Cowboys and Aliens is everything that’s right and wrong with America. As a comic pastiche of well-worn genre movies, it’s a small masterpiece, never wishing to be more than its premise, resisting the temptation to attempt to become an epic. Only in America could boundaries between genres be so gleefully disrespected and so entertainingly merged.
Scratch beneath the surface, as the film asks you not to, (“Don’t think!” one character admonishes another, before she kisses him) and the combination of the Western and the alien invasion film is mythologically on less solid ground. The film combines what Robert Jewett and John Lawrence describe as the American Monomyth and what I describe as the Hollywood Apocalypse. The American Monomyth teaches Americans that the structures of democracy are too slow to be trusted, and that we should hold out hope for a vigilante to come along and save us from our own ineptitude and indecision.
The Hollywood Apocalypse looks more palatable on its face—cultures and nations must come together to find our common humanity in order to save ourselves from a non-human threat (i.e. aliens, natural disasters, asteroids) and return everything to a halcyon, and previously unappreciated, “normal.” In the process, however, it does not matter how many supporting characters and nameless masses of people are killed, as long as a handful of heterosexual main characters and their nuclear families survive, are reunited, and realize their love for each other is greater than any differences that may have pulled them apart. The resistance to the “outside” invader—which, no matter how weirdly constructed, does not erase its resonance with the human or cultural “other”—must be dispatched by an American-led force of ragtag but skilled misfits. The ultimate goal of the confluence of cultures is not an achievement of peace, but an other-destroying violence. The return to “normal” includes a return to safe cultural and national boundaries.
If you don’t know what Cowboys and Aliens is about, refer to the title. Daniel Craig plays Jake Lonergan, a gunslinger and wanted outlaw, while Harrison Ford plays Woodrow Dolarhyde, a grizzled old cattle baron. (Editor’s note: Lonergan?? Dolarhyde??) Many other fine supporting cast members join in the fun. After each family unit has one member kidnapped by supersonic alien craft, Ford’s character, in one of the dumbest moves in the history of the Western, says, “Let’s get us a posse together and go get back our kin.” And they’re off. (“Don’t think.”)
Eventually the white morons come upon the Indians, and here the film manages to combine the worst Hollywood stereotypes about Native Americans. The Apaches are first portrayed as violent savages, bent on the destruction of the white people. Once the common alien threat is identified, however, the whites and the Indians form a grudging coalition. Then the Indians are magically transformed into noble savages, in touch with the mysterious Ways of Nature, which the white man does not understand. After helping to defeat the aliens, they helpfully disappear back into the desert. Like their white brothers and sisters, these are pretty dumb Indians, on the whole. If they had been smart Indians, they would have formed a coalition with the aliens and taken back North America from the white people.
There is some not-too subtle Christian symbolism throughout. A strange, overturned steamboat in the middle of the desert that offers the posse shelter is named “Amazing Grace.” At one point, the local preacher, who is also pretty good with a gun, advises a character who is skeptical of God, “You got to earn his presence; then recognize it; then act on it.” It’s an interesting theology, but the advice seems a little disturbing as he gives it while he’s showing the other character how to shoot a rifle. (There’s also a strong implication that a boy who’s following along on this goose chase must kill someone with a knife in order to achieve manhood. The aliens have a convenient evolutionary flaw that causes them to have to open their chest plate, exposing their heart, in order to extend their arms, so the kid’s right-of-passage is fairly easy to achieve.) Also, Daniel Craig’s character is mourning the loss of a woman he loved. There’s some implication that she might have been reincarnated as a hummingbird. Or perhaps that’s just a symbol of her soul ascending. Anyway, when Craig gets ready to leave the town, a white-steepled church is framed behind him. Harrison Ford shakes his hand and says, “She’s in a better place.” Craig’s character seems to be confident that this is true, as he rides off into the sunset, redeemed by his noble violence.
The film, despite being a post-Modern genre mash-up, manages to affirm violent retribution as redemptive practice, a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps philosophy and theology, and the simultaneous restoration of capitalism and Christianity (because they are the same thing, you know). There’s a little Spielbergian family schlock thrown in just for good measure.
Thus, with all the proper values restored and re-affirmed, the film acts as a re-telling of the white American mythology of Western expansion. Over the next 30 years, as white Americans become just another large racial group alongside other American racial and ethnic groups, many of them will inevitably retrench themselves in the most violent and anti-communal elements of their mythology and civil religion. (And you thought the Tea Party was about debt reduction!) But eventually, as white people we must come to terms with no longer being the undisputed majority and the unquestioned basis of our culture. What will it mean to be white when whiteness is no longer the “norm” against which all others are measured?
The fact that the cowboy movie has to be retold, revamped, and re-introduced to an American audience is encouraging. It means a once-universal mythology is having to be rethought. The filmmakers, wishing to make a screwy genre movie and not a documentary on postcolonial race relations, ended the film without any real resolution to the problems of race, class, and religion it proposes. By the end, the aliens and Indians are gone, God and capitalism have been restored to their rightful place, and the peaceful (mostly white) townspeople can return to their previously unappreciated “normal.” In the coming years, however, the townspeople of America will have to begin to imagine and appreciate a new normal, and we must hope it will not require the other-destroying violence and vigilante-ism of this movie.
Cowboys and Aliens (118 mins.) is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of western and sci-fi action and violence and some partial nudity and is in theaters everywhere.