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The wasted potential of Cowboys & Aliens

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Harrison Ford looking grumpy in 'Cowboys and Aliens' (2011)

Cowboys & Aliens is a good film. It’s moderately entertaining, with a few great scenes. This article does not attempt to dispute that; rather, it’s about how the film could (and arguably should) have been so much more. It’s from the director of Iron Man (Jon Favreau), is executive produced by the director of the Indiana Jones franchise (Steven Spielberg), written by the writers of Transformers and Star Trek (Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman), and stars James Bond (Daniel Craig) and Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), as well as Quorra (Olivia Wilde) from Tron: Legacy.  How could it not be awesome?

(Without having read the comic book on which the film was based, I can’t comment on the merits or otherwise of the comic (whether in relation to the title or otherwise), or the quality of the adaptation, so this article will simply be concerned with the film itself.)

Ironically, your opinion of Cowboys & Aliens is probably inversely proportional to your opinion of the title. The more you think the title is awesome, the more you’ll be disappointed; but the more you dismiss it, the more you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

It’s a western which happens to have sci-fi (and some horror) elements in it, rather than a true mash-up of genres. If anything, the film is too grounded. Instead of trusting the audience to accept the cool idea that cowboys and aliens are in the same movie, and launching the story from there, the filmmakers instead go to great lengths to establish the story unfolding from the cowboys’ point of view, with the audience encountering the aliens the way the cowboys would, in an effort to make it believable.

If you’re a fan of westerns, and see it as such (albeit with a few unconventional elements), you’ll probably really enjoy it. However, as a sci-fi film, it seems, if not ashamed of the genre, at least far too appeasing of those who are.

When they were making the film, director Jon Favreau wondered if they should call it Cowboys & Aliens, or if that was too cheesy, to which Harrison Ford replied, “Well, what else are you gonna call it?” Harrison Ford had a point, but it arguably applied not only to the title but also to the film itself. Given that the film would remain the same, it would ironically have been better for them to have chosen a different (and probably less awesome title), in order not to give people inflated expectations, and also in order not to spoil the presence of aliens. If people had gone in expecting a simple western, and then discovered the genre twist, it might have been more enjoyable. (However, as with From Dusk Till Dawn, no doubt people would have spoiled it for others almost immediately.)

While there are technically both cowboys and aliens in the film, and the film is somewhat concerned with the fight between them, such a title calls to mind a quintessential confrontation between cowboys and aliens (and hence the western and sci-fi genres they represent), and thus demands nothing less. A similar thing is true of 2009’s Monsters vs. Aliens, though it was very funny in its own right.

Jon Favreau directed the awesome Iron Man (and the great films Elf and Zathura), so really has no excuse (and a similar thing applies to the good-but-disappointing Iron Man 2, which was even in the same franchise as Iron Man). While Cowboys & Aliens and Iron Man 2 are both good films, had they simply followed the template of Iron Man, and not been afraid to be consistently awesome, they would have been vastly superior films.

However, making good, let alone super-good, films is very difficult. Maybe the trouble is that Iron Man just made it look too easy…?

The film-makers have said that, “We weren’t sure if it was going to work.”

Your film has cowboys and aliens in it. You have an awesome high concept right there in the title. If you do it justice, of course it is going to work…!

However, if you’re able to look past the irksome amount of wasted potential, and the misleading promise of the title, then the film itself is moderately enjoyable in its own right.

But if you’re looking for the perfect combination of the western and sci-fi genres (not to mention numerous others), look no further than Joss Whedon’s TV series Firefly and its film continuation Serenity. (Though this is not to say that they’re the only such examples; for instance, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope arguably falls into this category, and reportedly Cowboy Bebop bears many similarities to Firefly.)

Though Firefly and Serenity are grounded and believable (as with Cowboys & Aliens), this is never at the expense of awesomeness, nor does the story feel lacking in sci-fi. Rather, the emotional investment in the characters ensures that the audience stays with them through every experience, as they go through pretty much every emotion in life, making the genre transitions seamless. And the character interactions are fantastic; with the crew of the ship Serenity forming a wonderful found family as they go through their wacky, exciting, scary, dramatic, funny, heart-breaking adventures.

Shadowlocked caught a screening of Cowboys & Aliens at the recent Empire Big Screen. For more of our coverage of the event, click here.

See also:

Auteur This: Aggressive Mediocrity

Gritty, realistic…fantasy?

Top 10 films that should have been good, but weren't

Are fanboys fascist?

Will 'True Grit' be the film to finally resurrect the Western?

In Praise of Clint Eastwood

The movies that save our lives


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Comments 

 
#1 RE: The wasted potential of Cowboys & Aliens dave lister 2011-08-23 21:10
but, iron man was really deeply humourless and took itself totally seriously - i saw both at the cinema, and much of the audience jumped out of their seats at the end of iron man. they couldnt wait to leave, despite the great special effects.

iron man could have been so much better with a likeable actor.
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