Cowboys & Aliens: The San Diego Premiere; or Why Life Is Just One Big Chase
WARNING: SPOILERS AND GEEKY STUFF AHEAD!
I consider the Cowboys & Aliens film to be just part of a larger experience that revolved around the film, but if you only want to read about the film you can skip down to the “The Film” section.
When Jon Favreau announced that he wanted to say thanks to the fans at San Diego Comic-Con by holding the world premiere of his film Cowboys & Aliens in San Diego, we immediately placed getting tickets
at the top of our list of things to do at this year’s Con. We knew it would not be easy, and it wasn’t. Last year we were one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, who stood in line for the Cowboys & Aliens Hall H panel only to be shut out. That was the panel during which the infamous eye stabbing occurred, but it was also the panel during which Harrison Ford made a surprise appearance.
This year we vowed that we would not be shut out.
No one knew how the tickets would be given away. The first hint came by way of the huge Hilton Bayfront Hotel poster. After sending a text message to the number on that poster, we received these messages Wednesday: “Be on the lookout for Cowboys & Aliens gold bricks. Get one and you could win tickets to the world premiere,” and “Starting Thursday look for cowboys handing out gold bricks at Comic-Con. They could be your ticket to the premiere.” Luckily, we had a phone capable of receiving these messages. Throughout the week we received many text messages. Each time a text message came through, the phone went “Ding!,” like a small bell. That “Ding!” came to mean one thing: Run! We heard it so many times, that even now, days later, we automatically, without thinking, launch into our run mode when we hear a bell. We know how Pavlov’s dogs must have felt when Pavlov conditioned them to slobber when he rang a bell. Perhaps we should ask Jon Fabreau to pay a shrink to decondition us.
The first message about gold bricks being handed out came through Thursday morning when we were on the second floor of the Convention Center. It said that 50 gold bricks were being handed out at a 7-11 store several blocks from where we were. We started running.
Despite using our phone’s GPS, we went the wrong way and arrived much too late to get any gold bricks. The most memorable moment of this round was when a woman in an apartment several stories above yelled, “What are you guys standing in line for?” One of the answers was “Slurpees.” She expressed some skepticism, but there was more truth in that answer than we realized at the time because each gold brick also came with a 7-11 coupon for a Slurpee. We accumulated so many of these that we could live on Slurpees for the rest of the year.
The next text message came about 30 minutes later. This time our running put us in line in time to get our first gold bricks and our first “Sorry! Try Again” lottery cards.
This round took place outside the World Market at 4th and J, one of the three main locations throughout the Gold Rush. We learned some useful information: the 7-11 stores were running their own promotion and the odds of winning a ticket there were lower than for the one run by Universal. So that was it for 7-11. We also learned where the Cowboys & Aliens gold rush crew was headquartered, and we made it our headquarters too for the next few days, sitting, when possible, on a bench in the shade and a nice, cool breeze. About 50 feet north of us was a large and very loud Sprint exhibit tent which gave out prizes, including premiere tickets. The emcee liked to make cracks about how nice it was to get out of the Convention Center into the fresh air. A surprisingly large crowd moving constantly back and forth. Frank Miller and Paul Pope passed close enough for us to smell them. But all of this barely registered as we waited for the appearance of the Cowboys crew wearing dark shirts and pulling black tote bags filled with gold bricks. The longer the wait after an earlier round, the greater the tension became. Sometimes a pedicab would pass by and ring a
bell, causing us to jump into our running mode before we realized it was a false alarm.
Of course, sitting on our bench meant sacrificing many of the other events on our list. We missed Francis Ford Coppola, James Steranko, Grant Morrison. However, we didn’t turn the bench into our home away from home. Thursday afternoon was spent mostly in Hall H along with Favreau, Del Toro, and Rodriguez. It was at the latter’s panel that we learned about the Frank Frazetta exhibit at the IGN Oasis/Hard Rock Hotel Friday afternoon.
The Frazetta exhibit was great, but of course it meant missing a round of bricks. We also missed out on some bricks when, not at our bench, our sense of direction was completely screwed up and we ran in the opposite direction we should have run in.
Sometimes our 14 year old son, Tristan, was with us. One of those times was especially memorable. It was Saturday afternoon and the penultimate gold rush. By that time hundreds of people had figured out where the Cowboys were headquartered and that the best way to get bricks was to hang out there and follow them to the next location. When all of these people saw the Cowboys cross the street, a huge crowd appeared out of nowhere, following them. I was hanging out near the “Begin” sign in the picture below and had a great view of what happened next. The crowd of hundreds of people suddenly stopped in the middle of the street, reversed direction, and ran into the front lobby of the Hilton Gaslamp Hotel. The text message had just come through and these people had apparently interpreted it to mean that the round would take place inside the hotel. Tristan had been in front of all of these people first going across the street, then into the hotel. He says that the look on the hotel desk clerks when they saw the mob of people coming in was priceless. Someone yelled, “Stop!,” and it was eventually conveyed that the line was supposed to be in front of, not inside, the hotel. Here’s the funny thing. Despite being inside the hotel and in front of this huge crowd, Tristan managed to end up first in line. I had lost track of him and was surprised when he appeared at the front of the line. How he did it, I still do not know, but this is a Convention about characters with super powers. Too bad he didn’t win any extra points for being first in line.
So there was one more round. Tristan left for a panel in the Convention Center leaving us with just one more chance. After what had happened during the previous round, and with even more people waiting for the crew to emerge, it seemed almost certain that the last rounds would be in front of the hotel like the previous round. At that time we still expected that there would be three more rounds, but the next one would actually be the final one. We got our bricks, brought them to our bench and opened our 19th and 20th bricks. This is what they said: “Sorry! Try again.” But there would be no again. Kelly asked if she should thank the Cowboys & Alien crew. We were disappointed, of course, but I for one did not feel it was a complete loss. It had been fun chasing the gold. It was no different than the chase for tickets to the convention itself. No different from the game of getting hotel rooms. We had a lot of time to think while we were sitting on that bench and we could not help but think that the chase for fool’s gold was nothing less than a metaphor for life itself. We’re all chasing after something that everyone else wants. Sometimes we’re the lucky ones, sometimes we’re the unlucky ones. But we had had fun. The crew had been very nice. So Kelly went over and thanked them. We were about to experience an unexpected and sudden reversal of fortune.
I stayed near our bench and waited, taking pictures. I had no idea what was going on. Then she told me that we had tickets. Four fucking tickets! I was completely surprised. The premiere was just hours away. While we walked several blocks to the Cowboys & Aliens Saloon to register and get our tickets, we tried to think of someone we knew to whom we could give our extra ticket. We asked several friends and none of them could make it. We even tried to find someone at the Civic Center to give the ticket to, but everyone in line there already had a ticket. We still have the ticket.
This was the ultimate Hall H experience. You cannot top seeing a new film with two thousand super excited fans. As we went from the waiting room to the theater, we crossed the red carpert where the celebrities were. The guy in front of me yelled, “Oh my god, we’re walking on red carpet! I have to get this on twitter!”
Before the film was shown, Jon Favreau appeared on stage and introduced the actors, producers and writers one by one. Yes, Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig were there with Ron Howard and Stephen Spielberg. The writers were introduced last. I thought it a bit funny that there wasn’t enough room for all of them at the end of the line so they had to angle out to fit. Writers are the Rodney Dangerfields of the movie business.
THE POST SCREENING PARTY
Apparently only Jon Favreau stayed with us while we watched the film. We did not get a chance to talk to him and only saw him as he made his way to his limo, which apparently took him to the real premiere party. My son was lucky to get his ticket signed by Favreau, but it was a bit disappointing to not have a chance to talk to the diretor after hearing, at earlier panels at Comic-Con, him, as well as the producer, Spielberg, talk about how much the fans’ opinions meant to them. At the Tin Tin panel, Spielberg had said that fans had made his films possible and that he should be sitting in the audience. Well, he passed up a great opportunity to back up his words with action. If Spielberg and Favreau had not said things like this, perhaps it would not have mattered as much that they were not there. But they did, and they weren’t.
How can I best describe how we felt when I saw Favreau leaving so early? A little disappointment, perhaps, but it was really more like being jilted. I felt Favreau was sincere in everything he said about wanting to give back to Comic-Con fans. This made his exit all the more disappointing. Perhaps he wanted to stay, but the others did not and for whatever reason he could not stay while the others left. If I had been him, I would have wanted to stay and find out first hand from the fans what they thought of my film. Despite this minor disappointment, I hope that this is the start of a new trend of premieres at Comic-Con along with gold hunts.
Thanks, Jon. It was fun.
“Jeesh! What some people will go through to see a movie!” – A comment on this post from Facebook.
1. This is a film made by someone who is obviously a fan of the master of stop-motion animation, Ray Harryhausen. In particular, it made me think of The Valley of Gwangi, an old Willis O’Brien project that Harryhausen made in 1969, that brings together cowboys and dinosaurs.
The aliens in this Cowboys & Aliens move quickly and are shown in shots that do not last very long, whereas the monsters in Harryhausen’s films move slow enough to be seen. The lighting, composition, and animation of a Harryhausen monster are almost always such that the monster can be clearly seen. This is probably the main reason that fans love to see Harryhausen’s models on display. Even minus their animation, they are distinct characters. The most notable exception to this is Clash of the Titans, in which Medusa is shot in shadows and closeups that rarely show all of her, but even there her movements are slow and deliberate and you do not need to worry about missing anything if you blink. Of course, I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with aliens that move very fast, but the danger is that this can become monotonous. There’s no chance for the kind of suspense that Harryhausen gets out of the slowly coming to life and squeaky movements of Talos in Jason and the Argonauts or the tension that builds as the skeletons, ready to pounce, but not yet pouncing, spring from the ground one by one in the same film.
This is a Western. I would have loved to see variations of classic Western shootouts between an alien or two and a gunslinger. Or a version of the Mexican standoff, that Leone loved so much, but with aliens, Indians, and cowboys. These situations are all based on the rhythm of stillness and sudden release that is missing in Cowboys & Aliens. I thought one of the most memorable scenes in the film is the one in which the boy is trapped by an alien in a rock opening. It is effective is because the alien is in one place, threatening the character.
Is it an accident that this is similar to a scene from King Kong?
Cowboys & Aliens is hardly the first film to mix Western and science fiction elements. That honor appears to go to the Gene Autry serial, The Phantom Empire (1935). I remembered this film when speaking to my Dad about Cowboys & Aliens. (My Dad gave a copy of the film to my stepmother, a Gene Autry fan. She watched it until the science fiction elements entered, then said, more or less, “WTF!? Turn that crap off!” The Cowboys & Aliens producers should have taken note.) I saw The Phantom Empire, or at least part of it, many years ago when I stumbled upon it when it was being broadcast in the wee hours from a New York City station. Who could not be intrigued by a Western with a robot? The truth is that despite the advances in special effects evident since 1934, when The Phantom Empire was made, Cowboys & Aliens did not have any of the charm or sense of the marvelous as did the micro-budget Autry film. Read more about it here.
It’s certainly not the first time that the story of cowboys vs aliens was told. Although I’m sure this wasn’t the first time a comic book told this story, here’s a comic book cover featuring a story called “Cowboys and Aliens” which was published in 1995. The story is basically the same as that in the film: natural enemies cowboys and Indians put their differences aside to fight their common foe: monster invaders from outer space.
Former US President Regan said:
…I couldn’t help but say to him, just think how easy his task and mine might be in these meetings that we held if suddenly there was a threat to this planet from some other species from another planet outside in the universe. We’d forget all the little local differences that we have between our countries and we would find out once and for all that we really are all human beings here on this earth together. (See him say it here.)
Sometimes Cowboys & Aliens plays like a direct illustration of Regan’s hypothesis. The alien invasion unites all of the main natural enemies of the Western genre: good guys, bad guys, and aliens. The film shows them overcoming their differences and uniting against the aliens.
(Update: 8/17/11: The notion of salvation through alien invasion has popped up again, but apparently economist Paul Krugman was not inspired by Cowboys & Aliens, but by a nearly 50 year episode of Outer Limits, “The Architects of Fear,” when he recently said:
No, there was a Twilight Zone episode like this in which scientists fake an alien threat in order to achieve world peace. Well, this time…we need it in order to get some fiscal stimulus. (Source.)
Krugman’s mistaken in citing Twilight Zone as the source for the idea, but he could just as well have cited President Regan or even Watchmen, the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons well-known graphic novel. Imagine Paul Krugman as Ozymandias!
But there’s also another theme. The town is called Absolution and it’s presumably for a reason. Perhaps we’re supposed to think everyone is guilty of some kind of sin, or something as simple as not appreciating their loved ones enough until they are abducted by the aliens. You might even say that at least some of the characters are a bit like the aliens in that they value humans more for their gold than their value as a human being.
The abductions appear to follow a pattern. Saloon owner and wife fight, wife is abducted. Harrison Ford and his son fight, son is abducted. But this pattern is not developed enough to amount to anything. There’s enough of it to suggest a pattern, but not enough to make us sure the pattern is not accidental.
In the end, I would have preferred no theme at all, to all of these under-developed and confusing themes. Ford tells the kid to yell when he spots their “people” coming back, that is, the ones that were abducted. The truth is that I did not care whether or not they returned.
3. I love the idea: a mashup of the Western and alien invasion film. What I love most about this idea is that the replacement of Indians with aliens allows for the reintroduction of the mystery and wonder that explorers must have felt when discovering new lands and the strange people, as well as strange creatures in general, that inhabited them. The mashup can bring the sense of wonder that is the bread and butter of science fiction back to our own planet. But I think it would have worked better if the Western part of the equation came from a pioneer type Western. That is, pilgrims setting forth in covered wagons looking for the promised land out West, not knowing what strange encounters awaited them. Perhaps even better would be a Lewis and Clark type expedition with a small group heading into uncharted territory. They don’t know what they will be encountering and aliens would fit right in. After all, even today there’s enough unknown in the West to allow for the existence of Bigfoot, but more common is the experience of finding pretty much the same thing wherever we go: a McDonald’s and a Starbucks on every corner.
Of course, the pioneer idea is a different film, but if we like the idea of bringing back a sense of wonder and mystery to our own back yard, then we should get rid of the Olivia Wilde character. Her character is similar to the Indian guide that helps the white men track rebel Indians or translates whenever there’s an enounter with an Indian tribe. She’s also a bit like Star Trek’s Spock, especially in the similarity of her sacrifice to Spock’s in Wrath of Khan. But why do we want a character who can explain mysteries away so easily? The aliens are not like Indians because in Westerns the first encounter between White men and Indians already occurred centuries ago. In this film, the cowboys are encoutering the aliens for the first time. A translator character is helpful for the cowboys, but it hurts the impact of the story.
4. It appears that this is the season for alien abductions. First Super 8, now Cowboys & Aliens. Both produced by Steven Spielberg who also made Close Enounters of the Third Kind and, as a teenager, Firelight, two other films about alien abductions. It seems he’s really into this subject. No complaints, although I do wonder if they would be made without Spielberg. But I’d like to see someone do a mashup of Super 8 and Cowboys & Aliens.
5. Sure, it’s a great iconic image, but I’m not sure that I like Daniel Craig’s arm bracelet weapon. At least not how the film starts off with him already having it. It seems to give the cowboys too much of a head start. When you hear Cowboys & Aliens, you immediately wonder: how the devil can cowboys beat aliens? But when you see Craig with the weapon in the very first scene, you no longer are thinking that. Starting the film this way makes the film miss out on what could have been a great David vs Goliath story. One can only wonder how the cowboys could have won if they had not had the weapon or the help of the Olivia Wilde character.
THE POSTER THAT STARTED IT ALL
I love how the film essentially began with nothing more than a poster produced by Scott Rosenberg’s Platinum Studios. (Read the story here and here.) That poster was apparently pretty much the same as the image that was used as the cover for the comic:
So when critics refer to this film as yet another comic book movie, they are technically incorrect. They should be calling this a “poster movie.” The only precedent that I can think of for a poster movie is Glen or Glenda, as shown in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. Ed asks the producer if there’s a script. “F@!k no! But there’s a poster.”
Was this scene the secret source of Scott Rosenberg’s inspiration?
There is a Cowboys & Aliens graphic novel, but this was produced years after the poster that originally sold the concept. According to my son, who may be one of the few to have actually read it, the graphic novel has little in common with the film.
I love this story because I also began one of my projects, Star Man, with nothing more than a poster:
Another film that began as a poster:
The second project I sold on one line was when I was Creative Head of Cannon Films. I was talking to Stan Lee (creator of Spiderman, the Hulk, and other comic book heroes) and asked him if he had a super hero that was not tied to a studio. He said Captain America was available. I asked him to give me a poster of the ol’ Cap.
I took that poster into my boss’ office; Menachim Golen was an Israeli who probably didn’t know Captain America from Magic Johnson. I held the poster in front of Menachim, and said, “Menachim, you of all people should make this movie!” He looked at this masked hero with his skin-tight red, white, and blue uniform, a white star on his shirt, and said, “Let’s do it.” (Source.)
THE AFTERMATH (8/17/11)
The relative failure of Cowboys & Aliens at the boxoffice may not have come as a total surprise. Here is Jon Favreau at the Visionaries panel at Comic-Con more than a week before the film’s opening:
I think really what happens is if your movie makes money, you’re on a good list, if your movie doesn’t make money you are not on the good list and that changes all of the time. Right now after the IRON MAN movies I’m there, if this one works out I’ll be there, if not I’m in a different spot….
I started off with very little being an actor, I learned to live with not much and as I’ve built up I’ve never gotten cautious and even this movie to hear everybody cheer it is wonderful, because this was not the safe move, but I figured I was in a position to do something different, because as the movies get bigger to be honest with you they start to be the same. A lot of the movies this summer were versions of other things you have seen before and so I took a big risk. The secret though is that when it pays off, it’s wonderful, and if you fail and you are comfortable with that, then you’ve got to just keep doing it and then you stop taking the risks.
When Favreau said, “…if not I’m in a different spot” and “if you fail” suggest, in retrospect, that he was already preparing himself for the film’s failure and himself being “in a different spot.” Perhaps he premiered the film at Comic-Con knowing that this was one place where it was certain to be cheered and “to hear everybody cheer it is wonderful.”
1. Who were the people doing the grunt work of running the Treasure Hunt? Interns, according to the people at Cowboys & Aliens HQ. What that most likely means is that they were unpaid workers, working as “interns” for the summer in the hope that such a credit will look good on their resume or that they will make connections that will lead somewhere they want to go. I hope it worked out for them. The Industry would be very different without its “interns.” Most people outside of the film industry have no idea how much work is done without pay by interns. They are not necessarily called interns. I did it myself, working without pay on Watchers III part time for a couple of months, mostly syncing dailies. Roger Corman has an executive producer credit on it and the work I did was done at his Concorde studio in Venice, California, not far from where Orson Welles shot much of Touch of Evil. (Unfortunately, I did not get to meet Corman.) What I remember most is when Peter, my supervisor, informed me upon my arrival at work that I had screwed up. The sound had been out of sync for that morning’s daily screening. Quite embarrassing, but not surprising given the lack of traditional sync markings on much of the footage. Also unsurprisingly, the job led nowhere. I didn’t even get a credit.
2. Promotions similar to the Cowboys & Aliens treasure hunt might be something we will be seeing more of in the future. Smartphone + texting + running legs = a lot of people chasing after something having to do with a promotion. You could be next!
The president of Universal Studios, Ron Meyer, was surprisingly candid in his assessment of this film this week at the Savannah Film Festival:
Cowboys & Aliens wasn’t good enough. Forget all the smart people involved in it, it wasn’t good enough. All those little creatures bouncing around were crappy. I think it was a mediocre movie, and we all did a mediocre job with it. […] Cowboys & Aliens was a big loss, and Land of the Lost was a huge loss. We misfired. We were wrong. We did it badly, and I think we’re all guilty of it. I have to take first responsibility because I’m part of it, but we all did a mediocre job and we paid the price for it. It happens. They’re talented people. Certainly you couldn’t have more talented people involved in Cowboys & Aliens, but it took, you know, ten smart and talented people to come up with a mediocre movie. It just happens. (Source.)
Does anyone believe that Meyer would be saying anything like this if Cowboys had lit up the box office? What does he mean when he says “we paid the price for it?” Who is “we” exactly? He, for one, does not appear in danger of losing his job. Perhaps he had to give up some stock? That’s really paying the price. I wonder if he knows what “good” is. Did he know the movie was “mediocre” before it was shown to audiences, or did it slowly dawn on him as he watched the box office returns come in?
THE CONTEST (CLOSED)
How would you like to win a gold brick containing a Large size T-shirt, a wristband and a 7-11 drink coupon?
This is what you have to do:
Blog, tweet or post to facebook about this contest, making sure that you link back to this blog.
The more ways you publicize this contest/blog post, the more likely you are to win.
Each blog post, tweet, facebook post, etc counts as one point.
Make sure that you leave a comment with a link about your blog post, tweet or facebook post. Please don’t forget to include your email address so that we can get in touch with you (if you win!)
The contest ends Friday, August 5th at midnight PST. Winner will be chosen and announced on Monday, August 8th.
One winner will be selected randomly.
Thanks and good luck!