Thoughts on Cowboys and Aliens

This post contains spoilers. Also ranting about stuff that irritated me, and getting far too intellectual, and probably getting incoherent along the way.

I saw Cowboys and Aliens earlier this week, and though on some levels I enjoyed it (beautifully choreographed violence, Daniel Craig’s exceptional physique and the liberal display thereof) on many other, thoughtful, levels, I disliked it. Deep engagement is what I want in a movie, both visual and emotional, everything on a larger scale because of the larger screen. I felt this movie had plenty of spectacle but no real emotion, plus it bothered me with some of its sociopolitical implications.

Possibly my expectations were too high. The filmmakers no doubt wanted to make a cheesetastic blockbuster in which Things Blew Up Real Good. Emotional conflict/depth is apparently not required for that. But without emotional connection, I feel there’s no point. Worse, the shallow images of Hollywood insta-romance made me feel as if I had been condescended to. “Let’s give the girls something besides those shots of Daniel Craig with his shirt off!”

I read the original graphic novel sometime ago. I didn’t think it was Great Art, Now Sullied By Hollywood; the original story had many of the same problems as the movie. I don’t plan to discuss the graphic novel much in this review, however, other than to note that its two main female characters were at least more active. In the movie, those two were combined into one, and the green one became a white woman. Anybody surprised?

Other things I don’t plan to discuss much: the actual historicity of this film (Hel-lo, Collared and Buttoned Shirts of the Future!); accuracy of the portrayed Chiricahua culture about which I do not know anything relevant (that guy to the right is a Chiricahua Apache named Bakeitzogie); or why Clancy Brown’s characters never seem to survive to the end of a movie. However, if you do want the joy of nitpicking the history, go check out veejane’s awesome post. I’ll wait.

What I’d like to talk about is the overwhelming, err, thrust of the film. It was all about Dick. Who is Dick? Dick is…when every important character is male, except for one, because one active female character is “female characters.” When hunting and killing is constantly privileged over everything else and violence is the only solution to a problem, and those things are equated with The Only Correct Way to Be a Man. When action is substituted for emotion. And when there is a very long, very big rocketship buried deep in mother earth, pillaging its people with creepy wavy tentacles and sucking up its golden nectar. No, wait, that’s hentai. This is a Dick Flick. Anyway.

Much as I appreciated the male pulchritude on display throughout, I didn’t like anybody in this film, except Ned, and that wasn’t because Ned was a guy I would normally have admired–for one thing, he was deluded in his hero-worship of his emotionally stunted foster “father”–but because Adam Beach, who played him, to me was the only character who consistently demonstrated some sort of human connection with other humans, in that very misguided attachment. (I think that might actually be a result of Beach’s acting ability and emotive power rather than anything in the script.)

The lack of connection, across all of the characters, destroyed the movie for me. The entire plot was about overpowering, taking, using, when movies I love tend to feature disparate people learning to work together, even form a new family. True, in this movie the humans do end up working together: townies, cowboys, Chiricahua Apache, and bandits; but I didn’t get any sense of emotional connections being formed, or social change about to happen. They bonded together to attack the aliens and kill them…with rifles, spears, long sticks of dynamite. Even the round alien bracelet that could shoot down an alien ship had to be clasped around a muscular, extended arm before it could fire.

All that was…okay. It’s hardly a new thing for me to go to see a movie and conclude it’s a Dick Flick. Almost all movies are: financed by men, made by men, starring men and, shockingly, aimed at a male audience. It was the pretense that annoyed me most, the pretense that there was more to this movie than Dick. For instance, in the movie’s epilogue, some of the characters are shown to have learned a few rote lessons about family by killing a bunch of aliens. I felt like I was supposed to be happy about this – “aww, how sweet!” I wasn’t. None of those character changes convinced me they would be lasting, because I hadn’t seen enough of the characters before that point to register a change.

A fair amount of (alleged) characterization was given to Harrison Ford’s character, Woodrow Dolarhyde, and Ford did a good job of acting what he was given, at least in the individual scenes. In my opinion, though, what he was given did not hang together from scene to scene in a way that made sense emotionally (or, possibly, at all). I never felt I understood or empathized with his character, or cared about him in the least. I wasn’t even sure what the moviemakers wanted me to feel, though I suspect I was supposed to admire his manly behavior. I didn’t. Despite his being played by Harrison Ford. If Harrison Ford couldn’t make me like that character, or at least like watching him…. I would have been more satisfied if Dolarhyde had been simply a villain. That would have felt less manipulative and half-baked.

The two main male characters, Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) and Dolarhyde, both led by violence and neither one was a nice guy. I would have been okay with their characterizations revolving around that. That would have felt true. Instead, “romance” was ineffectually smeared here and there, as if a toddler was applying makeup. Was that supposed to pretty up the film for female viewers?

Lonergan was a successful bandit before being abducted by the aliens and losing his memory; Dolarhyde ruled his cattle empire with a cruel hand. Neither is shown to be capable of a significant relationship. Dolarhyde’s wife is never mentioned; I presumed she was dead. His relationship with his biological son, based on power rather than affection, is demonstrably not working. Lonergan apparently left banditry after he fell in love with a prostitute, but the movie fails when it tries to relate their relationship; she is only a ghost, with only a couple of lines. There’s no real indication of the depth of their romance and how it changed (or didn’t change) Lonergan’s life. Without knowing how he changed in the past, it was difficult to see how he might change in the future. Lonergan’s subsequent “romance” with Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde) is evanescent, a collection of movie-romance cues rather than actual emotional connection. They do not have one significant conversation that is not related to overcoming the aliens.

Given that Ella is an alien, who’s taken a form similar to Lonergan’s dead love, I could buy that she is actually manipulating him through the illusion of romance so he will do what she wants. But the movie doesn’t give any indication of that. Their relationship just looks like standard Hollywood movie insta-attraction.

Then there are the invading aliens. In the graphic novel, the aliens talked. One of the two female characters was the same sort of alien who was trying to help the humans out, rather than a different species as in the movie (if I remember correctly). In the movie, the aliens were monsters. They didn’t speak, even with subtitles; they only growled and snarled. They sprang out at odd moments to make the viewers jump in their seat. They vivisected humans to find out how they worked and, in case the viewer didn’t get how awful this was, Lonergan finds a pile of spectacles and pocket watches that have been stolen from the dead humans for their gold content, in what seemed like a fairly direct reference to the Holocaust. (I squirmed. That one visual felt really inappropriate to me.) The aliens were there to be an enemy, and to be killed without remorse.

The humans were there to kill. Killing became the apotheosis of their character development. Nobody seemed to feel any conflict over this. That’s not an ethical complaint, not wholly. It’s my complaint because lack of conflict is boring. Again, I felt condescended to, because this huge expensive movie was expecting me to be satisfied with mere shallow spectacle.

The filmakers should have just gone with the violence. Daniel Craig’s Lonergan, seemingly effortlessly, projected lethality and moved as if violence equals art. He was beautiful to watch, but brutal. If the filmakers had simply embraced this brutality, that might have worked better than trying to give him a gooey center that felt false to me. It’s possible he gives up killing at the end of the movie (there are flowers and a hummingbird! …yeah) but…maybe not. He’s awfully good at being violent. He left his criminal life for a woman, but in his one scene with her, he’s just stolen to provide for her, and is angry when she rejects the money. Not much of a reformation, and it turns out to be only a step on his road to further violence.

The one child character, Emmett Taggart, achieves his character change (if it counts) by stabbing an alien that is attacking him. Doc (Sam Rockwell) begins the movie as a frustrated man who has little self-confidence and can’t believe in his wife’s love for him; however, once he learns to shoot and blows an alien’s brains out with a shotgun, he’s empowered. Ned achieves his goal, Dolarhyde’s acknowledgement, through dying violently on his behalf. And the one female character who has an active role, Ella, sacrifices herself to destroy the alien ship.

The thing that bothered me most, I think, is the way the movie tried to remove ethical considerations from the violence; there could have been so much more conflict, so much more depth, but those things were squashed at every turn.

The humans are forced to defend themselves from monsters. They aren’t allowed to agonize. Even the peaceful Doc has no qualms about going after the aliens, to rescue his wife. Without ethical conflict, I just didn’t care about the outcome. I was unable to emotionally invest in it.

Overall, despite all the explosions and monsters leaping out at me, that lack made the whole movie feel hollow. Hollywood, don’t condescend to me. If you’re not going to make art with your whole heart, with truth? Don’t make it at all.

About Victoria Janssen

Victoria Janssen [she, her] currently writes cozy space opera for Kalikoi. The novella series A Place of Refuge begins with Finding Refuge: Telepathic warrior Talia Avi, genius engineer Miki Boudreaux, and augmented soldier Faigin Balfour fought the fascist Federated Colonies for ten years, following the charismatic dissenter Jon Churchill. Then Jon disappeared, Talia was thought dead, and Miki and Faigin struggled to take Jon’s place and stay alive. When the FC is unexpectedly upended, Talia is reunited with her friends and they are given sanctuary on the enigmatic planet Refuge. The trio of former guerillas strive to recover from lifetimes of trauma, build new lives on a planet with endless horizons, and forge tender new connections with each other.
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2 Responses to Thoughts on Cowboys and Aliens

  1. ‘Instead, “romance” was ineffectually smeared here and there, as if a toddler was applying makeup.’

    Hmm. Effective mental picture there!

    Of course this blog post reminds you of writing English papers. You had the world’s coolest English professor, one who encouraged you to write exactly this sort of critique!

  2. I don’t think I ever managed anything with this much depth for him, frankly!

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