Cowboys & Aliens
When you get right down to it, it doesn’t really matter how preposterous a plot may seem at first glance. What matters is: can it be made into a story? For instance, a story of space aliens crash landing near a small German village in the Middle Ages sounds ridiculous. But in the hands of master storyteller Michael Flynn, it becomes the sublime novel, Eifelheim. Similarly, the “orphaned boy discovers he’s special and is whisked off to a special school where he has many trials on on the way to discovering his True Destiny” plot has been done and done to death. But then an unknown single mother breathed new life into that plot with an original twist, and it became one of the best selling book series ever, captivating readers around the world.
The idea of space aliens attacking settlers in the American Old West in the 1800s — including lassoing and penning them up — also sounds ridiculous. But while Cowboys & Aliens may not be quite the literary achievement that Eifeiheim and Harry Potter are, it still is a rollicking good movie that delivers what it promises: a couple of hours immersed in a story that entertains, engages the viewer, and maybe even tweaks his emotions and intellect a bit.
I took my oldest son Michael to see Cowboys & Aliens last night (the Mrs. took our other son Andrew, and a friend, to see Captain America; yes, it was popcorn movie night at the Daileys’). We both had wanted to see it since the first trailers appeared last year. The Old West? Cowboys? An invasion of space aliens? Does it really get any better than that? Cowboys & Aliens has just about everything a respectable Western should have: a Man With no Name (Daniel Craig), a remote town, a saloon full of men who somehow are able to drink and play cards all day, a female saloon regular with a Secret, and a villain: a big shot cattle rancher who pretty much owns the town (Harrison Ford). And then there’s his punk son, who does whatever he wants because daddy pretty much owns the town.
Except, as we learn fairly quickly, the rancher, Woodrow Dolarhyde, is not the villain. The real villains are bug-eyed, drooling monsters. For just as a major showdown between Doharhyde and the sheriff is about to get violent, strange lights appear in the sky, and the town is strafed by flying craft, and then flashes of light start blasting away at the town. And then townspeople, including Dolarhyde’s punk son, get lassoed and hauled up to the sky.
Into this intergalactic shootout steps the Man with No Name. A strange manacle on his wrist suddenly comes to life, and with it he shoots down one of the craft. Whatever was inside it escapes, but not without tangling with some townsfolk. We don’t get a good look at it yet, but one of Dolarhyde’s henchmen says, “Whatever it was, it’s bleedin’!” Yup, and it can be tracked! And so the Man with No Name, Dolarhyde, and the townsfolk join forces to track “whatever it was” and get their people back.
It seemed to me that the characters were not suitably awed at what they were seeing. Cowboys & Aliens is set in the post-Civil War Old West, where the greatest technological achievements are the locomotive and the telegraph. And out of nowhere come craft that FLY and creatures that AREN’T FROM AROUND THESE PARTS. Searching for an explanation, the characters assume they’re dealing with demons, or a trick of the Indians. And the Indians blame it all on the white man (Oh yeah, in the third act our heroes are joined by a tribe of Apaches. The movie should be called Cowbys & Indians & Aliens, but never mind). But for the 19th century men and women, maybe it was something so beyond their collective experience, it was best to not think about it too much. However, Michael and I both chuckled at one good line. Daniel Craig rides one of the craft to rescue a woman who’d been captured, and afterward, he says to her, “We was flying. I didn’t like it much.”
And I can forgive this small weakness, because otherwise the film was so good. Michael enjoyed it too. But the best part was the drive home. In the car, I explained to him what foreshadowing is: “When something early in the story hints at something to come later. Can you tell me what the foreshadowing was in this movie?”
He thought about it for a few seconds, and then said, “The knife!” He was right! It was an excellent bit of foreshadowing, but if you want to know more, you’ll have to see the movie for yourselves. We also discussed the highlights of Harrison Ford’s film career, which for Michael means Star Wars and Indiana Jones. All in all, a perfect evening.
I have this one caveat for parents: Cowboys & Aliens earns its PG-13 rating. Leave the young kids at home.