Americans have a hard time knowing how to respond to the sins of our colonial past. Except for a few extremists, most people know on a gut level that the extermination of the Native Americans was a bad thing. Not that most would ever verbalize it, or offer reparations, or ask for forgiveness, or admit to current neocolonial actions, or give up stereotyped assumptions -- they just know it was wrong and don't know how to respond. The Western American way doesn't allow the past to be mourned or apologies to be made. Instead we make alien invasion movies.
It's no secret that alien invasion films are our attempt to deal with the sins of our past. Just like we colonized, pillaged, and exterminated indigenous peoples around the world with our advanced technologies of deadlier weapons, we now explore how that might have felt by imagining aliens doing the same to us. But of course, in our never-ending hubris those films always end with the hero kicking the aliens' butt. Identification with the other can only go so far.
It is into this postcolonial genre that Cowboys & Aliens attempts to fit, except with the twist that it's actually set during the period of Western "Manifest Destiny" expansionism. In trying to make such an odd marriage work, the film self-awarely makes use of all the stereotypes of those genres. You have the old West mining town populated with stock characters like the bespectacled Doc, the crusty old preacher, the lawful sheriff, the prostitute with the heart of gold, the grumpy old Civil War vet turned cowboy (Harrison Ford), and the rugged outlaw (Daniel Craig). The aliens too are the expected insect-like slimy vicious being with no hint of compassion. Added to that is the Hollywood version of a band of Apaches, including the favorite colonial narrative story of the young Native American boy who had been adopted by the racist cowboy (Ford) after his parents died in raids who now serves him as a field hand, looks to him as a father, and willingly sacrifices his life for him later on. Of course, in this alternate world the cowboys and Indians quickly see that they must overcome their differences and work together to fight the aliens (or at least the white men condescend to fight alongside the Natives after the Natives accept that the white men's attack plan is superior.) Perhaps more ironic self-awareness would have made the stereotypes actually work instead of just descend into the uncomfortable, but as it was they made it difficult for the rest of the film's theme to play out fully.
As for that, the narrative attempted to follow the colonial trope almost too well. One of the opening lines of the film states that "we are near to absolution," which is soon followed by Daniel Craig's wounded character being asked if he is a criminal or a victim, to which he replies, "I don't know." From there the story becomes a journey to seek absolution -- in the personal characters' story arcs, and, awkwardly, in the cultural story of white/Native American relations.
While the Preacher is an entertaining character, it quickly becomes apparent that religion will be of no help on this particular journey. In their pursuit of aliens who have abducted their family members, the group of main characters come across a wrecked upside down-steamboat in the middle of the New Mexico desert. Five hundred miles from the nearest river large enough for it, the boat (named the "Amazing Grace") doesn't belong. It is also where the Preacher gets attacked and killed. Finding absolution becomes not a religious quest, but a way for boys to become real men as they learn to fight to preserve their way of life.
They soon discover that the attacking aliens (which they call demons) came to earth on a scouting mission to plunder us of gold. Yes, gold. Not some odd resource needed for advanced technology, but the exact same resource that sent pox-infected Conquistadors and Cowboys alike on quests to plunder the lands of indigenous American peoples. The aliens also round-up humans and keep them sedated in holding pens until they can experiment on them to discover weaknesses. So a combined cowboy, Indian, and outlaw force launches an assault on the alien ship making use of six-shooters, dynamite, arrows, and spears. They, of course, rescue their enslaved family members and (with the help of an angelic-like being) use the alien's technology against them to destroy the scout ship. The oppressive colonizers are vanquished, and the American narrative remains intact.
The happily-ever-after ending has the characters not questioning how gold led to evil and oppression, but prospering off the alien's discovery of nearby goldmines. Cinematic absolution has been reached, relationships healed, and the threat of colonization seems to have vanished for good. Hollywood delivered some decent action sequences, a hint of a love story, and stock character arcs that make for good entertainment (not to mention the requisite shots of Daniel Craig with his shirt off). Summer blockbuster status achieved.
And yet, I wanted more. There was too much historical commentary for Cowboys & Aliens to simply be entertaining escapism, but not enough for it to have anything meaningful to say. Good commentary on our colonial past forces us to examine current assumptions by allowing us to see things from the perspective of the other. But in this film the cowboy still won. The cowboy is both the criminal and the victim, demonstrating superiority in both roles. Just as the Native Americans in the film had to concede to the superiority of Harrison Ford's ideas, the message is that even when faced with stronger beings and more advanced technology, the cowboys (with God's angels on their side) will, by their very nature, always come out on top. The other is still other. True absolution, true reconciliation, remains elusive as the hierarchical status quo remains.
In a blundering attempt to deconstruct the colonial narrative, Cowboys & Aliens simply reasserts the myth of the rugged individualist who has no need to ever apologize for current or past sins. But sadly most viewers will be more disappointed with the film's lack of explosions and sex scenes than its neocolonial message. But I guess that's the prerogative of cowboys trying to retell their own story.
Julie Clawson is the author of Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices (IVP 2009). She blogs at julieclawson.com and emergingwomen.us.