COWBOYS & ALIENS
After their principal themes seem exhausted, a funny thing starts to happen to genres people stop taking them seriously or else start coming up with gonzo genre hybrids. In recent years, we have seen the zombie film in particular finding its feet through numerous parodies, wacky title collusions and mash-ups with other genres. The same happened to the Western, which started to engage in various horror combinations with the likes of Curse of the Undead (1959), Billy the Kid Versus Dracula (1966), Jesse James Meets Frankensteins Daughter (1966), House II: The Second Story (1987), Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat (1990), Uninvited (1993) and Tremors 4: The Legend Begins (2004); avenging ghost/revenant stories such as High Plains Drifter (1973), Shadow of Chikara (1977), Ghostriders (1987), Ghost Town (1988) and Jonah Hex (2010); two zombie Westerns with The Quick and the Undead (2006) and The Dead and the Damned (2010); cowboys vs troglodytes in The Burrowers (2008) and Bone Tomahawk (2015); even two horror Western anthologies with Grim Prairie Tales (1990) and Into the Badlands (1991). There have also been various science-fiction Westerns involving time travel in Timerider: The Legend of Lyle Swann (1982), Back to the Future Part III (1990), the Doctor Who episodes The Gunfighters (1966) and A Town Called Mercy (2012) and the Star Trek: The Next Generation two-parter Times Arrow (1992); with the basics transposed into outer space in Outland (1981), Oblivion (1994), tvs Firefly (2002-3) and the Star Trek episode Spectre of the Gun (1968), or post-holocaust settings in Steel Dawn (1987) and Omega Doom (1996); various virtual Western scenarios in Westworld (1973) and Welcome to Blood City (1977); and works such as tvs The Wild, Wild West (1965-9), The Adventures of Brisco County Jr (1993) and Legend (1995) that throw in Steampunk elements and technologically advanced gadgets. Indeed, the cowboys and aliens concept is not new and was previously attempted in the modestly effective High Plains Invaders (2009), which has more than a passing few similarities to Cowboys & Aliens, while a more benevolent alien visitor also turned up in the low-budget The Aurora Encounter (1985). There have even been animated attempts to play Westerns out with talking animals in An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (1991) and Rango (2011).
You had to applaud the line-up of talent that Cowboys & Aliens has managed to assemble. The film is produced by several different companies including being a co-production between big hitters like Universal, DreamWorks and Imagine Entertainment and includes no less than Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard listed as producers. In the directors seat is former actor Jon Favreau who entered genre territory with his second directorial film Elf (2003), the family comedy that made Will Ferrell a name, and has remained there since with Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005) and the big fanboy hits of Iron Man (2008) and Iron Man 2 (2010), as well as executive producing the post-catastrophic tv series Revolution (2012-4) and The Avengers films. The script comes from a host of names, including the duo of Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman who have been busy boys in the last few years with the scripts for The Island (2005), Mission: Impossible III (2006), Transformers (2007), Star Trek (2009), Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009), Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013), The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014), Star Trek: Beyond (2016) and as producers/writers on Alias (2001-6) and as creators/producers of tvs Fringe (2008-13) and Sleepy Hollow (2013-7) and producers of the films Enders Game (2013), Now You See Me (2013) and The Mummy (2017); Damon Lindelof, who gained a cult name as co-creator, principal producer and writer on tvs Lost (2004-10) and later of Prometheus (2012), Star Trek: Into Darkness and World War Z (2013); Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, the writing duo behind Children of Men (2006) and the first Iron Man film, as well as the key driving forces behind the sf tv series The Expanse (2016 ); and even Steve Oedekerk, the comedy writer who has turned out scripts such as The Nutty Professor (1996), Patch Adams (1998), Bruce Almighty (2003), Evan Almighty (2007) and directed the inane Kung Pow: Enter the Fist (2002) and the animated Barnyard (2006).
Cowboys & Aliens had a long genesis. Steve Oedekerk was set to develop it around 1997-9 but this never came off. Film producer Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, who wrote the original script, was also the president of Malibu Comics (the publishers of Men in Black), went away and developed it as a 100-page graphic novel that appeared in 2006. The comic-book was then brought up as a filmic property and went through development under numerous hands before ending up as the film we have here. It should be pointed that there is almost no resemblance between the comic-book and the film beyond the title and the basic concept of cowboys and various familiar types of Western characters battling alien invaders.
The very title Cowboys & Aliens has been intended to give us one of these gonzo genre mash-ups as a high concept film. The idea seemed appealing and I was interested to see what the film did with it certainly, the film seemed to be taking the idea seriously (far more than the comic-book did, in fact). The film has a great set-up opening with an amnesiac Daniel Craig wakening in the desert and puzzling over the device clamped to his wrist that he is unable to remove. We are then introduced to the town where the decent but honest citizens are forced to live in grinding poverty by Colonel Dolarhyde the scenes with a drunken Paul Dano going wild with his gun and being brought down by Daniel Craig more than effectively demonstrate the sense of absolute privilege he lives by and the state of fear the townspeople exist in. Then comes the kicker after the fearful talk of the ruthlessly corrupt land baron Colonel Dolarhyde, we first see him talking with his back to the camera before he turns around and is revealed as no less than Harrison Ford. This comes as a considerable shock, you know that Harrison Ford is in the film but expect that he is a leading man only to find that the role is what you would expect to be the villain of the show in any other Western. While we are still reeling from this, the town is attacked by UFOs, which snatch townspeople up with sky hooks the surprise has been spoiled by the trailer but the outre abruptness of what is happening still seems wild.
All of this seems a highly promising set-up. Only what transpires is that there is nothing more to Cowboys & Aliens than that. Maybe it is simply that there have been so many hands involved in the broth or that the projects lengthy development process has watered everything down to a formulaic script with no distinction, but I felt disappointed with what Cowboys & Aliens promised to be and what is eventually delivered. The set-up creates an excellent mystery but all of this is forward heavy build-up that only eventuates weakly once the party sets out. [PLOT SPOILERS] Daniel Craigs amnesia is revealed to have been caused by his abduction but there is little sense that you get a film like Memento (2000) would be a perfect comparison of him trying to piece together clues from his past to understand who he is. The bracelet around his wrist turns out to be nothing more than a vague all-purpose device that aids the party at various points and does whatever the scriptwriters magically need it to. Especially disappointing is how after introducing Dolarhyde as the ruthless landowner who holds the town in an iron fist, this aspect of the character evaporates the moment Harrison Ford is introduced the film seems conceptually unable to deal with the idea of Harrison Ford as a bad guy in any way (something I thought would have had great potential). We never even get any scene where Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig are pitted against one another, which could also have been full of possibilities. Even the aliens are disappointingly generic they have no more purpose than they do in other recent works such as Skyline (2010) and Battle Los Angeles (2011) as being there to blow things up and for people to shoot at we never even learn why they are determined to mine gold. Even Olivia Wilde has a frustrating vagueness as a character you get the idea that the writers could never figure out what to do with her (there is astonishingly little development to the idea of her as an alien), but were stuck with the character because the film needed a female lead and needed someone to deliver exposition about what the aliens are.
The entire second half of the film consists of little more than the party wandering through the desert and encounters with different groups, interspersed with scenes of the aliens attacking and abducting people, before all parties are united for the big finale where an offensive is mounted on the alien base. For me, the disappointment of Cowboys & Aliens is that beyond the conceptual collusion and what we have seen in the trailer, that that is it as a film. It never takes the idea anywhere beyond that, all that happens is action and special effects with little done to delve into the nature of the aliens or to conduct a Western beyond mimicking cinematic cliches. That makes Cowboys & Aliens far too light as the high concept film it clearly wants to be.
The one thing that Cowboys & Aliens does well is to assemble some great star power. Daniel Craig perfected the ice cold, tight-lipped implacability thing during his various outings as James Bond. Clearly cast as a Clint Eastwood-ian Man With No Name (or Memory), Craig brings the same thing to bear here but also manages to be an Eastwood character who has more of an acting range. Harrison Ford holds his own with characteristic crusty strength. Sam Rockwell provides understated amusement in the wry way only he can and there is solid support from reliables such as Clancy Brown and Keith Carradine. The only weak name in the deck is Olivia Wilde who showed great promise on tvs House M.D. (2004-12) but in her touted big screen outings so far has disappeared into anonymity.
Perhaps the oddest thing about Cowboys & Aliens is how it reads as a coded critique of The Recession (at least from a conservative standpoint). The evil aliens (read bankers) have come to steal all the gold ie. all the money we even see it being siphoned off in streams to their spaceship that looks like a high-rise office building that has been converted into an armoured fortress. Harrison Ford is the initially evil seeming landowner who holds the town under his thumb and is seen as directly responsible for the good, innocent townspeoples impoverishment he is even not very subtly named Dolarhyde. He is then shown to not be a bad guy after all and undergoes the character arc of learning to grudgingly open up and be kind to poor children and immigrants. The solution is for everybody else to come together and work in united purpose under his guidance where everybody from the poor, the downtrodden, criminals and racial minorities has learned to recognise that the captains of business are compassionate and know what is best for us (as opposed to being out to line their own and shareholders pockets). The problem is seen as being solved when the gold is finally released from the evil aliens/bankers, allowing the town to be united together in the utopian harmony of new economic prosperity at the fadeout.
Jon Favreau next went on to make the non-genre Chef (2014) and the live-action The Jungle Book (2016). He also acts as executive producer on the post-catastrophic tv series Revolution (2012-4) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015).