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There has to be a place in any movie lover’s heart for guilty pleasures: movies that don’t deserve any awards, that may even have fatal flaws, but are nonetheless just a heapin’ lot o’ fun to watch.
Put “Cowboys & Aliens” in that category.
Gorgeous Western landscapes set the scene for this oddly blended Wild West and sci-fi feature, which is filled with old-fashioned, John Wayne machismo, a touch of humor, familiar characters, a great blend of on-screen talent, excellent pacing and good use of action and suspense. Knife fights, saloon brawls, mysterious, beautiful women and crusty, old antiheroes get tossed into this salad with soaring spaceships, alien slime and laser guns – a combination that sounds about as strange as dipping Wendy’s french fries in a chocolate Frosty … but ends up being just as delicious.
Yes, the film has its flaws, most notibly the occasional overacting of a cliché character, a storyline that doesn’t tie up very well, a fair amount of potential that simply isn’t realized and the incredibly lifeless acting of Olivia Wilde in the heroine role. Wilde lends very little character or emotion to the film, delivering cardboard lines as though she’s merely a plot device to move the story along and not actually experiencing anything going on around her.
Βut more than making up for Wilde’s shortcomings is Harrison Ford, who you can almost hear barking over his shoulder, “Get on my back, kid, cause I’ll carry this movie by myself if I have to.”
The legendary Ford returns, seizing the screen in a sometimes over-the-top portrayal of the rough and commanding ranch boss Woodrow Dolarhyde. Ford is the perfect fit for a film mixing cowboys and aliens, for he seems to draw up a character that is part “Gunsmoke” and part “Star Wars” (and yes, he was cast in both), delivering Dolarhyde’s lines with a surly, gravel-laden growl that smells like the Marlboro Man and sounds vaguely reminiscent of the classic moment when Han Solo turned to Chewbacca and snarled, “Laugh it up, fuzzball.”
And while Ford’s performance boldly challenges any actor in the film to live up to his screen presence, Daniel Craig as the outlaw Jake Lonergan stubbornly refuses to give the old man an inch. Craig plays it straighter than Ford, which turns out to be a perfect foil, as the two actors face off at the O.K. Corral for who gets to be the star of this movie, and when the dust clears, audiences are treated to the suspense of not knowing which actor will ride off with the title.
Yep, I reckon’ “Cowboys & Aliens” is a movie I may rent to watch again, not for profundity, not for excellence in the art of filmmaking … but just for fun.
The movie, set in 1873 Arizona Territory, follows bandit Jake Lonergan, who wakes in the desert lost, alone and with no idea of who he is or how he got there. And, oh yeah, he’s got a laser gun permanentely attached to his left wrist.
Lonergan moseys into town, only to cross paths with the sheriff (over Lonergan’s face on a wanted poster), the town’s boss and tyrant (Dolarhyde) and a mysertious woman who claims she knows how Lonergan got that contraption stuck to his arm in the first place.
But before Lonergan can learn who he really is, alien flying machines attack the town and make off with half the settler’s loved ones, prompting a motley crew of Western characters to set out in pursuit of the slimy, shrieking extra-terrestrials that our heroes – who were born over 100 years before “Star Wars” – can only classify as “demons.”
And there begins my biggest criticism of the movie.
The film frequently touches on religious themes, as a way, I suppose, of lending some heart and gravity to the film. Unfortunately, the scriptwriters lent no forethought to their foray into Christianity, presenting a theology nearly as “demonic” as the aliens themselves.
For starters, a prominent character is the hard-drinking, gun-toting “country preacher,” whose lack of clerical collar and choice of chapel suggests a Wild West Protestant. But his talk of “absolving sins” makes him sound distinctly Catholic.
And when the “preacher” starts preaching, it’s even more clear he has no idea what he’s talking about (and neither, apparently, did the filmwriters):
“I’ve seen bad men do good things and good men do bad things,” the preacher pontificates. “Whether you end up in heaven or hell is not God’s plan, it’s your own.”
Ηave fun with that one, Calvinists (see Ephesians 1:11-14).
But even Arminians, indeed any Christian, should recoil at hearing the preacher spout clearly anti-biblical teaching:
“Surely you don’t expect God to do everything for you?” the preacher asks of a non-believer wondering where God’s influence is in his life. “You gotta earn his presence, then you gotta recognize it, then act on it.”
“Earn” his presence?
The Bible is explicit that the grace of God, which would include His presence, cannot be earned:
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast,” Paul declares in Ephesians 2:8-9.
Elsewhere the Bible refers to our attempts at “earning” God’s favor as “filthy rags” (see Isaiah 64:6-7) and warns that “there is no one righteous … no one seeks God” (Romans 3:10-11), while reassuring that though we do not “earn” His favor, God in love has extended it as a gift in the sacrifice of His Son. Yes, in fact, He has done everything for us:
“God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (from Romans 5:6-11).
Now, for the most part, the prominent lessons of “Cowboys & Aliens” are that hard times mean boys need to step it up and be men (see Romans 5:3 and Hebrews 12:4-12); and that hardened cowboys can’t be so hard that they can’t be taught new tricks (see Philippians 2:3-13).
Were those the only morals of the movie, I’d give the whole shootin’ match a tin star. As it is, I can only give it about three – out of five, that is.
- “Cowboys & Aliens” contains about a dozen mild obsenities and crudities, with about a half dozen profanities thrown in.
- The film has very little sexuality, outside of references to a “whore” and prostitute and crude comment about a man’s genitals. There are a few kisses, one shirtless man and a scene where an actress walks, naked, into a camp (her back is seen nude to her waist, and she shows a lot of leg after being “covered” by a blanket, but nothing explicit is seen).
- The film contains a wide array of violence and gore, combining gunfights, fistfights, stabbings, bows and arrows, lasers, explosions, splatters, a disintegration, gaping wounds and so forth. While not gratuitously bloody or slimy, there is still plenty of wounded, dead and dying people and aliens in the film, and the resulting gore is not hidden from the audience.
- In addition to the preacher’s comments mentioned above, the film contains several religious elements: a funeral prayer, a few additional conversations about the relationship of God and man, a cross, discussion of the aliens being “demons” and a Native American healing ceremony involving an unspecified drugs and chanting music.