Review: Cowboys & Aliens

By July 31, 2011

I must admit, I rushed to see Cowboys & Aliens on opening day because I wanted to see the horses and it was 105 degrees outside, so cool movie darkness coupled with salty, overpriced popcorn proved an irresistible lure.

Harrison Ford, Daniel Craig and Olivia Wilde saddle-up in Cowboys & Aliens. (Photo courtesy Dreamworks)

I love Westerns, and this one started out following the formula of a loner cowboy (whose name just happens to be Lonergan) lying in the sand looking confused, which we quickly learn is due to amnesia (a tip of the hat to the “Man with No Name”). But it’s obvious that this is not going to be just another romp through the dust Western. For one thing, Lonergan sports a strange metallic bracelet, prompting alert movie-goers to wonder, “Could this be from the aliens?”

About 20 minutes in, it becomes clear that despite the fact that it is based on a comic book, Cowboys & Aliens is a serious, if unconventional, Western, laced with a financial allegory about the fierce fight the U.S. faces against that most evil of shapeshifting opponents: the deficit. It is a cautionary tale, filled with hidden messages and simple American bromides about banding together and putting aside differences of greed, cultural, politics, age and gender to present a united front against a very real threat, our national debt.

Bear with me and see if I can make a case for this (though be forewarned: there are spoilers!) Once the amnesiac cowboy (played by a very fit and lean Daniel Craig), staggers into town, we find the wealthiest citizen’s son, Percy, has been running up a drink tab with no intention to pay the saloon keeper.  Fiscal irresponsibility!  The townspeople are afraid to force the wayward purse-man to pay because “without his dad’s money we would not even have a town.” Sounds a lot like the arguments to retain tax loopholes for billion dollar businesses, because if we don’t “they create jobs, and might take more of them overseas!”

Periodically Lonergan takes out his gun and twirls it around quite impressively and looks confused, a possible representation of the “spin” people put on the U.S. financial crisis. As an outsider, the amnesiac is willing to take on Percy (who is also shooting people), which conflict keeps us occupied for a few minutes until the aliens attack and all hell breaks loose. Since this is a Western, the aliens lasso random bystanders in the town of Absolution (the 2006 comic is set in Silver City) to take back to their ship. It seems they have abducted Lonergan’s girlfriend, and later in a flashback we find out they set their probe a bit too high and fried her to ash. Great pains are taken to make clear “She Was Not a Whore,” at least not as far as this cowboy was concerned

Harrison Ford rides herd as Dolarhyde in Cowboys & Aliens. (Photo courtesy Dreamworks)

Since every Western needs a saloon girl, the creators brought in Dr. Remy “13” Hadley from TV’s “House” (Olivia Wilde) as Ella Swenson. She is very beautiful, and ultimately represents the sacrifice we all must make in dispatching the national deficit. In further observance to the genre, there are good townsfolk, greedy cattle/land barons, robber cowboys and Indians. The old-money landed faction, led by Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford),  seems to represent the AARP/Baby Boomer contingent. They want to regain the gold stolen by Lonergan.  I was expecting at any moment to hear them come right out and say, “Keep your hands off our Social Security, you young ‘uns!” Anyway, the oldsters are chasing the youthful marauders  and then they are all attacked by Apaches.

The Apaches represent American’s Poor, and even possibly the Tea Party. I could have sworn I heard one Indian mutter, “Taxes…we don’t need no stinkin’ taxes!” (Then again, maybe not…) In plot twists too convoluted to relate, the unblemished Ella gets wrapped like a mummy and thrown on the Apache war fire, prompting a fit of pique by Lonergan, who has now lost two non-whores to alien-induced disaster.  But not so fast! She jumps out of the fire, naked (fortunately, for those interested. I kept hoping for a flip scene with the sculpted Lonergan, but no such luck!), and this, along with all the alien space ships buzzing around really, really impressed upon the residents of Absolution:  we have got to fight these aliens together or we are all doomed. If only the members of the U.S. government could be forced to see this movie immediately!

Now the cowboys (Republicans) and Indians (Democrats) and young and old, bandits and lawmen join forces to fend off the aliens (the national deficit). To further drive home the financial truth, the party comes across a large steamboat which is upside down, a fitting allegory for the U.S. housing industry. It is never really explained what the steamboat is doing in the New Mexico desert, but, like the housing industry, it is crawling with chaos and its future doesn’t look very promising. Did I mention Ford’s character is named Dolarhyde? (Get it? Dollar! Money!)

For some very complicated reason, there is a 13-year-old boy trailing along in the proceedings. He represents the youth (or future) of America and he is Hispanic. (Another allegory? Or just a canny demographic move on the part of the executive in charge of casting?) Dolarhyde arms him with a knife that we are pretty sure the kid could never bring himself to use, but when cornered by an alien he does in fact stab and kill it.

Final confirmation that this is not just a Western a la Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter comes in the form of a reveal that the aliens are here to suck the gold out of America. Gold is what lured the space pests to Lonergan’s simple abode in the first place, resulting in the barbecue of his first true love (who, it is worth repeating, “Was Not a Whore”).

Naturally, because Hollywood loves a happy ending, America triumphs over the deficit, er… aliens, through sacrifice and a fierce battle. Ella, in a move out of the suicide bomber playbook, blows up the Alien Mother Ship, and although we mourn the loss of “She Who is Not a Whore II,” we are all somewhat mollified because we have seen her on “House” for years and know she has Huntington’s disease and prefers a rapid exit. If she can take the deficit along with her, so much the better.

I only saw the movie once, and therefore absorbed only the most obvious signs and symbols. This being a summer popcorn film, it is entirely possible that the obvious is all there is. Yet I am haunted by the thought that if only some hedge fund managers and bankers could see it, they would decode additional meaning that slipped past a piggybank financier such as myself.

For example, there is a black-and-white Border Collie who gets lost once, but basically serves no purpose in the movie. I kept waiting for him to play some pivotal role – save someone, or turn into an alien – but he was “just there.” Maybe, like so many moist-eyed showbiz hopefuls, all his good scenes wound up on the cutting room floor, but I suspect a sophisticated financial type could tell us whether the dog is in fact a symbol of government regulation: We think we have a watch dog, but the reality is he does nothing! In fact, he readily shifts allegiance, tagging along with whatever faction suits his needs.

Anti-gravity horseshoes that allowed the Indians

The clincher comes in the film’s final moments, when Dolarhyde rescues the spendthrift Percy from the alien ship. On their return to Absolution, there is a very pointed exchange in which daddy gold bucks sends his mended ‘Purse’ to the bank to get new checks, which will now bear both their names. And you just know that someone will be balancing this new checkbook with care. That calamitous deficit could return! Lonergan returns to the cabin, alone again, where he brought the gold that lured the aliens to his true love, but this time he places flowers on the table, not gold. A hummingbird hovers sprightly nearby (a nod to renewable energy?)

Play the game! See this movie and heed its hidden financial message. Dreamworks and Universal, send our congress free tickets. It might save America. At a reported cost of $165 million to produce,  it would be a small price to pay for wiping out $14 trillion!

Note:  The makers of Cowboys and Aliens used primarily average brown horses so as not detract from its true intent. It worked perfectly.











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