Thursday, November 26 , 2015, 1:52 am | Fair 46º

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Arts & Entertainment Presented by Santa Barbara Center for the Performing Arts

Cinema in Focus

Cinema in Focus: Old West Meets Outer Space in ‘Cowboys & Aliens’

The film finds a new and creative way to use self-sacrifice to defeat evil

By Hal Conklin and Denny Wayman |

3 Stars — Challenging

It has long been politically incorrect for cowboys to fight Indians. It has also become cliché to see a bad person as completely bad. In both of these and many other distinctions, we have come to understand that human beings of whatever race or morality are far more alike than different, and far more complex than any single label would describe.

But that doesn’t change our desire for a good western with bad guys and good guys fighting it out, and it doesn’t mean we can’t create creatures that are thoroughly bad and deserve to be destroyed. They just can’t be human. That solution is the genius behind Jon Favreau’s film Cowboys & Aliens.

As an actor, writer and director, Favreau obviously loves the art of filmmaking. This is seen in his attention to detail and his appreciation for the symbols of previous films. From the creatures that have the demonic appearance seen in the Alien films to the church steeple seen over the shoulder of a cowboy being told that his deceased woman is in a “better place,” the western melodramatic style is even seen in the two leading men. A lone gunslinger is appropriately named Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig), and the wealthy cattleman who uses his dollars to dominate the town is named Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford).

Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who have teamed up to write the script for such films as The Legend of Zorro, Transformers and Star Trek, have created a moving story that mixes romance with action and identifiable characters with unidentifiable creatures.

The premise of the story is predictable: Aliens from outer space have sent a scouting group to both extract our gold and discover our vulnerability. If they are not stopped, it will be the end of humanity when the aliens return with their forces after scouting out our mineral-rich planet and easily defeated inhabitants. If we are to survive, we must pull together as human beings. Cowboys and Indians, rich and poor, bandits and sheriffs, all have to rise above their human conflicts and face this alien threat together.

However, into this mix comes another creature from beyond the stars, but this one is a defender of humanity. Taking on human form, Alice (Abigail Spencer) is also aptly named as she nobly leads Lonergan and Dolarhyde to face themselves, each other and the aliens.

We won’t spoil the suspense by telling how this story ends except to note that the willingness to sacrifice one’s life to save others is central to the tale. Such sacrifice is not uncommon in our understanding of how evil is defeated, and our artists remind us of its necessity once again in a new and creative way.


» Do you think that if there is other life in the universe that it would have the bug-like form of these aliens? Do you think they would actually come in search of gold, or is this a commentary on the insect-like spiritual lives of those who give their lives in pursuit of gold?

» Pastor Meacham (Clancy Brown) explains that God expects us to do what we can to stop evil. He applies this both individually and corporately as we individually confess our sins and find forgiveness, and corporately as we stand up to those who would destroy us all. Do you believe that God gives us the solution to evil? If not, what do you think will change us for the good individually and corporately?

» Do you believe that Alice was a “Christ-figure” since she came from above, was incarnate in human form and sacrificed her life to save humanity? Why?

» In the end, as Jake Lonergan rides off into the sunset alone, we recognize that, like James Bond, he lost both of his women. Why do you think artists often make the heroes of their tales loners?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit

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