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…

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Posted by Cate MacDonald

19 Comments

  1. Instant reply: “…a lonely amnesiac is threatened and reveals heretofore unknown levels of bad-assery.” That made my day.

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  2. Cate, long ago I came up with a motto for my entertainment viewing: “Life is too short to watch bad movies.” And because of that, the ratings of the movies I’ve seen tend to be rather high. I do my research first and try not to waste my time on something I will regret later.

    But I guess you could look at this another way. Cowboys and Aliens is a lot like junk food: high calories, but empty of nutrition. If you look at movies that way, junk food is okay once in a while, but if your entire diet consists of nothing but junk food (a problem with our nations youth to be sure) then you will end up sick and unhealthy.

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    1. Both those ideas appeal to me, Monica. Probably particularly the junk food analogy because you can expand it to include preferring certain kinds of “junk food” entertainment to others, without making the mistake of trying to justify them as better than others.

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  3. Cate, you ask “Is there any excuse to spend two hours of it watching cowboys fight aliens?” I believe your central question answers itself.

    Also, are you even allowed to use a word like “bad-assery” on Mere-O?

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    1. Jon, I had a dream last night that I used a much more, um, strong word in this article and was freaking out. “Matt’s going to kick me off!”

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  4. The comments from Jon and Keith are causing me to laugh my bad—-ery off. But here is my question. What if a group of people, ie. a family with three daughters, one wife and one lone representative of the male gender decide to, of their own full knowledge and agreement, attend a movie for the sheer enjoyment of just one member of the group. Isn’t there some virtue in that?

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    1. Well, that’s kind of a different question. I want to know if it’s the sort of thing that anyone should want to see, not should see given certain circumstances.

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  5. Cate,

    A couple years back, John Piper either preached or wrote a famous line about the way the world turns to “cake and television” for solace, instead of Jesus. Approximately every three or months (and by months, I mean 28 days, if that’s ameliorative enough ;), I find myself in that very position. My heart and soul tells me I should be reading the Psalms; my brain is telling me I need a lot of chips, dip, and a movie where a lot of men blow up and die. Sometimes I take the Psalms route. But occasionally, the Die Hard marathon wins. I don’t think until we get to heaven will be free of the love of childish things.

    But this isn’t a new problem. It strikes me every time I watch a more “redemptive” movie, like, say, Pride and Prejudice, how much the women talk about “diversions.” We miss it because their “diversions” are now things we turn into homeschooling classes – needlepoint, playing the piano, taking turns about the drawing room. I’m not saying in a hundred years we’ll think “Dumb and Dumber” was a classic commentary on the human condition. But every generation has to think through its theology of entertainment.

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    1. Rachael, thanks so much for this comment. Wonderful perspective.

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  6. A little nonsense now and then, is relished by the wisest men.

    This aphorism is usually attributed to Robert Dahl, who puts it in the mouth of Willy Wonka in 1964. However, I first read the aphorism in a long-forgotten book of nonsense verse (in which I first encountered “A Sonnet Found in a Deserted Madhouse,” which I immediately memorized and have never forgotten over the ensuing 55 years). I checked that book out of the public library in Needles, California when I was 8 years old in 1955. It was originally published by Scribner and Sons in 1915. On its title page was the aphorism Dahl borrowed and put into Wonka’s mouth.

    The aphorism was true then. But, it admits of a couple of qualifications.

    First, a “little” nonsense must be understood in relation to The Serious Things of This World. The nonsense relished by the wisest men is needed in greater quantity or with greater frequency as the Serious Things of This World proliferate. In general, the greater the Serious Things of The World, the more Nonsense required to keep one’s equilibrium.

    Second, more intense, more creative, higher-quality Nonsense is always preferred, as it’s more efficient. You need much more low-grade nonsense to realize the same salubrious effect. And, really low-grade nonsense (such as you find on broadcast television, especially in its pretensions to Seriousness) can be as anesthetizing as a constant diet of The Serious Things of This World. Low-grade nonsense is usually indistinguishable from Very Serious Things of This World.

    Now, with these qualifications in mind, we turn to Cowboys and Aliens.

    At a minimum, Cowboys and Aliens qualifies as nonsense at the level of genre. Cowboy movies and alien movies are a dime a dozen. A film that is robustly cowboy and alien … well, this works as nonsense in exactly the same way as Proverbs 11:2 – As a ring of gold in a swine’s snout, So is a lovely woman who lacks discretion. (This proverb has many other dimensions beyond the nonsensical juxtaposition of a gold ring in a swine’s snout; but, the nonsense embedded in this proverb evokes the same intellectual Zot! as Cowboys and Aliens. A comprehensive analysis of all the nonsensical juxtapositions of the elements of cowboy movies and alien movies is a fine exercise, too long for this comment.

    This, then, is my cursory answer to Matthew’s question “Is there any excuse to spend two hours … watching cowboys fight aliens?”

    Now to a related evaluation of Cowboys and Aliens by our gracious blog-host: “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.”

    What? No message or purpose? Au contraire!

    Like all high-quality nonsense (again consider Proverbs 11:2), Cowboys and Aliens wraps its nonsense around a message. It’s a risky thing for nonsense to attempt, lest its nonsensical character is simply leached away by the message wrapped in it. Indeed, Cowboys and Aliens may actually fail as nonsense if the viewer’s antennae are too sensitive to the message lurking beneath the nonsense. It’s rather like discerning Hannibal Lecter wrapped in a zany clown costume.

    So, what was the message in Cowboys and Aliens? There were at least two.

    The biggest “message” was the maxim that our petty intra-human squabbles pale when juxtaposed to utterly anti-human evil.

    Remember all those ostensibly clichéd characters and (especially) the relationships among them? The corrupt and wealthy cattle rancher and his snot-nosed, bully brat of a son? The rampaging redskins? The obsequious Indian cow hand, kowtowing to the corrupt and wealthy rancher? The vile, sweaty, stinky, rotten-toothed banditos? The cowardly sheriff? The brashly bold naif who runs the saloon? The femme fatale who always seems someone (or something) more than she appears?

    Stock characters, all of them, all from the cowboy genre of cinema. But, in this film, all these characters are redeemed individually, and their relationships – just as clichéd as the characters in the relationships – yes, the relationships are all redeemed.

    A second “message” is the modeling sort: it falls to the femme fatale, in fine modern feminist-fantasy style, to sacrificially die in order to save the world. In The Story behind all stories, it is the male Savior who suffers sacrificially to save the world.

    That’s just too, too retro for the screenwriters of Cowboys and Aliens. So, Ms. Mystique gives her life in a glorious alien-destroying explosion to save the world of now-redeemed men down in the dusty canyons of the cowboy world.

    Yeah, I know, I’ve probably robbed the film of any nourishment that its nonsense side might have delivered. Sorry ’bout that. Go read and memorize “A Sonnet Found in a Deserted Mad House.”

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    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful reply, Fr. Bill. Just so you know, it was me rather than Matt who asked the question.

      I can’t help but feel that the (tongue-in-cheek) meaning you discovered in the movie is due more to your own thoughtfulness and intellectual generosity than any intention of the film-makers. My dad held a similar view after watching the film, the each character coming into contact with the unearthly power was redeemed through their fight against it.

      The most I think I could say of the “message” is that of the typical trope of any adventure movie–facing trials and fighting like men makes you better men. Ultimately a fine message, but seems hardly enough to justify two hours on it’s own, since it’s been done several times a year since the movies came to the silver screen.

      And I’ll read that sonnet as soon as I can.

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    2. So when are they going to start letting you actually post instead of just doing 600 word comments? ;-)

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      1. Kyle, have you never noticed the loquacity of the elderly and infirm? Sometimes you just shut them up!

        Online, they drift from blog to blog, leaving long comments, rather than administrating their own blogs. You see, their age and infirmity are natural covers for laziness!

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  7. Omigosh – an epiphany!

    There’s a wonderful Freudian slip in the screenplay of Cowboys and Aliens. The femme fatale who dies to save the world is not the human female she appears to be. Instead she is a nonhuman alien. Feminists are aliens!

    Sometimes fools tell the truth they never intended to tell, much less that they ever understood.

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  8. I agree with Fr Bill about the central message of human petty squabbles paling in comparison to an alien invasion. Everyone is more “human” after contact with the aliens. This is best exemplified when Jake, after flattening 4 deputies and while holding a gun on the sherriff says, “I don’t want no trouble.” I also prefer to think of the cliches as more like homages (Homagii?) to western movies and Spielberg action movies inparticular. My favorite was when Jakes horse ran down the alien ship while it just happen to be flying up the desert wash of a convenient depth for leaping from a horse. Then there’s the Jon Favreau tradition couched in mystery. He always plays a small part in his own movies. But where was he in this one? I believe he was the alien surgeon in the alien O.R. The similarities between the alien doctor and Favreau’s doctor character in Elf were readily apparent.

    Personally, I liked the movie and would like to see it again, but next time I think I will leave the womenfolk at home.

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  9. Cate,

    Pardon my confusing you with Matthew! Macular degeneration makes reading a challenge. And, while running my browser at 300 percent helps up to a point, very careful inspection of your name up above with a 4x magnifying glass shows me that (in my browser, at any rate) your name is rendered in a very light grey font.

    You wrote, “Ultimately a fine message, but seems hardly enough to justify two hours on it’s own, since it’s been done several times a year since the movies came to the silver screen.”

    Someone somewhere said, “There is nothing new under the sun,” and “The eye is not satisfied with seeing, Nor the ear filled with hearing.”

    All tolled, this has an economic benefit for authors, screenwriters, publishers, cinema producers and directors and actors. It works as a sort of full-employment for story-tellers dynamic.

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    1. Hi Fr. Bill,
      What is the line “Like a potato riding on the blast” a reference to?
      Thanks

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  10. Enjoyed your commentary on this dreadful summer movie and how it prompted you to think about how to choose wisely. As a Christian, you have the additional consideration of how you’re using the time God has given you in this life so that gives the choice more gravity.

    There is something very offensive about the construction of the movie’s title, substituting aliens for what one might expect to be Indians from the history of cinema. There was also a sense of unity among the white folks settling the American West and slaughtering the ‘savage’ people who already lived there.

    Fr. Bill’s interpretation of the film’s message/themes may go beyond what the filmmakers intended to express but a work of art (loosely speaking, in this case) can convey meaning that was not intended by the creator. Cowboys vs. Aliens would only interesting to me as a text to analyze the culture of which it is a product. It fails even as good nonsense.

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  11. WenatcheeTheHatchet September 6, 2011 at 5:11 pm

    Amongst comics readers this film is a case in which the film options for the comic adaptation were (apparently) optioned off before the comic book was even done. To go by the lackluster-to-hostile reviews of the film it appears that somebody waited until just before shooting to come up with an actual script. :)

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