When the Native Americans first saw European ships, these vessels may as well have been spaceships. And so goes the long-realized metaphors about aliens and the white man. One day the UFOs are going to come and enslave us all, just as we did to the Africans. It doesn't take Stephen Hawking to realize that. Or they're going to herd us like sheep and cattle and slaughter us for food. Okay, that's an analogy employing general carnivorous human beings*. But the process is still the same, of turning our guilt about conquering other races and other animals into science fiction fantasies where we get a taste of our own medicine. Only in a movie like "Cowboys & Aliens," the idea isn't that we're getting payback for our past wrongdoings. It's not even that we're now walking in the others' shoes. Instead we're getting to play the victim, and the hero, and the survivor.
Mostly, though, it's a kind of slap in the face to the Native Americans and anyone else conquered and exploited by the European invaders. Because by having white guys as the heroes, even with assistance from an Apache tribe, it's as if to say, "this is how it's done." I guess rather than today's usual white guilt, this is more an act of white innocence with a ton of white pride -- like a declaration that we're strong enough to avert invasion, and it's not our fault that others weren't. Notice that in the title "Cowboys & Aliens," it's the Indians who are substituted for new bad guys. Even if "Aliens & Cowboys" had a better ring to it, the phrasing would be incorrect. Cowboys remain first, best, top-billing.
A true white guilt version of the 'Cowboys & Indians' game is in "Avatar," where the white man is still the invading conquistador looking for valuable resources to mine. Sharing a plot with "Dances with Wolves" is no accident on James Cameron's part. Of course, even there (both versions) the white guy still gets to be the ultimate hero. In "Cowboys & Aliens" the unwanted visitors are here for the gold, which in their language probably translates as "unobtanium." I do kind of like that the five (credited) screenwriters it took to write this barefaced allegory didn't metaphorically make the desired resource something else, like human brains or water. Even though "Battlefield Earth" also had aliens mining for gold, it's quite direct and to the point to have the aliens want the same thing we want.
But is it better to relate the aliens to us or to our old victims? The neat twist with "District 9," in spite of its similarly on-the-nose allegory, is that aliens came and we just did the same thing we did to the Africans, forcefully segregated them. I guess that's also the case with "Avatar," a direct correlation where the white man is still the white man in both situations. Those films are more honest, to a degree, whereas "C&A" seems apologetic only to the point of adding a "but." Basically: "Yeah, it sucks we're here pillaging your land, but at least we were here to save you from the worse enemy." It's almost as corrupt a historical fantasy as the two comic book blockbusters of the summer that excuse the Nazis for a greater evil. Is this really where we're at now, Hollywood?
One of the reasons I prefer, "Attack the Block," another alien invasion movie out this weekend that's good but still highly overrated, is that it doesn't mean to represent anything. As I wrote after seeing the British sci-fi comedy at SXSW, the film doesn't intend for the aliens to represent anything other than aliens. At one point a kid theorizes that they are government-created monsters sent in to the hood to kill off whatever blacks didn't succumb to drugs and guns. That's his idea, not the movie's. There is a smarter approach to the racial issue there, even if it's still somewhat analogical in that the black youth keep getting blamed for what's really being caused by the space apes. That's just the reality, though, not necessarily symbolism. The reality with "C&A" would more likely be that the aliens (also kind of ape-like) kill us off and take our planet. Until future "primitive" humans learn to fly Harrier jets.
(* While I understand that humans are omnivores and not strict carnivores, I intended the word usage to concern specifically the act of eating meat. If this usage is entirely incorrect, I apologize.)
"Cowboys & Aliens" is now playing everywhere.
Recommended If You Like: "Battlefield Earth"; "Unknown"; "The Time Machine" (2002 version)
"Attack the Block" is now playing in limited release.
Recommended If You Like: "Critters"; "The Warriors"; "*batteries not included"