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At the movies: Cowboys and Aliens

2011 August 24


I’ll admit, in the wake of previous supposedly Made For Sarah-style films being crushing disappointments (no, I’m still not talking to you, Zack Snyder, after The Incident), I was readying myself for another angry rant in the general direction of the internet. I went into Cowboys and Aliens with low hopes: I wanted cowboys, and I wanted aliens. I got them and they were great.

The cowboy film has always been an exploration of maleness – often specifically white American maleness – pitching “good” masculinity (cowboys) versus “bad” (indians and bandits). There’s often an additional trope which sets masculinity against the untamed natural environment. Alien/monster films focus on our fear of “others” and “outsiders” that we cannot understand or control. Often that other is a frightening idea in our midst, like in District 9 (post-colonial or immigration-related concerns), or 28 Days Later (medical experimentation, unchecked human aggression).

Daniel Craig's rippling torsoSo, with that in mind, Cowboys and Aliens should tell us what American masculinity does in the face of “the other”. Without referencing anything, we can probably conclude that it shoots at it. This is very true.


… The casting of Daniel Craig AKA that most English of Englishmen, James Bond, as the lead in this action romp seems a little out of kilter. His physical masculinity is present – of this we are in no doubt – but there are nice little moments in which traditional tropes of agressive masculinity are turned slightly around such as the focus on groups, teams and families succeeding rather than the usual “one man against the world”.

I am probably going into too much analysis for what is overall a pleasing action romp. The full spoiler-tastic plot can be found here on the wiki page, but in brief: there are some cowboys, some aliens, stuff explodes. Daniel Craig takes his shirt off quite a bit, Olivia Wilde is hot, mysterious and gunslinging whilst Harrison Ford plays himself. He is the original Space Cowboy, after all.

I did say brief. You can find some more things plus interesting interviews with cast and crew over at the Huffington Post.

What I hadn’t realised, though it is forehead smackingly obvious in hindsight, was that the orignal public outing for this was in comic book format from an idea by Scott Rosenberg, who took a long time to actually sell the concept as a film. No idea why it was such a hard sell; stranger things have happened at the cinema, after all.

The film works. I sat, rapt, as the spectacle unfolded. And spectacle is the right word – action films are about watching Stuff Happening Then Exploding but with enough interesting character and plot elements to lead you through it, without distracting from the important explosions. Otherwise we’ll just be watching a Michael Bay film.

A cowboy on a horse rides underneath a space ship

Cowboys and Aliens

A female gunslinger, albeit from very, very far out of town, is certainly a very welcome presence. I’m still in two minds over how I feel about that. It’s good to get female characters into what is usually a very male-dominated genre. Cowboy films are pretty much just that – about cowBOYS.

So let’s look at the boys – there’s a lot of discussion of “being a man” in the film, and the male characters all come of age in different ways, usually through their relationship to each other as father/son types or in their relationship to guns and how big they are. Paging Dr Freud, anyone? As an analysis of maleness it’s not the most subtle.

But then this film isn’t very subtle. Or indeed, subtle at all. The aliens are evil and very “alien” – they have no characterisation and are just the enemy marauding to Planet Earth in search of gold (geddit?). The “baddie” of the film is very clearly avarice. Almost every act of plunder is directly and swiftly punished. The “good” characters are those that express noble qualities of caring for others above themselves and in an interesting turn of events – total self-sacrifice.

The “community conquers all” theme runs strong. The assembled cast must learn to put aside their differences – criminals and lawmen, cowboys and indians, Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford who have a couple of amusing testosterone-offs during the film – in order to fight the common enemy. Now, all of this, well-handled, would be corny but more than good enough for what is essentially a Spaghetti Western crossed with Independence Day. Hey, I don’t need introspection; I liked Thor.

Talking about masculinity and how it is handled in films should be as important for feminists as counting female characters and their agency. Speaking of which, I was pleased to note that the female lead didn’t need rescuing any more times than Daniel Craig, and she’s the only one who knows what’s going on, plus she actually saves the day in the end.

However, there are precious few other female characters, as is the sad case with Westerns – when will we get more cowgirls, when? The only other speaking female characters are a prostitute and a wife, both of whom are damsels eventually in distress. It would have been nice for there to be a human heroine for Craig’s character to riff off (to quote the person I went to the cinema with, “I knew she was too beautiful to be real!”) rather than a space alien on a mission of vengeance. Though maybe she was still a female space alien. I’m choosing to believe she was.

Another lump in the plot stew is the presentation of the Native American characters- the usual “other” to the cowboy, replaced in this film by the aliens. They team up with the cowboys to Save The Day – and frankly, there is a lot of schmaltz and hokum surrounding the entire thing, from their mystical powers that help Daniel Craig’s amnesiac character remember crucial plot points to the fact that Harrison Ford grows as a person by realising his “adopted” Native American son is better than his current one… just before he dies in his arms.

So it’s a film that stereotypes men, women, cowboys and indians. It probably stereotypes the aliens too, but they don’t actually speak so much as growl so it’s hard to tell. It’s silly, it’s schmaltzy… but that’s also why it’s fun. This film does not take itself seriously, and I liked that. Other people didn’t. Many standard clichés of cowboy films are presented, which half made me groan and half made me smile because I wanted them to be there. I was certainly glad that it was a cowboy film with aliens in it rather than an alien film with cowboys in it – I like watching the lone gunman walk into the bar, drink a whisky then get into a fight. If you went to the cinema with an I-Spy Cowboy Films checklist, you would not be lacking many ticks on your sheet.

I’m wondering whether I’m being a Bad Feminist in liking the film despite these flaws. Or do Daniel Craig’s abs just cancel everything out? I believe the original plot did have a man-and-woman cowboy duo hunting down aliens together, which would have absolutely sold it for me. Not sure how the original stood on the Native American characters, though…

Go see this film if:

  • You like cowboys and you like aliens
  • You like seeing Daniel Craig getting into fights and taking his top off
  • ‘Splosions!

Don’t go see this film if:

  • You want something that reveals inner, hidden truths about the social pysche.
  • Or any kind of subtlety or nuance.
  • At all.
2 Responses leave one →
  1. Gordon permalink
    August 23, 2011

    Daniel Craig, I thought it was Vladimir Putin. Excellent review, I was going to give it a miss but you’ve changed my mind.

    • Sarah Cook permalink
      August 27, 2011

      Now I’m thinking about Daniel Craig *playing* Vladimir Putin and I need to go and have a lie down.

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