A real "monsters from the id" movie in the classic sense, Cowboys & Aliens is the first ever gimmicky movie genre mash-up that seems to have genuine intellectual and thematic reasons for such an amalgamation of tropes. The Western/alien invasion story combination enhances the ideas present in the movie in a tremendously satisfying way that will be briefly reviewed in this short write-up. I hope you take the time to read and hopefully reevaluate a very unfairly maligned film.
We are all familiar with the idea that morality in Westerns is a very hazy concept and characters are constantly toeing the line between good and evil. A Western is a place where simple moral choices hold immensely profound depth and meaning, to the point where they can define or shatter a person's integrity. Similarly, but on a more broad scale, any alien invasion story is inherently an apocalyptic tale, unavoidably carrying religious undertones of judgment that come along with every "end of days" story -- especially one where destruction is rained down on us from supernatural beings from the sky.
Craig's whole arc is oriented around the question of whether he will relapse into his previous self and succumb to his shadow figure (which has no moral scruples and a "tarnished soul") or will manage to construct a new identity for himself. Thus this tale of aliens -- or more accurately demons -- becomes a symbolic, religious allegory for Craig's attempt to grapple with the sins of his past and find a new path for himself (ideas that were also approached in Favreau's Iron Man 2, where Tony Stark battled an enemy who lashed him with whips as punishment for the transgressions Stark seeks to bury). Lonergan faces all the temptations and challenges we would expect from such a Biblical tale, and the Western setting is instrumental in framing his story in this light. He literally comes face-to-face with his previous self in the alien chamber, when his holographic image is projected onto the surgical table right before he is forced through the same invasive procedure by the same scarred alien creature. This time, though, he is rescued by one of the allies his new self has managed to accrue through acting with the morality, integrity and self-sacrifice of a "hero."
Moreover, all those who are taken by the aliens are forced to stare into a strange ethereal "light" in a hypnotic trance-like state, transfixed by what is ostensibly a metaphor for death or heaven (we all of course know that people allegedly "see a light" when they have near-death experiences). In addition, Wilde carries Craig's symbolic bracelet (or shackle, as it might more aptly be called since it manacles him to his past) into another bright light at the center of the alien's underground base (a reference to Hell?) to destroy it. That people seem to "forget" their terrestrial connections, even family members, when staring into the former light emphasizes the idea that it represents some kind of halfway-place between life and death. Thus, they are kept in what is essentially purgatory. While in this place of transition, they are hung by the neck as if they had been executed -- and any execution first requires judgment, of course. When viewing the film this way, it becomes evident that the aliens are an embodiment of reckoning come to literally drag the sinful to their final judgment, from which they are saved by the sacrifices and personal transformations experienced by their kin.
Plus, we have Rockwell's crisis of faith, where he doubts the existence of the soul and refers repeatedly to the aliens as demons. The fact that the aliens are referred to as such is not just a convenient way for Favreau to inject some historical realism into the proceedings; it's extremely telling of the underlying thematic level at which the story operates. Wilde is clearly positioned as a guardian angel (who defeats death, untouched by the fire that should kill her -- another reference to hell -- and is wounded in the exact same spot as Lonergan when she is attacked by the alien). Wilde absolves (remember the town's name?) Lonergan of his sins with her kiss, an act which is emphasized by the bracelet, by now a clear symbol for his inescapable past and the sins associated with it, unclasping from his arm at the exact moment of his redemption. Craig even takes a very literal trip into his subconscious when he ingests the peyote leaf with the Native American shamans and is forced to confront traumatic memories from his past, an essential step in any healing process. He is guided through his subconscious journey by none other than Wilde, the metaphoric angel.
As for the hummingbird, because Lonergan first encounters it during the peyote ceremony we might assume that it is a Native American "animal totem" -- but I'm partial to the Benjamin Button interpretation, where it is a representation of the soul. In Button the hummingbird appears after major character deaths, representing the soul's ascent to heaven. In this movie, it appears at the exact moment when Craig begins to stake his claim his own soul. It is very open to interpretation however, and I think that's the point -- in fact, this is easily the most Spielbergian of all the Spielberg-produced films released this year because it is designed to work on the same near-instinctual subconscious level that the best of Spielberg's films always do.
Anyway this is somewhat poorly written as I originally intended it just as an extended comment in the post-release thread, but I think it's better off getting isolated from the rest of the discussion. This movie is a lot more interesting than anybody seems to be giving it credit for, and I'm just happy to be one of the only people who seems to see it.
Edited by JMulder - 7/30/11 at 11:54am