Okay, okay, that post headline is a parody. But I must admit that occasionally there were a few moments of intellectual stimulation when I wasn’t being bored or entertained with the summer action sci-fi movie one critic calls an “agreeable time killer” and another describes as a “‘why can’t we all just get along’ western paranormal self-parody, whatever that is.”
It’s one thing entirely to think about a vampire western such as Robert Rodriguez’s From Dust to Dawn. But there’s something outlandish or bizarre when putting aliens in the old west that isn’t true when we contemplate vampires in the same locale (though admittedly the Rodriguez horror film is in a contemporary setting). It may be that “something” that generated audience laughter every time the film’s title first splashed on the movie screen when the trailer was shown. What is it?
My best guess is that it is something to do with the conceptual cacophany of juxtaposing the western genre which generally presents stories set in the mid-19th century with the sci-fi genre, which did not arise until the late 19th century. The people living decades before Jules Verne published Around the Moon in 1870 and H. G. Wells published War of the Worlds in 1898 could not have imagined an invasion of extraterrestrial beings from another world landing in spaceships to abduct human beings.
In other words, the conceptual space in which these sorts of things could be imagined to happen had not really yet arisen in history. This is not to say that people living in the old west could not have witnessed exterrestrials or unidentified flying objects; strange things in the sky have been reported for thousands of years. But Independence Day-style spaceships and Alien-like reptilian creatures? Their appearance in the old west would have been shocking in a way that is extremely difficult to reckon.
And so in the Cowboys & Aliens movie, when the townsfolk get sight of the aliens for the first time they speak of them as “demons.” That’s plausible, but what is implausible is that they do not pause to try to make sense of the strangeness of the encounter or reconcile it to their worldview. They do not react with the mass panic and hysteria that would probably accompany such an extreme ontological nightmare. Instead, they aim their pistols in the sky.
The economics of Hollywood summer blockbuster movies explains a lot about why the creators of Cowboys & Aliens didn’t attempt to explore the fertile and under-explored territory of epistemological disruption à la The Gods Must Be Crazy or even the theme of xenophobia explored in District 9. Still, they might have created something much more memorable than an “agreeable time-killer” if they had invited the audience to look at what could happen when a culture’s understanding of reality receives a death-dealing shock.