Rewrites: Cowboys & Aliens
1. Cowboys & Aliens 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.
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:
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.”