Protecting the Universe

 | 

Do we really need another movie about superheroes protecting the universe from power-hungry villains? Probably not. And yet here we are with another space western, and this one is pretty good.

Guardians of the Galaxy is about as formulaic as they come. The comparison with the first Star Wars is inevitable: with an earnest young protagonist (Chris Pratt) who loses his family early in the film and a sexy female protagonist (Zoe Saldana) who can hold her own in a fight. It sports a giant, loveable Wookiee-like creature (a tall tree voiced by Vin Diesel) who can only be understood by his cynical, wisecracking Han Solo-like best friend (a raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper). Guardians has also its share of eccentric intergalactic traders, thugs, and black marketeers as well as bad guys who blow up planets and want to control the galaxy.

The pitch is really pretty simple, and the story is nothing special. Yet it works, and works well.

Nevertheless, there is something fun and endearing about Guardians of the Galaxy. The characters are reminiscent of the Star Wars franchise, but without being a parody or a carbon copy. It’s more like the Star Wars sequel we’ve been longing to see, and it’s backed by ’80s songs that will make you want to run out and buy the soundtrack. (In fact, the soundtrack album, “Awesome Mix, Vol. 1,” reached number 1 on the US Billboard chart.)

Peter Quill (Pratt) is a space-age scavenger-for-hire who was abducted by aliens on the night of his mother’s death. He works for low-level space criminals, drives a tricked-out muscle car of a spaceship, and still listens to the ’80s music mix his mother made for him just before she died. More Han Solo than Luke Skywalker, he faces danger with sassy aplomb and power-kicks aliens in time to the tunes blasting from his vintage Sony Walkman. His life is endangered when he takes possession of a mysterious orb that is wanted by numerous sinister buyers, and he ends up joining forces with Groot (the tree character), Rocket (the raccoon), Gamora (Saldana), and Drax (Dave Bautista) to prevent the orb from falling into the wrong hands.

That’s about it. The pitch is really pretty simple, and the story is nothing special. Yet it works, and works well, largely because of the chemistry of the characters Quill and Rocket and because of that perfect soundtrack. Director James Gunn explained the importance of the music to the film and the characters: "The music . . . is one of those touchstones that we have to remind us that Quill is a real person from planet Earth who's just like you and me, except that he's in this big outer space adventure."

Yep — just like you and me. Guarding the galaxy.


Editor's Note: Review of "Guardians of the Galaxy," directed by James Gunn. Columbia Pictures/Walt Disney/ Marvel Studios, 2014, 121 minutes.



Share This


Action Plus Gravitas

 | 

Tight shot on the face of a man sleeping. His eye snaps open, and it is yesterday morning — again. He rises, and the day unfolds exactly as it did the day before. No one else knows that the day is being repeated, but he remembers, and he reacts. Each time he learns the best way to react in order to get where he wants to be. With eternity to learn and an infinite number of do-overs until he gets it right, the man develops skills, enhances relationships, and eventually gets the girl.

Groundhog Day (1993) is one of my favorite movies, but that’s not the film I am reviewing here. Edge of Tomorrow relies on the same premise of a neverending loop in which a man wakes up day after day in the same place, facing the same dilemma, surrounded by the same people doing and saying the same things. But he changes and grows with each repeated day.

As the film opens, an alien force has invaded Europe, burrowed underground, and started spreading across the continent toward England, China, and Russia. Enter Major William Cage (Tom Cruise), a media specialist with the Army who started in ROTC and rose to the rank of Major through office successes; he has never trained for combat, and he has no intention of going to war. When commanded to go to the front lines of a beach invasion in Normandy, he bolts. When next we see him he is handcuffed, stripped of his rank, and forced to join J Squad on the day they are going to invade France. He has no training with weaponry, doesn’t even know how to disengage the safety, and buckles under the weight of his heavy armor.

It is an unusual treat to see Cruise playing a terrified coward who doesn’t know how to fight, since he usually plays the tough guy who is cool as a cucumber under pressure. Of course, before long he is using his repetition of days to build up his skills and learn how to fight so that he can save the world. It’s an impossible mission, but someone has to do it. Helping him is Lt. Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), a war hero known as the Angel of Verdun because she almost single-handedly vanquished the alien enemy in a previous battle. That’s because Rita has also experienced repetition of days and used her repeated experience to anticipate the enemy’s moves. Together she and Cage fight to reach the source of the alien force and destroy it.

The story line is reminiscent of a video game in which the player adopts a character on the screen and fights through several different levels to accomplish a goal. Each time the player “dies” he has to start over, and each time he plays, he gets a little further in the game by remembering where the booby traps are. Often players work together, telling each other which tunnel or path is safe and which one has a lurking danger. Cage and Rita work together in this way, remembering what happened the “previous day” and moving further each time toward their goal. When Cage says to Rita at one point, “We’ve never made it this far before,” it sounds exactly like my munchkins playing Mario together.

It is an unusual treat to see Cruise playing a terrified coward who doesn’t know how to fight.

This video-game reference does not trivialize the film; it simply gives the viewer something more to ponder about metaphysics, the nature of life, and what you might do if you could see into the future and learn from your mistakes. A do-over once in a while could make all the difference.

Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Director Doug Liman has remembered and learned from the past. While Edge of Tomorrow borrows heavily from the concept of Groundhog Day, it is not doomed in any way. Moreover, Liman brings to this project a strong history in action films from his work directing the Bourne series. Edge of Tomorrow is fresh, exciting, and compelling. The references to the storming of Normandy give it a sense of gravitas missing from most modern action films (it was even released on June 6, to coincide with the anniversary of the invasion). The threat of a lurking menace that spreads unseen and underground until it has become unstoppable and can enter one’s mind gives the audience a sense of personal investment while suggesting that the enemy is a thought or philosophy, not an army. Even the solution for stopping the enemy — that is, getting inside the enemy’s mind and understanding his perspective — is also a powerful lesson for modern warfare. Edge of Tomorrow works on every level.


Editor's Note: Review of "Edge of Tomorrow," directed by Doug Liman. Warner Brothers, 2014, 113 minutes.



Share This


Sci-Fi for Thinkers

 | 

What will we do when earth is no longer habitable, either because of environmental pollution or because of an annihilating war? Several films this season imagine a dystopian future in which humans have to leave the earth to survive: Oblivion, with Tom Cruise; After Earth, with Will Smith; and Elysium, with Matt Damon and Jodie Foster. All have seemed promising. The first to be released is Oblivion, and it is satisfying in all the ways you want a film to satisfy — the acting is good, the special effects are thrilling, and the story is meaty enough to maintain the interest of philosophical viewers.

The film opens in a bleak, silt-covered New York where earthquakes and tsunamis caused by the destruction of the moon have made the landscape completely unrecognizable. Occasional bits of rubble tell us this was once the public library or the Empire State Building or Giants Stadium. I imagine that an ancient Roman returning to the Forum today would experience the same sense of loss, seeing the great temples and marketplace reduced to a few broken columns. The voice of our hero Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) explains, "We won the war, but we lost the planet" (while defending it against alien invaders). The anti-war message is pretty clear: there are no victors in a nuclear war.

I couldn't help noticing the similarities to Luke Skywalker's battle at the end of the first Star Wars movie. That set the benchmark for special effects, and we haven't seen fundamental changes, even after 35 years.

A skillfully written exposition quickly brings us into the story. Humans have moved to a moon of Saturn, but a few "techs," such as Harper, have remained behind to oversee the creation of energy cells from seawater that will be transported to the new community, and to patrol the area for scavenging aliens called, appropriately, "Scavs." Jack is the ground tech, and his wife Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) watches the computer screens from their sky-high tower home to warn him of potential danger. "Security and maintenance," Harper admits wryly. "We're the mop-up crew." A modern-day Crusoe and Friday or Adam and Eve, they are the only people on this part of earth.

Several exciting skirmishes with the scavs give Cruise fans the thrills they expect in an action movie. He even ends up with the scar across the bridge of his nose that is becoming as much a trademark as his footrace through most of his movies. Adding to the assignment are wild chases through the canyons of broken buildings while being pursued by rogue drones. But I couldn't help noticing the similarities to Luke Skywalker's battle at the end of the first Star Wars movie, back in 1977. That set the benchmark for special effects, and we haven't seen fundamental changes, even after 35 years.

What sets this film apart is its subtle references to history, literature, and philosophy, especially to the image of the cave in Plato's Republic. Jack is careful to stay inside the perimeter of safety, away from the radiation-tainted grids identified by their computer screens. Victoria watches carefully, warning him if he strays too close to the boundary. Who holds the truth? How do we know? Plato asked that question millennia ago, and the question remains.

What is really on the other side of the perimeter? Victoria turns out to be the "Adam" in this reverse Eden, so obedient that she won't even accept a flower that Jack brings her from outside the tower, because it is forbidden. Jack is the "Eve," always pushing the limits to satisfy his curiosity. He cannot coax her to join him. Victoria's kind of blind compliance is essential for tyranny to succeed.

The opportunity to contemplate the conflicts between man and machine, nature and science, and free will and obedience makes this a thinking person's action movie. It is sci-fi of the best caliber. But as the movie ended and the credits rolled, I overheard the person behind me say cynically, "That was a one-timer." I guess we can't all be thinkers.


Editor's Note: Review of "Oblivion," directed by Joseph Kosinski. Universal Pictures, 2013, 126 minutes.



Share This


It’s Scary, All Right

 | 

Stephenie Meyer, author of the Twilight book series about teenaged vampires and werewolves living in a small Oregon town, is a pop idol to the teenaged girls who grew up taking sides between “Team Edward” and “Team Jacob” as they debated whether the books’ high-school protagonist, Bella, should marry the vampire (Edward) or the werewolf (Jacob). (See my review of Breaking Dawn in Liberty, August 2008.) Talk about a step backward in the evolution of women’s opportunities!

The Host represents Meyer’s foray into legitimate science fiction, with its alien ganglia traveling from a distant planet that take over human bodies by inserting themselves surgically into the necks of unsuspecting hosts. (Wait! Wasn’t that already done in Invasion of the Body Snatchers [1956 and 1978] and Invaders from Mars [1953 and 1986]?) What made those two films and their remakes so powerful is that the invaders could be interpreted as a metaphor for alien ideas and philosophies that often overtake a community.

In the end, the problem is resolved when the aliens and the humans decide to be friends.

Unfortunately, The Host does not resonate with any philosophical relevancy. The opening scene teases the audience with the hint of a satisfying idea when the narrator says, “We are at peace. There is no hunger, no poverty, and no violence. The world is perfect. But it is not ours.” In this seemingly perfect world there is no violence or dishonesty, but peace has come at a price: there is no free will. Humans are forced by their invaders to do good. This “goodness” is represented in the lack of corporations and commercialism, of course; food is packaged in nondescript containers with labels that simply identify the contents in block letters, and obtained from a large box building called “STORE.” Notice I used the word “obtained,” rather than “purchased”; in this utopian world there is no money.

How food is produced and transported with neither profit motive nor coercion and distributed with neither money nor violence could have provided an interesting story. However, once again Meyer quickly moves away from addressing any philosophical problem so that she can focus on the romantic interests of her young protagonist, in this case Melanie (Saoirse Ronan). When Melanie is injected with a space-traveling “Soul” named “Wanderer,” her sense of will is somehow strong enough to enable her to keep fighting to control “their” body. She (or they) escape to the desert, where a community of humans, including Melanie’s brother, uncle, and boyfriend, has been hiding in underground caverns to avoid being injected by aliens. Melanie is still in love with Jared (Max Irons) but doesn’t want “Wanderer” to experience kissing him. Another buff young survivor, Ian (Jake Abel), falls for “Wanda,” and Melanie doesn’t want her (or their) body kissing Ian. A lot of slapping goes on as a result.

That’s the philosophical conflict we are forced to consider. We’re back to Team Edward and Team Jacob, but with a bizarre Siamese-twin kind of twist.

In the end, the problem is resolved when the aliens and the humans decide to be friends. Wanda shows them how to coax the aliens’ ganglia out of the hosts’ necks, without hurting either one. The aliens are placed in space-travel containers and shot into outer space, where they can terrorize another planet; but that’s OK because, as Wanda reassures them, “by the time they reach another planet your grandchildren’s grandchildren will be grown up.” That’s a little like saying, “The national debt doesn’t really matter because we’ll all be long gone before our grandchildren’s grandchildren have to pay it.” And if you don’t have children, then heck! You’re home free!

One qualification: the aliens are allowed to stay in their human host bodies if the human psyche or soul or essence cannot be revived after the alien is removed. In other words, if you sufficiently overpowered your host’s body, you get to keep it. So Melanie gets Wanda out of her system, Wanda gets a new body, and Ian gets a new girlfriend. And somewhere out in the distant universe, an unsuspecting population is getting some uninvited visitors.

Just so it isn’t us.

Let’s all sing a chorus of “Kumbaya.”


Editor's Note: Review of "The Host," directed by Andrew Niccol. Chockstone Pictures, 2013, 125 minutes.



Share This


Prometheus Redux

 | 

Prometheus is the most libertarian of the Greek gods. His name has been used to signify choice and accountability in such stories as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or, The Modern Prometheus; her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound; Ayn Rand’s Anthem, in which the protagonist renames himself Prometheus; and even in this publication, whose web address, libertyunbound, alludes to the Greek myth.

In that story, Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus, both Titans, are given the task of creating man and endowing him with gifts. The animals are created first, and Epimetheus is a bit too generous, bestowing all the talents and skills (courage to the lion, strength to the ox, cunning to the fox, sagacity to the owl) before man comes along. What to do about this blunder? With the aid of Athena, Prometheus flies up to the sun and steals a bit of fire, bringing it back as a gift to man.

This gift would truly set humans apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. With fire they could warm their houses, cook their food, forge tools to cultivate the earth, create art and musical instruments, and coin money to make commerce and wealth possible. They could also make weapons of defense. In short, they could become independent and self-reliant. But eventually those weapons of defense would become weapons of war, bringing such wickedness to the earth that Zeus would be compelled to destroy it with a flood and start all over again with a new founding family.

Zeus and the other gods, whose power comes from the adulation of humans, are not happy. As a punishment, the gods do two things. First, they form a woman named Pandora and give her to Epimetheus, along with a box from which Pandora releases sorrows and misfortunes into the world, misfortunes that will cause humans to turn to the gods for help. Second, Zeus has Prometheus chained to a rock, where an eagle comes each day to eat his liver. The liver grows back overnight, only to be eaten again.

His body changes — veins appear in his skin — he seems to become mortal — then he crumbles and falls, as his DNA spills like atoms into the water.

It is helpful, though not entirely necessary, to know this background when seeing Prometheus, the long anticipated prequel to the Alien (1979) / Aliens (1986) / Alien3 (1992) / Alien Resurrection (1997) tetralogy. Those films put Sigourney Weaver on the map as one tough mama and opened the casting door to women to become Hollywood action heroes. While the film does not adhere slavishly to the myth, there are enough allusions to make it satisfying intellectually even though it is mostly a science fiction thriller.

As Prometheus opens, the camera pans along what appears to be primordial Earth: uncultivated shrubbery emerges from rich, black, volcanic rock as water pours through fissures in canyon walls. The camera pans up to a gigantic waterfall that seems to be the source of life itself. (Iceland, I must say, provides the perfect location for a pre-human Eden!) At the top of the falls sits a man-like being. In his hand he holds a black and red substance. He hesitates with what appears to be a look of sorrow, and then he eats the substance. His body changes — veins appear in his skin — he seems to become mortal — then he crumbles and falls, as his DNA spills like atoms into the water. Watching this, I couldn’t help but think of Persephone banished to Hades for eating the forbidden pomegranate seed, Adam becoming mortal in the day he ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and Prometheus suffering eternal punishment for bringing life-giving fire to mankind. “Adam fell, that men might be” (2 Nephi 2:25), I thought, as the being fell, literally, into the waterfall. Powerful.

The rest of the film is a satisfying return to the Alien franchise, with all the expected elements. Aliens burst from stomachs (note the allusion to liver-eating here). Wise-cracking rocket drivers crack their last laugh. Space scientists hide from monsters in darkened shafts. And one strong, independent woman does her best to save the day. This time, archeologists Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway (Noomi Rapace, Logan Marshall) have discovered evidence of the origin of earth life — and it isn’t evolutionary amoebas. They believe they can trace the path of that original goo-eating Earth visitor back to his planet of origin, and there discover important truths about humankind.

What they find relates to the second part of the Prometheus myth — Zeus’s decision to destroy Earth’s warmongering civilization. The space travelers discover that aliens have been stockpiling gallons of the goo as a weapon of epic destruction, and their navigation system is targeting Earth. They have simply been waiting for humans to become smart enough to reach the founder gods, Prometheus style, and bingo — liftoff. Once again, Earth’s safety lies in the hands of a feisty, self-reliant, courageous, and in this case quasi-religious woman — Elizabeth is a crucifix-wearing Catholic who isn’t quite sure what that means.

Even with a slew of stomach-ripping aliens on hand, no modern blockbuster would be complete without a cold, heartless, corporate rep. Prometheus supplies two of them, in the guise of Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) and her boss, Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), who is funding this mission not for its potential contribution to science or humankind, but for selfish personal reasons. Of course. (Interestingly, Weyland’s company logo is a triangle, perhaps suggesting the Trinity. That would go along with Elizabeth’s crucifix.) Unfortunately, the always wonderful Guy Pearce is wasted here under a gallon of age-creating prosthetics; if they wanted an old man in his role, why not simply hire an old man to play it? Unless flashbacks have been planned for the next installment of this prequel, there was absolutely no reason for this casting. As for Theron — she plays the cool queen magnificently.

The true stars of this film are Michael Fassbender as David, the lifelike robot servant of the crew, whose name suggests that either a Goliath slayer or a Messianic king (or both) is coming somewhere along the way of this new trilogy; and Rapace, who steps into Sigourney Weaver’s moonboots with a fierce determination and a welcome softness. She will do well as the new Eve, if that is where this trilogy is headed.


Editor's Note: Review of "Prometheus," directed by Ridley Scott. Twentieth Century Fox, 2012, 124 minutes.



Share This


Welcome the Space Aliens!

 | 

Last month, Nobel Laureate economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman seriously suggested that what we need to stimulate the economy is an outside threat. Referring to the jobs created during World War II, he wrote, "If we discovered that, you know, space aliens were planning to attack and we needed a massive buildup to counter the space alien threat and really inflation and budget deficits took secondary place to that, this slump would be over in 18 months. And then if we discovered, oops, we made a mistake, there aren't any aliens, we'd be better [off]."

Well Mr. Krugman, a space alien did attack. Her name was Irene, and she is still causing havoc in the northeastern states. Billions of dollars were spent preparing for her arrival, and billions more are still being spent cleaning up her mess. Billions more were lost in opportunity costs as people stayed home that weekend, reducing the incomes of restaurant owners, taxi drivers, and other establishments owned by hardworking business people.

As it turned out, Irene didn't attack where she was expected, and many of the billions spent on sandbagging shorelines, boarding up windows, and evacuating neighborhoods were wasted. But according to Krugman, that's a good thing. We enjoyed all that economic stimulus, without enduring any of the damage. Win-win, right?

How is the alien attack working out for you, Mr. Krugman? Have you seen a big turnaround in the economy? Will you be cheering again this winter, when municipal leaders have no money left in their budgets for snow removal and pothole repair? But you don't have to wait until winter to see the results of such faulty thinking. Ask the family who spent $1,000 on gas, hotels, plywood, and batteries when they evacuated for the weekend. Because of that expenditure, they won't be able to spend that $1,000 on school clothes, a new computer, a real vacation, or even debt reduction.

I doubt that Keynesian Krugman is backing down any time soon. In fact, if an alien attack can produce so much economic stimulation, just think what a pandemic disease could accomplish! According to some cheerful historians, the bubonic plague was the best thing that happened in the Middle Ages. When the plague killed off an estimated half of the workers in Europe, supply and demand forced wages up, creating an economic turnaround that funded the continued growth of the second half of the last millennium. Wow! We ought to build a monument to those heroic fleas.

In fact, forget Obama's mantra, "Pass the Jobs Bill." Let's just pass the germs.




Share This


The Best of the Alien Films

 | 

Our summer of the aliens ends with the best alien encounter movie of the decade. Attack the Block has it all: mysterious creatures crashing out of the sky; kids on bicycles pedaling to save the planet; a mass of hairy apes climbing up buildings; and avowed enemies unitingagainst the invaders. Add to this a truly libertarian hero who learns that "actions have consequences," and enough blood to paint an elevator. What more could you want from a summer movie?

You might not have heard of Attack the Block, but you probably know its pedigree. It's a British film produced by Edgar Wright, who made Shaun of the Dead (2004) and last year's Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. It's directed by Joe Cornish, who was also involved in Hot Fuzz (2007) and the upcoming Tintin. I have to admit, these films are an acquired taste, but I think they are a taste worth acquiring.

The story takes place in a neighborhood of high-rise apartment buildings in the poor part of south London. As Sam (Jodie Whittaker) walks home from her job as a nurse, she is mugged by a gang of threatening young men in ski masks. Their crime is interrupted by an alien falling out of the sky and into a car right next to them, and Sam is able to run away. The rest of the film follows the young thugs as they first try to make money from the beast and then run for their lives as the creature's larger pals come looking for it.

One of the unexpected delights of this film is the way we get to know the boys themselves. These are not hardened criminals but novice thugs on bicycles who strut down the street to impress each other while surreptitiously calling home to reassure their parents that they will be back by ten. Interestingly, Joe Cornish says he was inspired to write this film by being mugged by a gang of boys who seemed as scared as he was. They are led by a young tough with the unlikely name of Moses (John Boyega), who turns out to be quite the leader — almost like the preacher in Poseidon Adventure.

Moses recognizes that they can't rely on the police to help them, or even to believe them, so they must rely on themselves to escape the aliens and save the block. They don't seem to feel it is their responsibility to save the world, just their own little corner of it. As a libertarian, I like that. And then there are the unexpected side characters: the crazy drug dealers who get involved, the little wannabes who call themselves Probs (Sammy Williams) and Mayhem (Michael Ajao) . . . and the rich kid wannabe . . . and the crazy weapons . . . and clever lines . . . Just trust me. It's a great movie. And the less you know in advance, the better.

This is the best kind of sci-fi horror movie. Early encounters with the aliens take place off screen or behind walls, with sudden quick bursts of teeth or fur that don't let us focus enough to see what they look like. We just know they are terrifying. We see them creeping through the shadows, with occasional glimpses of their neon-bright teeth, but we don't have a full view of the creatures until at least halfway through the film. To be sure, there's enough blood and gore to warrant the R rating, but the violence is brief and somehow fun.

Give Attack the Block a try. You'll be laughing with horror and screaming with delight.


Editor's Note: Review of "Attack the Block," directed by Joe Cornish. Studio Canal, 2011, 87 minutes.



Share This


Earth Invaded by Metaphor

 | 

When I was a little girl, all the kids in my neighborhood would gather on summer afternoons to play Cowboys and Indians. I had never met an Indian (heck, I had never met a cowboy, either) but I saw them on TV. I knew the Indians were the bad guys because they were different from me. The men had long hair, seldom wore shirts, slept in round tents, and grunted "How" when they talked. The women wrapped in blankets and carried babies on their backs. The cowboys were good because they wore boots and hats and talked in complete sentences. Their women wore eye makeup and beehive hairdos. They were like us.

My kids never played Cowboys and Indians. The game has long fallen out of favor, being considered insensitive to Native Americans. But they did play Aliens. A lot. (They still do, in fact, mostly on Xbox.) Space is the new frontier where we can still hold onto our prejudices — the ones that assert, "My kind are good; the other kind are bad." I realize that we never were fighting against Indians, really. We were fighting against "other," that unknown quality of beings that are different from us. We called them "Indians," but they were really just "aliens" all along.

So the only surprise about the film Cowboys and Aliens that opened this weekend is that no one thought of it any sooner. I awaited it eagerly, knowing that it would be laden with metaphor and ripe for a review.

Director Jon Favreau makes the point about aliens quickly and clearly. Daniel Craig plays Jake Lonergan, an amnesiac drifter with a mean right hook; and Harrison Ford is Woodrow Dolarhyde, a rancher who's mean and rich (his name says it all). Initially the setting is populated by groups of people who don't like each other: city folk who don't like ranchers, bandits who don't like city folk, and Indians who don't like anyone white. Interestingly, however, on a personal level there is a lot of interracial connection in this movie — the white innkeeper is married to a Mexican woman, for example, and the rancher has a close relationship with the Indian who watches over his son.

When space aliens appear on the scene and begin kidnapping local residents, all the groups band together to fight the aliens. The message is clear. It has been used by government leaders (and tyrants) for centuries: to establish local harmony, simply unite the masses against a common enemy.

The "western" part of this western works well. It begins as a classic western would — with a sweeping panorama of the desert, complete with sage brush and sandy cliffs. The story is character driven, and as we learn the characters’ back stories we discover why children behave the way they do when they become adults. Favreau's point seems to be that the more we know about why people act as they do, the more we will come to understand and accept them. This point is made with special effect in the case of Woodrow Dolarhyde, whose personality warms throughout the film. Through Dolarhyde we also learn the true meaning of fatherhood, as we see his maturing relationship with three young men: his son, Percy (Paul Dano); the Indian hand (Adam Beach) who looks out for Percy; and Emmett (Noah Ringer), an orphan boy whom Dolarhyde takes on. It's a little heavy handed, but an important value nonetheless.

The casting is excellent. One of the standouts is Paul Dano as Percy, Dolarhyde's spoiled, juvenile delinquent son who shoots up the town with impunity, knowing that Daddy will fix things for him later. Another is Clancy Brown as Meacham, the local minister who spouts aphorisms while toting a gun. He's a practical kind of preacher, and I liked his philosophy, which offers such wisdom as "It's not who you were, it's who you are," and "Whether you go to heaven or hell isn't God's plan but your choice." Sam Rockwell is endearing as Doc, the innkeeper who must learn how to shoot a gun and "be a man." And 12-year-old Noah Ringer is marvelous as Emmett, the boy who also learns to be a man during the quest to destroy the aliens. My only complaint is Ella (Olivia Wilde), the obligatory girl who comes along for the ride. Her role eventually deepens, but for half the film she is simply a drain on the landscape.

However, as much as I loved the idea of this film, the manifestation of the idea doesn't quite work. The alien part of the movie is simply too alien for a western. For one thing, westerns are slow-paced and character-driven; space aliens have no character. The two simply don't mix. Moreover, the metaphor is so heavy-handed that the aliens never really enter the story. The humans never even question who the aliens are, where they came from, or how they are able to fly through the sky. We're just supposed to know what they represent — invaders seeking to plunder the minerals under the soil and turn them into fuel. Sound familiar?

This is the second "alien encounter" film produced by Steven Spielberg this summer, but oddly, although the aliens in both films look nearly the same, the message of the two films couldn't be more different. In Super 8 the message is "An alien is just a friend you haven't met." Here, the alien gets caught on earth while he's just passing through, and the nasty government scientists kidnap him. In Cowboys and Aliens the beings from outer space are plundering invaders and the message is "kick their asses back where they came from."

It was nice seeing the Indians, townies, ranchers, and even bandits becoming friends. I especially liked seeing the development of Dolarhyde's character. But I'm not sure I like the idea that we can only become friends by uniting against an enemy. The film tries hard to please, but the metaphor overpowers the story and collapses from its own weight.


Editor's Note: Review of "Cowboys and Aliens," directed by Jon Favreau. Universal Pictures, 2011, 118 minutes.



Share This
Syndicate content

© Copyright 2017 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.