“Cowboys & Aliens” Movie Review

“Cowboys & Aliens” just came out this weekend.  Have you seen it?

It’s funny how quick we are to contradict ourselves.  For myself, I’m finding it necessary to immediately go against what I just stood by in my previous review.  There needs to be a spoiler free version of my thoughts so more people can participate in Martian Sunrise.  I was so firm in my original stance because of my concern about letting movies speak for themselves that I neglected the possibility that someone might not be willing to let it speak (i.e. go watch the movie) without some sort of assurance that it would even be worth their time.  Those that don’t want to read it don’t have to.  So I will bend in this one principle. Let’s not count on this happening often.

Spoiler – Free Review (nOObs start reading here)

“Cowboys & Aliens” is a surprisingly well made movie.  The whole name (with the second word being conveniently similar to the word “Indians”) sends a message of it being a campy summer blockbuster with no real depth at all, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.  It actually is kinda awesome.

I think I trust Jon Favreau (well, mostly) because he understands the film making process.  He earns my respect over directors like James Cameron and Michael Bay because his movies, even when they stink, still manage to capture my interest with engaging material.  Iron Man 2 is a great example of this.  It doesn’t have the same level of craft as its predecessor, but it’s not so misshapen as to be uncomfortable to sit through.  “Cowboys & Aliens” has the gift of being both well made like “Iron Man” but also genuinely fun and exciting.

I remember hearing about this adaptation when I started getting more into comics and how, at its very core, the story is about American Imperialism.  And I’m entirely unconvinced of that assessment.  “Revenge of the Sith” was, upon release, about Bush’s ugly side and the movie adaptation of “The Body Snatchers” was apparently about the cloaked threat of communism.  Both of their directors have admitted that the critics were wrong.  “Revenge of the Sith” (and Star Wars as a whole) was never made to be a commentary on any current affairs (but talks about perennial problems and those in the past Vietnam era) and “Body Snatchers’ was simply about scary aliens that had the ability to mimic us with near perfect accuracy.  So critics will inevitably claim they’ve figured out some work of art and often, if not bloomin’ near always, it’s about something that is going on at this very moment and will be outdated very quickly.  I’m not going to argue that art is never about something current or that it’s not about anything and simply “is”, but I am arguing that most of the time people’s opinions are in fact dead wrong.  They’re too centralized around a single point.  They make the work more boring than it has to be.  They fail to realize that the problems we have today stem from deep seated issues that have always plagued us (like greed).  Either way, people are typically wrong.

I usually get a feeling about where a movie is going in its opening.  In “Cowboys & Aliens” first few moments, we learn a lot about the main character (his ability to lead, his quick thinking and skill in combat, his disorientation about the past) without being directly told who he is.  We don’t even know his name until a bit later but, right off the bat, we know him.

We also learn about the concept of the movie in the first scene that the small can overtake the many given the right circumstances.  And in no place are we told that it is possible but simply shown.  This way less curious audiences believe it and more curious audiences can consider the proposition and how it might apply to the story as a whole.  Brilliant.

The characters of “Cowboys & Aliens” are a good fit.  They’re not perfect or beautiful.  But a good fit.  They each serve their purpose and they do it well.  We hear of Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) through his spoiled brat of a son (tightly performed by Paul Dano who I ended up wanting more of) and how he ultimately runs the town through fear.

We get to see how Dolarhyde has had a troubled past and how it’s made him into the grizzled man today but unfortunately it should have portrayed him starting out at a more detestable level.  We hear about his corruption but we never get to truly see it.  And the casting choice makes this problem exceptionally ironic.  When Lucas doctored up the original “Star Wars” to make Han (Ford’s breakout role) more likable and less cold-blooded at the opening of the movie (prompting the “Han Shot First” slogan), it made his eventual redemption less meaningful.  In the same way, they try to develop Dolarhyde but lay a shaky foundation for the process.

It also bears mentioning that there is a fair degree of theology in the movie which makes it a perfect candidate for Martian Sunrise.  The nature of God is revealed (or should I say darkened) by the ironhide preacher Shepherd Book Meacham.  I will not go into any real detail about how flimsy and unbiblical his beliefs are but it’s gross that he is the film’s moral center of which the characters are meant to understand what is going on.  So go in with your discernment cap.

The story, which isn’t particularly special but it works, does reconcile the genre differences of science fiction and western perfectly.  When odd things happen, characters react as they should.  They’re shocked.  And that’s exactly what the film needs to do.  There is a plot twist about half way through that unpacks and spoon-feeds the audience the necessary back-story and it didn’t feel forced.  Later developments in the plot are hinted at early on in normal unassuming ways.  Just like with the first scene, we understand a later development by its earlier establishment.  So I believed what was going on and it made sense.

I will also warn that there is almost some backside nudity (keyword “almost”) that is used in a completely asexual way.  It makes sense of what happened and tells you something deep about the character.  I’m just darn glad it was done tastefully.

The last (and best) spoiler-free thing I can say about “Cowboys & Aliens” is the visual feel of it.  There is a striking attention to detail in ways most blockbusters overlook.  In particular, my favorite scene took inside a derelict boat.  It’s raining terribly hard and we feel it along with the characters.  There are all sorts of odd things strewn about the boat and the characters have to rest in the midst of all the mess.  In one sequence the saloon owner Doc (played by Sam Rockwell) takes some time to practice his rifle skills by blowing away some empty bottles.  We’ve seen this a million times in movies but here it just really worked and felt natural.  They’re all preparing for the danger that lies ahead.

All I’ll say about that “danger” is that they did a good job of making them strange enough without being impractical or too weird.  They’re beefy, short-tempered, and gooey.  And that’s the kinda baddie “Cowboys & Aliens” needs.

“Cowboys & Aliens” is not a perfect movie but it’s far from the cookie cutter experience that you might expect in the summer.  It’s slicker and smarter than its branding might suggest.  It does so well because the story made sense with how it establishes things early on and I also felt that each scene was really nurtured by making it feel real.  It does lose some points in the way it develops Dolarhyde and it bares mentioning that its doctrine is very short sighted.  I do question if that sort of theological error would have made its way as far as deep in the country as Arizona in that early of a time period.  Who knows?

Overall Score: 3/4 ((***/****)remember 1 star is average))

















You’ve been warned.

A typical feature in science fiction is the establishment of intelligent extraterrestrial life.  A lot of times they are used to provide an ultimate solution to mankind’s problems since they’ve tried every other thing (everything but the Gospel that is).  There is something of an interesting realization in this: we realize we that we are irreparably broken .  This is mostly true.  I would argue that where the Gospel is accepted people realize how otherworldly it is in comparison to every other system such as communism, the hippie movement, Atkins diet, Pokémon, skateboarding, positive thinking, etc.  Where the false Gospel flourishes, it’s typically seen as something very earthly and similar.  So having an otherworldly messiah, such as aliens,  is a profoundly interesting idea because it means we realize we’re damned.

Sometimes in sci-fi aliens aren’t the messiah but are just as corrupt as us.  This is mostly the case in “Cowboys & Aliens”.  I liked how they brought in the motivation to plunder gold.  This made them understandable in their initiative but terrifying in their execution.  Perhaps the movie would encourage us to think that we would have done the same thing given the chance on a more primitive culture.

Ella provides the counter example.  She is from an entirely different alien species of which we know really nothing about.  I would have liked some sort of clues in the story to describe her species (if she was even a she and didn’t mankiss Lonargen) because it would have made the world seem bigger.  As she is, she is just a solution to a plot problem.

Perhaps the only real interesting thing about Ella is that she is a very Christian incarnation.  She takes on a much lower form to be able to communicate with humans (as the experience of the Father showing up on your doorstep would likely kill you), she literally dies and is resurrected to prove her transcendent nature, and her sacrifice at the end also saves everyone.  I guess the implication is that if the aliens could escape they would later return and wipe the planet clean.

I suppose the main thing to discuss within spoiler territory is Meacham’s theology.  From the very start, he is unsure of Lonargen’s innocence but claims that (poorly paraphrased), “You just need to remember.  This is not God’s story but yours.”

I like how in Francis Chan’s book Crazy Love that he says we are all characters in God’s movie.  We typically lead our lives with the mindset of us being the hero and how it’s up to us to save the day.  Our glory, our glory, our glory.  Chan claims we are not the heroes, but extras.  We’re simply there for the background and all the real drama is about the person and action of God.  What Meacham does is he elevates the position far beyond the status of “extra”.

When Doc is so concerned about the safety of his wife, he confesses to Meacham that either God doesn’t exist or he’s evil (which already makes him the more qualified preacher than Meacham).  Meacham replies, almost comedically, “Do you really expect God to do everything for you?”

This is a very modern (and yet still ancient (Eccl 1:9)) view of God.  God created us to do what we want.  If it’s up to be it’s up to me.  God is not here to fix your life.  You determine what you want and grab it.

I’ll tell you why this gets my goat.  As I’m a Christian, morality permeates every area of my experience.  When I do good, it’s not because I have some pathetic timely standard and thought I’d gift someone with it.  I’m doing good that rests on the eternal legitimacy of the character of our perfect Creator in all His wisom, might, and love.

When I do evil, it’s truly wrong because I’m attempting to make my own footing illegitimate.  God spoke all creation (even me) into existence and finds its necessary cause outside itself and in Him.  Its continued rebellious existence hinges on His grace.  Whenever I really think about how God is so different from me and what I’d do (Isaiah 55:8-9) it compels me to worship.  God is so much bigger than us, so much smarter than us, so much more honest than us, so much more everything than us.

The God of Meacham and “Cowboys & Aliens” is very distant and very, very small.  He’s also relatively human.  There is an almost surface level idea of forgiveness in the movie (uttered by Meacham in his all too late dying breath) which is helpful.  I like to think that behind the scenes God is saving them from the aliens through Ella and we get to see their deliverance by His grace.  I’m happy they bring Him up as a way to possibly legitimize  Him, but it’s such a shallow view that I’d almost rather it not be there at all.  Outside of that, God is minimized.  The God of Meacham does not deserve worship.  He’s pathetic, he’s small, and he’s calloused.

The whole idea of a God that is so distant is of no help to those who are without hope.  There are people right now dying of cancer.  They are doing everything they can to fight it but, even with the best medicine, they will likely die.  Some of them will actually survive.  Does that mean Meacham’s God showed grace upon them?  Is he doing something at all?  Were they strong enough?  Or were they “lucky” enough?  The bits of dialogue in the movie aren’t enough to give us answers, but I do think a big part of its theology is the emphasis upon the individual as opposed to the Creator.

All suffering in the individual’s life dampens his own glory when it overtakes him.  The cancer victim wasn’t strong enough.  If his life was fundamentally about himself, then it’s just a painful tragedy with a pointless ending.  Ultimately his efforts were never enough.  The efforts he was able to muster up got him so far and were eventually depleted.  Things he wanted to do were ultimately cut short.  In a generation or two, he will likely be forgotten.  If he survives (or avoids cancer altogether), we have the same end results albeit on a slight delay.  Worm food.

The man whose life is about God is never without purpose.  God has the best intentions possible in the man’s suffering (Gen 50:20) and nothing is pointless or random (Prov 16:33).  Our whole life is shaped by God so, in the end, glory goes where glory is due.

Romans 9:21-25 (ESV)

21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? 22What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— 24even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? 25As indeed he says in Hosea,

“Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’
and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.'”

Is this not a more workable worldview?   Good men can sacrifice of themselves simply because they know it’s not about them.  Evil men, by ultimate ordination, do not realize they can’t stop bringing the Creator glory and are actually working towards His ultimate purpose.  I will take the God of the Bible over the God of Meacham every day of the week.

Should this impact my critique of the film?  Many would say no.  Good art is good art no matter where it comes from.  The problem with this claim is that we still need to define “art.”  Does art tell us something true?  Is art simply beautiful?  Well then we have to define “truth” and “beauty.”  We have left criticism and stepped into philosophy.  I’ll leave that to you for now.

I have to knock down “Cowboys & Aliens” a few pegs because it grosses me out.  I don’t think there’s a man alive who doesn’t have a breaking point where art stops being art.  Mine is simply very, very low.  I can’t enjoy something that I know Jesus would not enjoy.  I can’t enjoy something that I know will not pass into New Heavens and New Earth.  So why should I sympathize with it if it’s going to burn?

Roger Ebert said of the pro-racist movie “The Birth of A Nation” that, even though it espouses an evil viewpoint, it’s useful for showing that viewpoint of where we were in history. I think it’s true we can use it for that purpose but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s still an evil movie.  We shouldn’t have to be champions of the opposite viewpont.  That is not a burden we have to carry.

There is nothing inherently authoritative about art that demands we respect it (especially when it comes from a heretical worldview).  I love Mars but I cannot call all of it beautiful in light of the Sunrise.  It is dead, blemished, and if you’re not carrying an air supply you will suffocate.


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