In the days leading up to the Cowboys & Aliens world premiere July 23 at Comic-Con in San Diego, director Jon Favreau was anxious. He was telling anyone who would listen just how brave this mash-up of the sci-fi and western genres really is. In his Thursday Q & A with Guillermo Del Toro in Hall H, Favreau said, “Everyone agrees it’s either going to be terrible or awesome… This movie was not the safe move. I was in a position to do something different. As movie budgets get higher they all become the same. If you take risks, when it pays off it’s wonderful. If you can take failure it’s ok.” Favreau also refused to make the movie in 3-D, thankfully.
More details, interviews, reviews and a trailer are below. Universal opens the film nationwide July 29.
Favreau admits that this $163 million studio picture would never have gotten the green light without a line-up of major movie stars led by Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig (Indiana Jones and James Bond, as showcased on the cover of EW) and a list of backers, from Universal, Relativity, Reliance and DreamWorks to Imagine’s Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, who joined the sprawling throng onstage at the Comic-Con premiere at a San Diego opera house. Favreau told the crowd of cast and crew and fan contest winners (about the friendliest possible audience to mix with press and critics): “This is a really special night, it’s history. The only way to knock it up a notch was to have the premiere here.”
The debate at the red carpet outdoor party afterwards was heated. Some loved it, some hated it, just as Favreau predicted–but many were in the middle, saying the film played pretty well without being great. Variety describes Cowboys & Aliens as a new genre of movie “in which unlikely bedfellows are spliced together for cheeky escapism and maximum coin.”
For my part, the movie is a serviceable western carried by two strong movie stars. It’s the story of a laconic man with no name (Daniel Craig) who wakes up shoeless in the dusty desert of 1870s Arizona with a strange metal bracelet on his wrist, his mind wiped clean. He swiftly overcomes three hapless attackers, and winds up with clothes, hat, horse and gun, riding into the next town. The town’s cattle boss powerbroker is Harrison Ford, and while the two alpha males start out enjoyably at odds, when alien spaceships attack at the end of act one, the westerners realize they will have to band together in order to fight off their common foe. It works: the cowboys and Indians join forces to outmaneuver their mutual enemy. It is satisfying when they start blowing up the aliens. It’s that basic.
Two problems undermine the film. One, the unbelievable character played by Olivia Wilde is identified as neither schoolteacher virgin nor tavern whore, but given that she hangs out in the bar alone with her hair down, she’s probably the latter. Her storyline begs credulity from start to finish. And the other is the aliens, who are the same old icky reptilian buggy bent-legged skittish CGI creatures we can see on another Steven Spielberg-produced series, Falling Skies. Can’t we move on here? One gets the sense that the filmmakers harbor more love and affection for the cowboy genre than the alien invasion movie.
Even so, any cinephile or western lover should see Cowboys & Aliens, which is far more entertaining than most of the cookie-cutter super-hero stuff out there. It’s even relevant, as crusty tough-nut Ford and lonely gunfighter Craig have to share leadership not only with each other but a wily Indian chief. (John Boehner should see this movie.)
The screenplay was crafted, after years of dormancy, from the comedic graphic novel by some five writers: producers Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman (Star Trek), Damon Lindelof (Lost), Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby (Children of Men, Iron Man), adapted from a screen story by Fergus and Ostby and Steve Oedekerk (Bruce Almighty), whose earlier comedy take was abandoned. Too many cooks in the kitchen, perhaps, contribute to a sense of playing it safe, despite all of Favreau’s assertions. Neither genre is deconstructed, really–perhaps because they wanted to leave the audience on familiar ground.
When DreamWorks producer-writers Orci and Kurtzman brought in Fergus and Ostby, they pitched a straight western, not the comedic tone of the novel and earlier development. Ostby was excited by the cover of a cowboy firing over his shoulder at an advancing spaceship. “It would be a classic western, that’s what made us want to do it,” says Fergus. “We make the audience go back in time with the characters, who have no basis for any of this flying stuff. They have to be resourceful to deal with them.”
“How do the townspeople begin to deal with an outside force they can’t conceive of?” asks Ostby. “We contrast two genres, horses and cows and rawhide vs, stainless steel and lights flying fast.”
All the players got on board the idea of avoiding doing The Wild West in favor of a 20-minute western ramp-up abruptly crashed by aliens. “When that first spaceship popped out,” says Orci, “the two genres slam together. The world they were living in was grounded in the western, a gritty, tough, difficult time.”
Harrison Ford plays the archetypal cattle baron who had to be tough to survive, much like the John Wayne character in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. “To create the west you needed force as well as humanity,” says Fergus. “We had fun taking old stereotypes and making something new out of it.”
Kurtzman says they all realized: “Maybe the two genres get along better than we thought: a man with few words became abducted and doesn’t remember, comes into the town. Not mashing up, but what else could be organically fused at the story level?” The first writers nailed a template and structure, then went on to other assignments post-Iron Man, replaced by Damon Lindeloff, who came in with Favreau. Orci and Kurtzman steered the last drafts home.
“The challenge as a filmmaker,” said Favreau during his conversation with Del Toro, “was to do it in a grounded way. We had to make it an emotional accessible experience. I like John Ford. I don’t make the western silly. I make the characters act in a real way, reacting to something weird. When the ship lands, everything changes. We play it real. It’s the metaphysical man with no name who’s been abducted and wiped.”
There was some discussion of changing the title, until Ford considered it and responded: “What the hell else are you going to call it?”
Here’s the critics’ round-up:
Germain Lussier, SlashFilm
A lifeless film that’s criminally plot driven and filled with surface characters, underdeveloped relationships and plot holes the size of the Wild Wild West… It’s almost as if we’re supposed to see James Bond and Indiana Jones in these characters, but it doesn’t work that way. Instead the performances are both overly stoic and almost totally devoid of personality. Neither ever distinguishes themselves as an individual and the film suffers mightily for it.
Jeff Otto, The Playlist
Cowboys & Aliens Brings the Bad-Ass, But Falls Short on the Mash-Up: Cowboys gets off to a terrific start, a hard-boiled western in the stylized spaghetti tradition. Craig channels Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, adding a dose of modern edginess and a dab of Steve McQueen cool… Ford, on the other hand, starts off as little more than the grumpy old curmudgeonly character. In the end, however, the enemy of the cowboys isn’t the aliens, but the inconsistent and, at times, sloppy storytelling.
Peter Debruge, Variety
Historically speaking, sci-fi killed the Western genre: Instead of looking back, Hollywood projected its themes of frontier survivalism and fear of the other forward, into the equally lawless realms of outer space. So there’s a certain karmic beauty in the fact that sci-fi should be the reason to dust off the oater, if only just this once. While Cowboys & Aliens offers little in the way of sociological insight (except perhaps giving the white man a taste of his own resource-stealing medicine), it’s still a ripping good ride.
Kirk Honeycutt, The Hollywood Reporter
Fusion is everything in gourmet cuisine these days, so why shouldn’t filmmakers mix and match movie genres no matter how crazy? Cowboys & Aliens — well, the title says it all. Taking the idea from a Platinum Studios graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, this film from Jon Favreau shrewdly blends an alien-invasion movie into a Western. The key to its success lies in the determination by everyone involved to play the damn thing straight. Even the slightest goofiness, the tiniest touch of camp, and the whole thing would blow sky high. But it doesn’t.
Favreau has devoted a lot of time to creating a distinctive ensemble and no energy to giving them something interesting to do. Even with a cast that includes Craig, Ford, Dano, Rockwell, plus tough ingenue Olivia Wilde and Deadwood’s Keith Carradine as a sheriff, none of the actors do more than the minimum: providing a conventional emotional arc or supplying vital information when the story demands explanations. And the rhythms of the storytelling offer no dramatic momentum to keep audiences engaged. Orci and Kurtzman’s too-smart-by-half script is a compendium of western clichés with far too much self-awareness to be this one-dimensional.
Emanuel Levy, Emanuel Levy
Two movies, or rather two genres, for the price of one, Cowboys and Aliens blends together conventions and characters of sci-fi and Westerns, resulting in an unpretentious fun and unabashedly old-fashioned entertainment…While the movie may be novel conceptually, essentially it tells a familiar story, which is far more effective as a Western than as a sci-fi, despite the state-of the art special and sound effects, which dominate the last reel of this overlong, repetitive picture.
[Maggie Lange contributed to this article.]