Saturday I went to the movies with my family. When I discovered that the plan was to go see Cowboys and Aliens, I was, um, hesitant. All I knew of the film was from the poster I’d seen on the side of a theater: a beefy, dirty, cowboy, jaw-clenched and turned away from the center of the poster, with a weird alien gun/bracelet on his wrist that was lighting up. I had reservations.
Turns out the movie delivers exactly what it indicated on its poster; dirty, beefy cowboys and alien weapons. The movie opens on a wide-open desert. A hunky, filthy, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Cowboy (played by Daniel Craig) wakes up in the middle of nowhere with no hat, no gun, no memory, a serious wound in his side, a picture of a beautiful woman in his hand, and an odd iron shackle on one wrist. As he’s trying to knock off the iron wrist thingy with a rock, three Bad Guys show up, all disgusting teeth, black clothes, and indian scalps hanging from their saddles. They talk, mockingly, amongst each other about the stranger on the ground, decide he’s an escaped convict, and that they’re going to take him in to town and get a reward. As one steps off his horse and starts pushing The Cowboy around with a gun, our hero (we assume) goes into super-fighter mode and kills all three Bad Guys with his bare hands. It’s a scene decidedly reminiscent of the beginning of the Bourne films, where a lonely amnesiac is threatened and reveals heretofore unknown levels of bad-assery, though in the case of Cowboys and Aliens, we aren’t given an explanation for the super-human combat skills of the unknown cowboy. Ours is not to wonder why.
After taking the now dead bad guys’ guns, hats, boots, horses and dog, the cowboy heads into the nearest town, a tiny, depressed former mining town, with one Rich Cattle Rancher (Harrison Ford) and little else going for it. After The Cowboy gets fixed up and talked to by the Wise Town Preacher (and surgeon?), he hears gunshots and witnesses the cattle rancher’s Spoiled, Worthless Son, drunk and belligerent, terrifying the townsfolk. So he kicks him in the crotch when the kid gets too close and calls it a day. He goes into the local saloon and immediately attracts the attention of a Very Beautiful Girl (Olivia Wilde) with a gun on her hip and a thoroughly modern hairdo swinging down her back. She says, mysteriously, that she needs him, or needs to know what he knows or something, and he thinks she’s a whore. As they’re talking, the Local Sheriff, a fine fellow who’s just locked up the Spoiled Kid, despite the inevitable wrath of the rich rancher-father, discovers that The Cowboy is a wanted criminal and tries to take him in to jail. Again, our Cowboy attacks everyone in sight, disarming and knocking out seven deputies, until Very Beautiful Girl knocks him on the head and he passes out.
The Cowboy wakes up in a jail cell next to the Spoiled Kid who is mocking The Cowboy again; that is, until The Cowboy reaches through the bars and slams him into the wall. The Sheriff gives us an update, and it looks like Cowboy is going to be sent to Santa Fe on charges he can’t remember. But never fear! Just as he’s being loaded into the jail wagon, the aliens show up, blasting the town apart and stealing lots of townsfolk by roping them from their ships and dragging them into the air. The Cowboy finds out that his bracelet is an effective weapon against the alien ships, and, after some predictable hesitation and an extremely brief and fairly unsuccessful Spirit Journey to find his memories, decides to join the Cattle Rancher and the Townsfolk in a search party to find the aliens and rescue the kidnapped.
From there, it gets simpler and more clichéd. Beautiful Girl ends up needing rescue and then eventually naked, the Wise Preacher ends up dead, there’s a character named Doc, and some wise old Indians that they need to partner with to discover The Cowboy’s memories and defeat their alien foe. Though I’ve only described the first fifteen minutes of the movie, that is literally the entire plot (with the exception of a surprise reveal from Beautiful Girl), and, I suspect I’ve just written more words about this movie than were in the screenplay.
The vast majority of the film is riding into the sunset, big fights of various proportions and weaponry, very brief, sage speeches from Rich Cattle Rancher and Wise Preacher, and no more involvement from women. I suspect most people would tell me (as my sisters did) that this is just a Guy’s Movie, a spectacle meant solely to entertain and thrill, with lots of punches, blood, explosions, and general heroics. And indeed it could have been much worse: the writers could have tried to pull a message from the nonsense.
And yet I find myself left with a question, with the following as a preface. There are beautiful stories to be told, stories with incredible depth of meaning, beauty, adventure, and truth. There are great books to be read, music to be played, conversations to be had, even movies to be watched, all of which have more to give you, more to contribute to your life, heart and mind, then a movie like this ever could. You were given a short life, filled with limited time for entertainment and instruction. Is there any excuse to spend two hours of it watching cowboys fight aliens?
I mean this as a genuine question. I know there’s a school of thought that believes entertainment does not need to be justified, that we have a right to our “free time” and no need to commit ourselves to quality or thoughtfulness in what we chose. I also ask this fully aware that I am someone who plays Farmville. I can waste my time with the best of them, and I don’t really like the idea of having to assess and judge every single source of entertainment we bring into our lives before we can just enjoy it. That strikes me as insincere or curmudgeonly, and in opposition to a joyful and winsome life.
So what was it about Cowboys and Aliens that got me all riled up? Well, it was just so very blatant, so deliberately patterned to titillate without mucking things up with a message or purpose. I felt like the movie was daring me to stand up for Stories with a capital S, all the while knowing it had the upper hand. Cowboys and Aliens reached more people and made more money in a weekend than my writing probably ever will throughout the course of my life.
And so I’m left with more of a struggle than a conclusion. Given how much wonderful human creation has already been contributed to this world we live in, and how much more is coming, I can’t help but think we have an obligation, or at least a prerogative, to chose wisely, and yet, it seems hard, if not impossible, to set an ultimate standard of what falls under the category of “wise choice”. I guess what it comes down to is this: is entertainment just for entertainment’s sake automatically justified? If so, I’ve got a great movie recommendation for you…