Cowboys and Aliens: Critics’ worst nightmare

I saw Cowboys and Aliens over the weekend, and much to my surprise, it didn’t afford any narrative to write about. Cowboys and Aliens is exactly what it’s billed as: cowboys fighting aliens who are trying to wipe out humans in search of the earth’s resources. There are a few hammy White Man Gets What’s Coming to Him moments and some contrived looks between bigoted Harrison Ford and some Native Americans who are now his only hope of survival, but other than that, Cowboys and Aliens doesn’t try to do anything other than pit cowboys against aliens in a non-ironic, realistic way.

This led the increasingly deranged Roger Ebert–this man gave a positive review to The Zookeeper, for Christ’s sake–to write,

Cowboys & Aliens has without any doubt the most cockamamie plot I’ve witnessed in many a moon.

Though Ebert gives a relatively positive review of the film, that quote brings to light something about Cowboys and Aliens which is unlike almost any non-b-rate movie: this is a film that tosses out any conceits to a traditional quality storyline and takes a straightnosed approach to making a movie that’s pure entertainment. Aside from a fairly wooden romantic sub-plot, Cowboys and Aliens doesn’t care if you find this movie believable or even reasonable. It’s about cowboys fighting aliens, that’s all.

But honestly, is the idea that cowboys and aliens co-existed at one time more preposterous than any number of movies produced on a yearly basis? Is it more outlandish than extracting dinosaur DNA from fossilized mosquitoes to recreate dinosaurs or the US government training super soldiers that can speak countless languages, suffer little if any physical pain, and outsmart the entire agency that trained them?

When I was a senior in college, I took a lower-level English course (I majored in English) to fulfill a requirement. We read a short story by Aimee Bender, and I can’t remember the premise entirely, but it revolved around her husband (I believe) turning into a frog. When we discussed it in class, most of the students tried figuring out What It All Meant, when in actuality, it’s a story about a woman whose husband literally turned into a frog. It’s referred to as premise fiction. The author tells a real-world story that happens to include one or two premises that need to be accepted. Cowboys and Aliens is precisely this: everything about the film is realistic except for the fact that aliens also happen to exist and are on earth to <MINOR SPOILER>mine for gold</END SPOILER>.

But movies and literature are wildly different mediums, especially with regards to critical reception, the former of which, both from movie goers as well as critics, is often chastised for assuming these logical incongruities but maintaining a functioning outside world. Cowboys and Aliens gives the middle finger to anyone of this narrow-minded belief system and offers an unflinching action film with a storyline that’s not nearly as unrealistic as critics would have you believe.

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