Alana Joli Abbott (alanajoli) wrote,
Alana Joli Abbott

Cowboys and Aliens Movie Review

I've been meaning to write up my thoughts of the Cowboys and Aliens movie since we saw it on Friday night. Twostripe and I actually caught three movies last week, which is a record since Bug's birth. In Howard Tayler-like ranking (by how much I enjoyed it as I saw it, rather than by any more sophisticated ranking system), Cowboys and Aliens was my number two movie of the week: I had more fun at Captain America and not as much fun at Harry Potter part 7 part 2. However, I will say that of the three, Cowboys and Aliens was the only movie that exceeded my expectations. I wanted it to be amazing; I was worried that it wouldn't be. It succeeded in surpassing my worry while still falling short of amazing -- but it was a lot of fun, and that goes pretty far with me. It also had more elements of the original plot than the trailers had made it look like would be involved.

Doing an LJ cut here for those who don't want spoilers, because I'm cracking this wide open.

The Basics

Here are some takeaways of the awesome parts of the movie. The music was fantastic. The acting was solid throughout, in my opinion; I was particularly impressed with Daniel Craig as Jake Lonergan, because I hadn't been sure I could see James Bond as a cowboy, and he does a great job. Olivia Wilde pulls off the otherworldly woman who's not quite right bit just as well as Summer Glau (some of the similarities in body language between Ella and River Tam were striking). Harrison Ford is, as always, awesome -- but I found myself forgetting that he was Harrison Ford, and that he could make me forget that says great things about his performance, in my opinion. The aliens were pretty cool, including one who I felt really took on some personality (the one with the scar from Jake's attack during his escape). The special effects with the ships I thought were particularly good -- the body snatching was convincing, and it was nice to see that sort of UFO lore integrated into the story.

The Plot

Watching the trailers, I didn't think we'd see any Indians (Apache or otherwise), and I wasn't entirely sure we'd get the good aliens vs. bad aliens. I was pleasantly surprised that there were Indians in the film beyond Adam Beach's character, Nat Colorado, and that Ella (Olivia Wilde) is effectively the Kai counterpart. So while much of the plot was changed -- in some ways that I think make more cinematic sense, such as having a simpler goal for invading the planet than colonization (mining gold as a rare resource) -- the basics were the same: Some settlers and some Indians stand against an alien incursion with the help of an alien who's on their side.

The Characters

The characters, with the exception of Ella/Kai, were completely different -- and, honestly, on the whole less likable. Jake Lonergan is a violent criminal who doesn't seem much more deep than Jayne Cobb from Firefly (and is vaguely lovable in the same way, but you probably wouldn't want to actually ever hang out with him. Harrison Ford's Dollarhyde is a rich man who tortures people to maintain his hold on the town his money supports -- he's a tyrant over the town, who seem to view him as both a blessing (in that his money keeps the town going) and a curse (in that he views himself, and his son, as above the law). Young Dollarhyde is a waste of space (Jake's interactions with him are really young Dollarhyde's only redeeming value). Ella's kinda... creepy. Nat is, initially, a thug, though as it's revealed that he has a sense of honor and duty, he's actually one of the members of the cast who might actually be a worthwhile human being. Doc, a bartender who gets bullied by Dollarhyde because he can't shoot a gun, effectively, is verbally abusive to his wife. The bandits who used to work with Jake have no socially redeeming aspects except that they're willing to be convinced into battle. The kid is more of a foil for Dollarhyde's development as a character than a character in his own right. The only person I really would have liked to spend more time with was the preacher, who's this down-to-earth, voice of the Old West, salt of the world kind of guy, and he made me crack up the duration of his screen time.

Several of the characters become better people by the end of the movie, but man, are they an unlikable bunch!
Given how much time I spent with the comic book equivalents -- who are, at their cores, really pretty good people with rough edges, who care about each other and about the world -- realizing how much this version of the cast were not good people certainly enabled me to stop putting the two side by side!

But here's the thing: despite how much the people were not really good guys -- I wanted them to win. I wanted to follow them around on their quest for two hours and I was rooting for them the whole time, flaws and all. I'd put that in the big success column for the cast and crew of the film.

The Indians

So, how about them Apache? I think my thoughts on their inclusion can be summed up in two sentences:
  • As people, they, on the whole, seemed generally more decent than any of the white characters.

  • None of them had names.

To be fair, I'm not sure that the latter is entirely true. But if they had names, I sure can't remember them. They're Other. Not really part of the cast. And they start out by taking our "heroes" hostage and threatening to kill them all, which, while a perfectly reasonable attitude, plays into the stereotypes. But while most of the settlers flee after their first encounter with the aliens, the Apache are ready to mount an attack, right away, without having to be convinced, because they're determined to save their people, in far greater numbers than the "heroes." (Jake has to go convince the outlaws he'd been riding with -- before he got captured by the aliens and had his memory wiped -- that they were probably going to die anyway, so they might as well die gloriously, in order to fill out the fighting force to run the raid on the alien stronghold.)

The Apache also serve as the plot device to get Jake's memories back, through a sort of vision quest induced by drugs. This again makes use of convenient imagery associated with Native Americans to move the plot forward. There's also a reference to this group being the "last" of their people, which is another one of those overused tropes.

But, they didn't get cut out of the story. They were there, and they were generally represented as better people than the settlers. Here's a big plus: the actors, including Olivia Wilde and Adam Beach, did use Chiricahua, the language of the Chiricahua Apache. I don't know how accurate their accents were, as I'm not a speaker, but I thought it was a nice use of the language, and rather than use subtitles, the script featured translations to the characters who didn't understand. The moment when Ella reveals that she speaks Chiricahua is sort of this turning point -- it's as though she's made the decision that the people she really needs on her side in trying to take out the invading aliens, who killed her people, are the Apache rather than the settlers.

The Women

Which is a great segue into the use of the Ella/Kai character. Rather than being sort of the cold, bossy alien from the comic, Ella is a warm (though strange) bossy woman, who is almost instantly accepted as the leader when she reveals her alien nature. She also martyrs herself for the cause in the end, showing her own strength of resolve. If there's actually a true hero in the film, it's the alien freedom fighter who disguises herself as a human in order to take down the much bigger foe. What's interesting about this to me is that it uses another Hollywood trope that's usually reserved for white men, which I've complained about before -- the one where the white guy comes into a culture being oppressed in some way, becomes the greatest hero of the culture, and leads them against their foes, who are usually other white guys. (See: Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, and, by rumor, Avatar.) Ella disguises herself, integrates into the soon-to-be oppressed culture (that's us humans), refuses to be subject to cultural standards that will keep her from accomplishing her goal, and, aside from a short death that she quickly bounces back from, becomes the great leader that everyone will follow into battle, eventually taking out the villains with a final, tremendous strike.

I find that turn of the trope to be a pretty nifty one indeed.

The other notable women don't get much development, but then, most of the male characters don't either. Dollarhyde and Doc are the two notable exceptions -- even Jake doesn't really grow much as a character, beyond feeling as though he can start afresh with his life. I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing -- it's a plot movie, and an action movie, not a character-centric movie. Too much additional development would have slowed down the pacing, which wouldn't have done anyone any favors.

Should You See It?

Absolutely. It's a fun, entertaining film. It's definitely got space western written all over it. The cast is great, the special effects are fun, and the music is phenomenal.

But don't take my word for it -- I might have a bias, after all! Our local Branford Patch movie reviewer, Noah Golden, enjoyed it, and it hit Howard Tayler's #2 spot for the year so far, so if you share his taste, as I often do, it's definitely a winner for you.
Tags: cowboys and aliens, howard tayler, reviews
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