I had some high hopes for Cowboys and Aliens. I don’t think it’s a particularly good movie, though it does fulfill at least some of Jon Favreau’s promises to make a non-revisionist movie about the Blood Meridian. But mostly it made me wish that rather than mashing up two genres, Favreau had left science fiction on the table and made a straightforward, racially-aware Western.
The aliens half of the movie isn’t particularly interesting. The main titular extraterrestrials turn out to be just another set of periodic table aliens — this time, the element they’re after, for no particularly discernable reason other than that it’s thematically appropriate, is gold. The extra creature from another planet in the mix, of course, turns out to be Olivia Wilde, who is neither motivated by precious metals nor encumbered, as it turns out, by the laws of mortality. Her motivations rest on a few lines of dialogue, and the invaders are only slightly more detailed, though we do know that they’re awfully good at building multi-purpose mining and defense vehicles that blend in with rock formations in the American Southwest. Similarly, Daniel Craig remains one of our great action heroes, a man who can plausibly take as much as he dishes out, but there just isn’t much to him. In a sense, both he and the aliens are a distraction from the much better plain Western going on around them.
The Western bits fare better, if imperfectly, because they tell a few basic stories, that of a boy and his dog, a man and a shotgun, and of a father and his two sons. The first is perfunctory: from the minute Col. Dolarhyde hands young Emmett Taggart a blade and tells him “Take the knife, be a man,” we know he will earn a place in his community through the more contemporarily acceptable method of stabbing the hell out of an alien, rather than an Indian. Much in the same way, the town’s emasculated barkeep, Doc, who is married to a Mexican woman, starts the movie humiliated before the entire town, his glasses literally kicked in the dust, and ends it a confident shot and a confident husband.
The third storyline is the most moving, and the most socially relevant of those three strains. Though Col. Dolarhyde goes a bit too quickly from a brutal cattle rancher to a hometown hero, his storyline poses an interesting question: what happens if you love the son you adopt better than the one of your blood? Particularly if he’s of another race? The movie’s momentum begins when the colonel’s blood son, Percy, wanders into town and starts shooting the place up, with special emphasis on humiliating Doc. When he goes too far, Nat, an Apache man who is part of Dolarhyde’s circle, tries to step up to keep Percy out of custody, and fails. And when the feckless, brutal Percy is snapped up by the alien invaders, Nat steps up to help the townsfolk go after him and everyone else who was taken.
Dolarhyde doesn’t necessarily treat Nat well. After the Colonel grouses over a fire in an abandoned riverboat that desperately wants to be the ship on a mountain from from One Hundred years of Solitude, “I’m not going to turn this over to no West Pointers who have to telegraph Washington to tell ‘em which hand to wipe with. I did that Antietam. Lost 328 men over a cornfield,” (it’s an an interesting question whether he’s a veteran of the Confederate or Union Armies UPDATE: Matt helpfully points out that the use of Antietam probably means he fought on the Union side.) Nat tentatively brings up his memories of the colonel’s earlier war stories, only to have the colonel tell him to get it through his “thick Indian skull” that “those stories weren’t for you.” As much as it’s a bit of racialized nastiness, it’s also a rebuke at the absent Percy, the son who hasn’t learned any of his father’s lessons, but is all too willing to hide behind his father’s influence. Dolarhyde lashes out at Nat because Percy isn’t there to take the much larger tongue-lashing he deserves.
And it’s Nat, of course, who can see the commonalities between settlers and Apaches when they meet up in the desert. There’s mutual mistrust, of course. Both parties, treating the aliens like demons, are eager to blame each other for their presence. The Apaches claim the settlers brought the demons, while Dolarhyde snaps back, “We brought evil? Evil was here. You’re the evil ones!” That debate, which is an intriguing one, is cut short when a naked Olivia Wilde walks, resurrected, out of a fire, which perhaps is a tactic someone should try at some future Israel-Palestine peace talks given its efficacy here. When Dolarhyde and the chief begin squabbling, interrupting her explanation, Nat tells them, exasperated, “You’re both big men, great warriors. Can we just listen to the lady tell her story?”
Of course, being the most personified character of color in the movie, Nat doesn’t make it to the end (though he isn’t the first person to bite it by means of stabby alien claws), though he doesn’t expire before Dolarhyde declares his fatherly love for him. And that’s where the movie gets boring. It’s dull as dishwater to have Percy come home and take up a responsible place in his father’s business, revivified by a gold rush that’s turning Absolution into a thriving commercial town, having been magically cured of his raging and dangerous obnoxiousness by a brief stay in alien captivity. Cowboys and Aliens would be a much more complex and powerful movie if Nat survived, if Dolarhyde got to live with the son he chose, and used his orneriness to integrate him — and the Apache who helped them — into Absolution’s new reality. But because he’s killed off, everyone goes back to their places, a lot richer, considerably nicer, and a lot blander. It’s not revisionist history to portray mistrust and violence between Native Americans and white settlers, but neither is it to portray them in regular, if uneasy, contact, as Western settlements grew more firmly established. Cowboys and Aliens is neither a great Western, nor a great alien adventure. We’ve already seen that Favreau can pull off comic-book sci-fi. I hope, at some point, he’s brave enough to leave it behind and play in another genre altogether.