‘Cowboys & Aliens’: The Trouble with Loving the Movie’s World But Not Its Characters

Cowboys & Aliens is probably the movie I’ve most been looking forward to in 2011: The so-crazy-it-might-work blending of sharpshooters and interstellar invaders, the comic book pedigree, Jon Favreau at the helm while Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford team up. And I liked it a lot; it was funny, suspenseful, and had a good mystery — and those aliens were damn scary. But it didn’t blow me away, and I’m still confused as to why. If I had to make a guess, I’d say it’s partly because I didn’t really care about the characters.

Each of the main characters seemed to have only enough attributes to help them in relation to the big, bad aliens: Craig can’t remember where he’s from, but he has the cool alien bracelet; Ford is a grizzled, powerful entrepreneur with the necessary troops; Olivia Wilde mysteriously knows all about the aliens. The other cowboys are doctors, sharpshooters, and loyal to their kidnapped friends. But when the aliens start picking them off, we hardly care.

That said, I don’t want to paint them as lifeless. There are moments that shine through, like when both of the leading men reveal they have soft spots: Craig in his tender memories of his wife, and Ford bonding with the group’s young kid. The times when I was most connected to the characters was in the alien showdown scenes; their fear of these unknown, overpowering creatures was palpable.

But the aliens, too, were more plot device than anything else. Maybe it’s because I’ve been rewatching Battlestar Galactica, but I realize that in most alien stories, the invaders don’t get much personality. Their presence is their identity: They’re a threat, so the humans better scramble. But in BSG the Cylons regard themselves as humanity’s next evolution, and follow a radically different religious worldview; in District 9, they’re refugees abused by the system they turned to for help. Though I won’t reveal the reasoning behind the aliens’ presence in the Wild West, it’s disappointingly single-minded.

I ran into this same problem with Moulin Rouge! a few years ago. After months of me heckling my male roommate to watch the movie, thinking he’d love the music and the tragic love story, we sat down to watch… and he hated it. He explained that he adored the world of Moulin Rouge!, but he couldn’t connect emotionally with Ewan McGregor or Nicole Kidman. They fell in love too fast, they didn’t fight hard enough… They were half-formed characters, but the gaudy, decadent, idealized setting filled in their problem areas. Their surroundings strengthened them, but when Satine dies in Christian’s arms it doesn’t matter as much as the Moulin Rouge itself getting closed down.

That’s what I feel like happens here. I’m excited to ride along with the characters during the big chase, but when we part ways I don’t wonder about what happened to Craig, Ford, Wilde, and the others. It isn’t anyone’s fault; it’s just what happens with a movie of such large scope.

It’s like John Brooks pointed out in his essay about Ginny Weasley: The archetypal heroes are blank canvases for us to project upon; these types of characters are whomever we want them to be. It’s up to the supporting characters to have individual quirks and idiosyncracies. The problem is, everyone in Cowboys & Aliens leans more toward archetypal; we needed more supporting characters.

I’d love there to be a sequel, or another story set in this world. I just don’t expect to see the same actors show up again.

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