how great they used to be. Instead, it just reminds us of the very stubborn mentality that has kept the Western a dead commodity; the belief that Westerns can no longer be just Westerns…that they somehow have to be hybrids instead.
As anyone who has seen a commercial for Cowboys & Aliens already knows, the film mixes Western and science fiction genres (the latest in a largely unremarkable line), telling the story of a group of Western types and archetypes colliding with alien invaders who want nothing more than destroy the human race. Chief among the Westerners is Jake Lonnergan (Daniel Craig), an amnesiac stage coach robber, and Colonel Dollarhyde (Harrison Ford), a rough hewn rancher and veteran of many of the major American wars of the 19th century, who must lead a rag tag posse of average townsfolk to rescue their assorted loved ones after they’ve been captured by mysterious “demons” who plunge out of the sky and lasso people like stray cattle.
An initially large problem with Cowboys & Aliens exists in its choice in tone. The film plays its subject matter almost entirely straight, which I normally find appropriate, but here I would have preferred it if they went either far more tongue-in-cheek or, alternatively, more allegorical and earnest in tone. When I first heard about the film, and that director Jon Favreau would be the one helming it, I personally hoped, and even expected, something along the lines of The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., one of my personal favorite one season wonders and among the best, and first, of the Western-Sci-fi hybrids. Brisco County was a rousing, clever, funny series of romps filled with old fashioned derring-do that never took itself too seriously. After enjoying the comedic flourish that were key to both Iron Man movies, I somewhat expected Favreau to add that same touch to a film with a title as silly as Cowboys & Aliens, but that was not to be, and the film is far less entertaining, and certainly more blase, for it.
On the other hand, Cowboys & Aliens could have also worked better by going the opposite direction; there were many deeper themes that the film could have incorporated that were ultimately left untouched. The obvious one to me was the notion inherent in most Westerns, Manifest Destiny. I mean, there really is an obvious irony when the predominantly white Europeans attempting to conquer the untamed West and its assorted indigenous cultures themselves face extinction from an another eradicating race. The role of technology and the Industrial Revolution (a theme featured prominently in the 3:10 To Yuma remake) in the taming of the West would have been another. Or even, if they just wanted to go the sentimentalized route, they could have made something out of the idea that the strength and toughness of American character of those who lived in the West was enough to conquer invaders from space. Instead, in a reoccuring action that almost becomes an unintended running gag, the Cowboys and Indians fighting the aliens are best able to hold their own because they have horses that can be killed before they are. The film, however, doesn’t touch upon any of these themes, and generally does its level best to stay subtext-free. The only exception on hand involves the Indians (as in, Native Americans) with whom the Cowboys eventually form an alliance. The film treads upon the tired theme in contemporary Hollywood cinema of revising the horrors of colonial genocide by making the white characters ultimately benevolent to the colonized. But really, it’s hardly special in that regard.
Cowboys & Aliens is not without its qualities. I found some of the little touches of UFO and abductee culture referenced by the film to be pretty clever, and many of the action scenes were perfectly solid. The supporting cast is superb, including Sam Rockwell, Clancy Brown, Keith Carradine, Paul Dano, and Walton Goggins. But they represent a double edged sword as well, given that some of the material simply falls short of the quality of the actors. Harrison Ford was also something of a disappointment; one would think he would be in his element in a Western, but there were many times his performance felt overly anachronistic. The lovely Olivia Wilde, too, as a mysterious woman trying to help Lonnergan regain his memory, also demonstrated that she hasn’t yet found her breakthrough “superstar” role.
The script itself felt like it could have used additional rewrite or two (of course, given the credited four writers, the opposite might be more accurate). The film has a good first act, and introduces some potentially interesting characters, but then they are subsequently abducted by the aliens and remain offscreen for the rest of the story. The Dollarhyde character, too, seems in his introduction to be a villain, but before long he’s very clearly one of the film’s heroes. It’s actually a really jarring situation, and it may be why Ford’s performance suffers as much as it does.
It would be highly unfair to call the movie overtly bad, but it would be equally so to call it good; it’s ultimately just kind of there. For me, Cowboys & Aliens falls firmly into the category of what I call a “cable movie”: if you come across it on a cable channel some afternoon or late at night, it may suck you in. You may watch it, moderately enjoy it, but then barely remember it twenty minutes after it’s over.
In the greater scheme of the post-Western era, Cowboys & Aliens will probably be little more than a footnote, if that. But while watching it, as I watched so many of the modes and methods, types and tropes of the Western genre getting subsumed by elements of science fiction, they almost felt atrophied. And it made me think about where the Western stands now, and where it may stand going forward. Thirty and forty years ago, many of the emerging visionaries that redefined the culture of American filmmaking learned to be filmmakers by watching the great and classic Westerns of Ford and Hawks. Nowadays, when Westerns are referenced, those references seem to go back no further than Sergio Leone and the spaghetti Westerns. It made me wonder if the time may someday come where filmmakers may no longer ween themselves on Westerns at all, and if all that will be left representing it to future generations will be movies like Cowboys & Aliens. If that does happen, then they won’t make them like they used to…only like what we’re used to.