Monday, September 12, 2011

So, Cowboys & Aliens . . .

 . . . has come and gone from the theaters, and I've had some time to mull over my reaction to it. I'd been anticipating the movie for quite some time, and was frankly a little bit underwhelmed. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing I can point to as being bad about this movie - well, nothing major, anyway - but I have, nonetheless, an unsettling feeling that something was off. Maybe my expectations were just too high.

Anyway, despite my vague dis-satisfaction, this film still did - and did well - what it set out to do, namely take a typical Western and turn it on it's ear by introducing invading aliens. Now, I'm not very familiar with the Western as a genre - I've often said my favorite example of such is Back to the Future Part III - but prior to the first alien attack, it seemed that we were all set for a stereotypical - and probably literal - showdown between the anti-heroic drifter* and the corrupt cattle baron that rules the town with an iron fist.

In their own ways, over the course of the film after the alien attack both Jake and Colonel Dolarhyde transcend the stereotypes they start out as. For Jake this is mostly a matter of slowly recovering his lost memory (though the closing scene indicates that he's given up outlawry), but Dolarhyde has a much more dynamic character arc.

He begins as a straight-up antagonist, first seen torturing one of his own employees over some incinerated cattle (for some reason, he doesn't believe the  hapless cowpoke's claim that the herd caught fire while he was falling in the river), then stomping into town to demand that the sheriff give him Jake (who did him some as-yet-unspecified injury) and Percy (his bratty son) instead of sending them to the Marshal, as the law requires.

As badly displayed as it is, this kernel of goodness - Dolarhyde's love for his son - is ultimately the catalyst for his redemption. In particular, Percy's capture by the aliens spurs him into leading the posse to track them down, thus forcing him to co-operate not only with a gang of outlaws that robbed him, but with the local Apaches. This is particularly eye-opening for Dolarhyde, as some of his employees are Apaches - and one in particular, Nat, seems to have great respect for Dolarhyde, and at one point brings up a tale of his deeds during the Civil War. Unfortunately, Dolarhyde does not appreciate this, gruffly telling him that the stories "weren't for you, they were for my son."

It is a big sign of Dolarhyde's development, then, that later on, as Nat lays dying, Dolarhyde tells him that "I always dreamed of having a son like you." Conveniently, when Percy is rescued from the aliens he's displaying the same amnesia that Jake had, which means that Dolarhyde has been given something of a second chance with him. It is, I suspect, not accidental that the name of their town is "Absolution".

In contrast to these weighty matters, a lot of the film, including the parts with the actual aliens, is actually quite light. In part, this comes from attempts to draw comparisons between the aliens and the cowboys - the worst example is probably the Space Lassos with which the townsfolk are abducted. Thankfully, almost nothing else is quite this campy**, and it's actually somewhat refreshing to have the alien's motivation be something as mundane as gold (of course, they may need it for industrial purposes and not, as Dolarhyde hilariously assumes, as currency).

The film did have a couple other mis-steps, such as the aliens' seemingly variable vulnerability to gunfire and/or bladed weapons. Another thing that bugged me was the upside-down ship in the middle of the desert - not that it wasn't a cool visual, but were we supposed to assume that the aliens somehow caused it? Because that would be completely at odds with what we later find out about the scale and capabilities of the alien's operations.

But these are minor vexations with what turned out to be a perfectly enjoyable film. I'm still not sure what exactly was lacking about it - it had, as I mentioned, deep character development, but there was quite a lot of decent and (so far as I could tell) period- and genre- appropriate action. And all this, without devolving into preachy comparisons of the invading aliens with the settlers. Perhaps it was, after all, just my expectations that were off - the film, for the most part, worked really well. If nothing else, they certainly nailed the Western "look" - when the west wasn't getting blown up, that is:

That image says everything else that needs to be said, really.

*I note with interest that, as an amnesiac, Daniel Craig's character begins the film quite literally as the man with no name. And when it is revealed, his last name is Lonergan. Ha!

**And it could have been much, much worse. Several years ago, the graphic novel this film was . . . let's say inspired by, was available to read online for free. Horses that flew because their shoes were made of alien metal were involved.

1 comment:

Wynn said...

What does it say about me if that last note about horses flying because of their alien metal shoes
a) distracts me from the rest of the post and 2) sounds AWESOME (if not otherwise believable)?