Cowboys & Aliens: Extended Edition (2011)
Jon Favreau’s genre mashup Cowboys & Aliens embodies Hollywood’s current penchant for the high concept movie. I imagine when this film was pitched to the executive board at the studio, it was only a matter of seconds before it was given the green light. The western in recent years has become a commercially viable genre once again. Plus, anything with aliens usually strikes gold at the box office. Put them together with a director who has a track record of producing commercial successful material (Iron Man, The Jungle Book) along with several bankable box office stars (Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford) and you’ll definitely have a winner on your hands? Except on this occasion the movie was received poorly by both the critics and the public alike. With a production cost of $163 million, Cowboys & Aliens only made $178 million worldwide. So what exactly went wrong?
Cowboys & Aliens is a flawed movie. The two genres actually intersect far less on screen that you expect. The explanation for the alien incursion on earth is somewhat weak, even by the standard of these sorts of movies, involving their requirement for gold. Furthermore, as the story proceeds it gets diverted on side issues associated with secondary cast members. However, instead of embellishing the story, it tends to slow the pace and adds nothing of substance to the narrative. There are sequences when the blending of the sci-fi and westerns genres works well but they are mainly action scenes. Obviously with a film of this budget you cannot fault the technical aspects of the production. The alien design and associated culture is very well realised. Yet the movie ultimately doesn’t meet one’s expectations. If you think about other western crossover movies like Red Sun, which featured cowboys and samurai, that too fell down in the same fashion as this one. Both films fail to balance the elements of their respective genres and spend to much time setting up the narrative rather than pursuing it.
The cast are one of Cowboys & Aliens greatest assets, although some are somewhat squandered. Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford carry the production by their screen presence. One smoulders in a minimalist fashion, while the other exudes that gruff cynicism that seniority brings. The remainder of the quality cast are not quite so lucky as they’re given precious little to work with. They serve to expedite the story and no more. This is a criminal waste of fine character actors such as Keith Carradine, Clancy Brown and Sam Rockwell. And when we are presented with a scene that should be pivotal to the story arc and the emotional development of the characters, it tends to fall flat rather than resonate with any dramatic impact. Favreau seems to be far too interested in all aspects of the production, bar the performances. When you consider the writing credits, consisting of Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, it does indicate that the screenplay has gone through numerous iterations and revisions. Certainly, the movie seems to have strayed from the source graphic novel.
Those who will get the most out of Cowboys & Aliens will be viewers who are less familiar with the sci-fi genre. So many of the ideas and concepts present in the film have been done before and unfortunately for this movie, done better. So many questions and ideas are raised by the story but go unexplored or are just glossed over. What it does provide is adequate genre movie making in the modern idiom, that is sufficiently entertaining for those who are undemanding. It sadly does nothing more which is a damn shame, as this could have been a far better movie in the hands of more experienced film makers. Someone with a track record of taking common ideas in new directions. Someone like Alex Cox, Walter Hill, or even Duncan Jones. What would they have brought to the proceedings? Sadly, at present Hollywood has too many directors who understand the mechanics of film making and can manage a complex effects driven production, but who seem to have lost a fundamental connection to the narrative cinema.
The theatrical version of Cowboys & Aliens ran for 119 minutes. The Extended Edition or Extended Director’s Cut at it was marketed in Europe, adds a further 16 minutes of material. This is mostly minor plot embellishments and character interactions. There are two additional scenes where wounds are treated but they are far from explicit. This longer version still falls within the parameters of a 12/PG-13 rating. Further details can be found at movie-censorship.com along with screen captures of the new material.