The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Cowboys & Aliens

Written by Pete Falconer.

Photo from the article Science Fiction and the Western have, at different times, been among the most popular Hollywood genres. Both offer a wide range of different possible narratives and scenarios, but they share the capacity to provide a familiar alternative world in which to stage heroic adventures. This common ground has been exploited by a number of generic hybrids, of which Cowboys and Aliens is the most recent.

With a few exceptions, such as Back to the Future Part III (1990) and Wild Wild West (both the 1960s television series and the 1999 film), combinations of the two genres have usually incorporated Western elements into Science Fiction settings. Large amounts of material from famous Westerns have been transposed in this way - High Noon (1952) and Shane (1953) were loosely adapted into Outland (1981) and Steel Dawn (1987). The use of Western tropes in a Science Fiction context can also be seen in television series from Star Trek to Firefly.

Cowboys and Aliens falls into the relative minority of hybrids that bring Science Fiction into the Old West. Perhaps the most interesting tension that this produces is between the two genres’ different uses of and attitudes towards technology. In recent decades, Science Fiction cinema has become more and more about spectacular displays of futuristic gadgets and settings (and the latest special effects employed in creating them). In Westerns, by contrast, a little technology goes a long way. The world of the cinematic West is one where technology is fairly limited, so even basic innovations can confer a huge advantage on those who possess them. Thus, Zachary Scott in Colt .45 (1950) is able to terrorise the frontier (until Randolph Scott stops him) simply because he has one of the first revolvers. The Sioux, armed with repeating rifles, can defeat Custer at Little Big Horn in any number of movies. Other forms of technology can have an even more profound impact - the coming of the railroad can seemingly transform the West entirely.

The aliens in Cowboys and Aliens have a similar effect. Their devastating weapons, flying machines and industrial-scale mining equipment are unlike anything the humans in the movie have ever seen. This has great thematic potential in a Western setting. As Jon Favreau himself has pointed out, it effectively puts the white settlers into the position historically occupied by Native Americans:

“It’s always the low-tech culture that feels powerless when faced with an enemy that has technology on their side. And of course the culture with technology on their side feels like it’s manifest destiny: they’ve been granted this gift by the divine and intend to use it. So yes, it is a bit of a flip, because the cowboys find themselves as the low-tech culture.”

In this context, it’s a nice touch that the aliens’ invasion seems to be partly motivated by a monstrous intergalactic gold rush. Beyond establishing its novel inversion of a wider historical theme, however, the film does not do much with it. Certain aspects show potential in this regard, but are not executed clearly or consistently enough to do more than hint at possible significance. A good example of this is the sound design. Compared to the sounds made by the aliens’ weapons and other technologies, the cowboys’ guns sound weak and thin, almost like pop-guns. In a movie more obviously concerned with detail, this could be a subtle and effective way to bring out the issues mentioned by Favreau. However, because of the film’s haphazard stylisation and obtrusive post-production, elements like these tend to feel more incidental than deliberate.

Of course, as I mentioned in my review, the brisk superficiality of Cowboys and Aliens also has its advantages. As tempting as it is to speculate about what the film might have made of some of the issues it raises in passing, its failure to do so probably makes it a better movie. The heavy-handed pursuit of seriousness and profundity is a characteristic problem with contemporary Westerns. Whilst Cowboys and Aliens is mostly able to avoid this, there are signs that if it had pursued more conventionally lofty aspirations, it would not have ended well. The somewhat patronising portrayal of the Apaches that help the cowboys fight the aliens and the predictable redemption of Colonel Dolarhyde through his relationship with Nat Colorado (Adam Beach) show the film’s limitations when it comes to handling this kind of material.

The style of the film is better suited to action and technological spectacle. As already suggested, these have become the values of Hollywood Science Fiction. Westerns, by contrast, are associated with earlier film technologies and aesthetics. This generic comparison might be particularly familiar to recent generations from the Toy Story movies, where the humble low-tech simplicity of Woody is juxtaposed with the bombastic gimmicks of Buzz Lightyear. Cowboys and Aliens does its best to incorporate more traditional elements into its contemporary style. Favreau reportedly rejected the possibility of releasing the film in 3D, since this would require shooting on a digital format and he believes that “Westerns should only be shot on film”. Alongside the contemporary special effects, then, the film offers us a more classical style of photography, lovingly reproducing the physical qualities of actors, props and settings.

Sadly, the film’s divergent stylistic impulses do not sit very well together. The sense of vividness and substance that the movie gains from its use of more traditional cinematography highlights by contrast the synthetic character of its CGI effects. In turn, the extensive use of CGI and various forms of obvious digital image manipulation undermines any apparent immediacy. As I discussed in my review, the casting of the likes of Daniel Craig and Olivia Wilde - stars for the Photoshop era - helps the film to confront these problems. Their distinctive presence helps blur the line between the natural and the artificial, and encourages us to suspend (or at least soften) our judgement of the film’s stylistic incongruities. But this, like many of the more successful aspects of the film, seems like a happy accident, a fortuitous combination of different elements which are there for other reasons. However, if we are to be entirely fair to the film, we should acknowledge that it is its enthusiasm and sincerity which make such accidents possible.

This Alternate Take was published on September 27, 2011.

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