4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

“Get off my plains!” — Cowboys & Aliens

Platinum Studios released Cowboys & Aliens in 2006. The storyline, conceived by Platinum’s Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, had been in development since 1997, both as a graphic novel and as a film. Universal and Dreamworks bought the rights to the concept, which Rosenberg eventually put out as a 105-page graphic novel written by Fred Van Lente and Andrew Foley, with art by Dennis Calero and Luciano Lima.

The movie finally came out in 2011.

Platinum was created by Rosenberg specifically to create graphic novel properties that could then be turned into films or TV shows. (Full disclosure: Your humble rewatcher started a project with Platinum, a horror/comedy miniseries, but I only wrote the script for one issue before I was removed from the series as the editors and I couldn’t get on the same page.)

While the movie was languishing in development hell, Rosenberg commissioned a big graphic novel, and priced it cheaply (it was $4.99, despite the 100+ page count) in order to goose sales. Having a top-selling graphic novel got the movie itself jump-started, particularly in the early 2000s when everyone and her sister was interested in doing a comic-book movie following the success of Marvel properties Blade, X-Men, and Spider-Man.

Robert Downey Jr. was originally set to play the lead in the film, but then wound up bowing out to do Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. However, he had mentioned the project to Jon Favreau, his director on the first two Iron Man movies, and Favreau wound up taking over as director off a script that had been rewritten by Bad Robot veterans Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof.

After Downey Jr. pulled out, James Bond his own self, Daniel Craig, was cast in the lead role of Jake Lonergan, an outlaw who is a combination of the two main characters of the comic book, the gunslingers Zeke Jackson and Verity Jones. Harrison Ford was cast as a new semi-antagonistic character, Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde, with Olivia Wilde playing Ella Swenson, a reworked version of the sympathetic alien Ra Chak Kai from the comic.

The cast is rounded out by an impressive bunch of thespians: Clancy Brown as a preacher, Sam Rockwell (with whom Favreau had just worked on Iron Man 2) as the saloon owner, Walton Goggins as a thug, Keith Carradine as the sheriff, Adam Beach as Dolarhyde’s right-hand man, Raoul Trujillo as the Chiricahua Apache chief, Abigail Spencer as Lonergan’s wife, and Ana de la Reguera as the saloon owner’s wife.

 

“Only two kinds of men get shot, criminals and victims—which one are you?”

Cowboys & Aliens
Written by Mark Fergus & Hawk Otsby and Steve Oedekirk and Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof
Directed by Jon Favreau
Produced by Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Scott Mitchell Rosenberg
Original release date: July 29, 2011

Jake Lonergan—who doesn’t remember that that’s his name—wakes up in the late-19th-century New Mexico desert, a strange piece of refined metal attached to his left wrist, which he can’t remove. He also has a wound in his side that he thinks must be a gunshot wound.

He’s ambushed by three cowboys and a dog, but Lonergan takes them out single-handedly and then raids their bodies for clothes, weaponry, money, and horses. Accompanied by the dog, he rides into the nearest town, Absolution, where he takes refuge in the church. Reverend Meacham sews up his wound—which he says is like no gunshot wound he’s ever seen.

Outside, a young man is shooting his gun wildly in the street. He’s Percy Dolarhyde, and his father is Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde, whose cattle are the only thing keeping Absolution solvent as a town. For that reason, Percy thinks he can get away with anything, and he seems to be right.

Lonergan doesn’t take well to his antics, and knees him in the groin, then walks away from him. Angered, Percy tells him to stop and turn around, then fires his weapon to the side to punctuate his point—except his shot wounds a deputy in the shoulder. Sheriff Taggart is forced to arrest Percy. Dolarhyde’s right-hand, Nat Colorado, urges Taggart to reconsider, but Taggart has no choice.

Three of Dolarhyde’s men are guarding his cattle, and one of them is drunk and talking shit about Dolarhyde. He goes to the river to relieve himself, and suddenly a blast of some kind destroys the cattle, vaporizes the other two cowhands, and sends the drunk cowhand into the river.

Taggart noticed a wanted sign that has Lonergan’s face—and name—on it. Reluctantly, Taggart goes to the saloon to arrest Lonergan, who puts up a fight, but winds up in the cell next to Percy. Lonergan is taken down by a mysterious woman named Ella, who tried to chat him up at the bar, and who snuck up behind him and clubbed him on the head while he was remonstrating with Taggart and his deputies.

Dolarhyde is not happy with the surviving cowhand, and he’s in the midst of torturing him when Colorado arrives to say that Percy was arrested.

Taggart puts Percy and Longeran in a stage in order to take them to Santa Fe and the Federal Marshal. Ella tries to talk to Lonergan, but is disheartened when she realizes that he’s amnesiac.

Dolarhyde and a large number of his employees show up carrying torches before Taggart can ride out on the stage. He wants Percy freed—and he also wants Lonergan, as one of the many things he’s wanted for is robbing gold from a stage. That gold belonged to Dolarhyde.

Before the standoff can be resolved, everyone is transfixed by strange lights in the sky. Several large metal objects fly through the sky and lasso several people in the town—including the saloon owner Doc’s wife and Percy and the sheriff—taking them away.

But during the battle, the bracelet on Lonergan’s left wrist activates and becomes an energy weapon. It is considerably more effective against the invaders than bullets, and downs one of the vessels.

After the creatures bugger off, Dolarhyde wants to organize a posse to go after them and retrieve his son and the rest—and he wants Lonergan in the lead, as his weapon is the only effective one they have.

Taggart’s grandson and Ella come along, as does the dog, tracking the blood trail of the one piloting the vessel that Lonergan downed. Lonergan detours to a cabin where he remembers bits and pieces of his previous life, including a pile of gold he stole (presumably Dolarhyde’s), a woman he’s in love with, and both of them being abducted by the strange creatures.

It starts to rain, and the posse takes refuge in a boat that is upside down and in the middle of the desert for no reason that the script ever bothers to explain. They’re attacked by the alien, who kills Meacham. The next morning, most of Dolarhyde’s people have run away, scared. The remaining posse—Lonergan, Ella, Dolarhyde, Emmett Taggart (the sheriff’s grandson), Colorado, and Doc—head out after burying Meacham. They’re ambushed by a gang that turns out to be Lonergan’s old crew. Before Lonergan can try to get them on his side without his memory, the aliens attack again, kidnapping folks.

They grab Ella and Lonergan rides after the ship that takes her, catching up to a supersonic vessel on a horse, er, somehow. He uses the wrist-mounted weapon to blast her free, and they splash down in the river. The ship’s pilot fatally wounds Ella before Lonergan can kill it. Lonergan carries her back to the others, hoping Doc can help her, but it’s too late.

Then they’re ambushed again, this time by a bunch of Chiricahua Apaches. Their chief, Black Knife, takes them prisoner and puts Ella’s corpse on a funeral pyre. But then Ella wakes up and climbs out of the fire, completely healed. (And also completely naked, as the pyre burned away her clothes, but Lonergan gives her a blanket because it’s a PG-13 movie.)

She finally explains who she is: she’s also an alien, like the people attacking New Mexico and kidnapping the citizens of Absolution, but a different species. The bad guys destroyed her homeworld and killed most of her people. Ella came to Earth and took on human form to better make allies among the Earth people and try to save them. But she doesn’t know where their ship is.

Lonergan should, but he’s still amnesiac. Black Knife takes custody of him and take him on a vision quest to retrieve his lost memories. He finally remembers himself and his wife being taken, his wife being experimented on and eventually killed, Lonergan himself managing to escape by wounding the alien scientist with one of his tools and then winding up accidentally with the bracelet on his wrist after his arm accidentally moved too close to it lying on a table.

After Lonergan escaped, he collapsed in the desert, where we saw him at the top of the movie. Now he remembers where the alien ship was, and he leads the Apaches and the remnants of Dolarhyde’s posse there. He also detours to recruit his old gang to help out.

Together, they ambush the ship, placing several sticks of dynamite on one of the portholes, which lures the aliens out. Lonergan and Ella sneak into the ship the same way he previously came out, while Dolarhyde, Black Knife, and the rest do battle with the aliens. (At first Black Knife is unwilling to follow Dolarhyde’s lead, but Colorado waxes rhapsodic about Dolarhyde’s skills as a warrior.)

Colorado is one of the many casualties—Emmett almost is, too, but he stabs the alien attacking him with a knife that Dolarhyde gave him earlier in the movie. Meanwhile, Ella and Lonergan are able to free the prisoners and send them out—including Doc’s wife, Taggart, and Percy.

Ella is able to help Lonergan get the bracelet off and then she takes it into the ship’s core. Lonergan is then attacked by the same scientist who killed his wife, but the timely arrival of Dolarhyde saves him.

The alien ship prepares for takeoff. Dolarhyde and Lonergan clear out, and then the ship explodes in midair—the final sacrifice by Ella, killing the remaining aliens and destroying their ship.

The town of Absolution starts to return to normal. Dolarhyde and Taggart agree to tell the world that Lonergan—who’s still wanted, after all—died in the desert. And then he rides off into the sunset…

 

“My pa is coming for me—he learned how to kill a man good and slow in the war”

Screenshot: Universal Pictures

This had all the fixings of a great movie. The cast is stellar, starting with casting James Bond and Indiana Jones as the two male leads, all the way down to the great support from Sam Rockwell and Clancy Brown. The special effects are quite impressive, the CGI mixing with practical effects to create both the aliens and their ships, and Favreau shot on film rather than digitally to give it that Western feel. (Dreamworks originally wanted it to be in 3D, but Favreau scotched that.)

And yet the movie fizzled like a flat bottle of soda, becoming the biggest flop of 2011.

Watching the movie again, it’s easy enough to find the culprit: a lifeless script that ticks all the boxes but forgets to bother making the characters into anything other than stereotypes. In that, it fits in with the philosophy of its publisher. During my very brief period working with Platinum, I was frustrated by the focus on what’s hip, on what tropes should be used, on what kinds of things should be in that type of story, with almost no emphasis on telling a good story or coming up with interesting characters. And Cowboys & Aliens has the exact same problem.

Exacerbating the issue is a director who decides to play it 100% straight. Perhaps the most damning indictment of this movie that’s actually called Cowboys & Aliens is that there is absolutely no sense of fun at any point in the movie. This is an alien invasion story mixed with a classic Western, and it should be tons and tons of fun, and instead it’s a lifeless, cliché-drenched slog.

Favreau is generally a good director, but his every instinct is wrong here, not aided by a script that feels like it was written by a committee, and then you look at the writing credits (based on a comic book conceived by one guy and written by two other people, and with the story and screenplay credits going to six other guys), and realize that it feels that way for a reason.

And none of those latter six guys were able to do something that at least the comic managed, which was to make the aliens interesting. They come across as mindless CGI soldiers who shout a lot, which would work if they weren’t also supposed to be experimenting on people and operating mining equipment. They fight like idiots—I particularly love the turkey shoot in the ship where Lonergan just picks them off because it never occurs to any of the aliens that they shouldn’t attack one-by-one through a bottleneck—and they let themselves get beat by people who shouldn’t last four seconds against them. The aliens instead are just video game monsters that you have to shoot enough times so that they lose all their hit points and fall down. Snore.

There are several homages to other movies here, but all they serve to do is remind of movies that are way better than this one. The opening is a riff on the beginning of Silverado; the first appearance of the alien ships as they’re about to attack Absolution is similar to the lightshow from Close Encounters of the Third Kind; the bit where they take refuge in the abandoned riverboat is right out of Alien; and Lonergan jumping onto the ship from his horse is from Stagecoach (and about fifty other Westerns).

It’s particularly amusing that they chose Silverado to homage at the top of the movie, because that’s an example of this type of movie done right. The heyday of Westerns was long past by the time Silverado came out in 1985, but it was done as a tribute to them—but it was also fun. Not only that, but Silverado gave you more of a sense of depth of character with one line (“Where’s the dog, Paden?”), followed by sad embittered silence from Kevin Kline, than Cowboys & Aliens can scrape together in its entire running time.

Instead, we get the amnesiac cowboy, which allows Daniel Craig to be even more stoic than usual, because he doesn’t actually know anything. We get the evil authority figure who has to cover for his stupid son. We get the saloon owner trying to learn how to shoot and failing, not actually aiming properly until he can save the life of one of the leads. We get the Moment Of Awareness when Dolarhyde realizes that Colorado was a better son to him than his ne’er-do-well offspring. We get the Inevitable Kiss between Lonergan and Ella, and we also get the capture by Natives followed by teaming up with them, and here I am clubbing my head against the wall, because I’m just stultified by all this cliché-mongering without a single character hook—not stereotype hook, but character hook—to latch onto.

Well, okay, two singles. There is a hint of fun in Clancy Brown’s Reverend Meacham, as pretty much every funny line in this movie comes out of his mouth. But then he dies saving the little kid, and the movie pretty much dies with him.

And then there’s Harrison Ford.

We think of Ford mostly in terms of his iconic roles as Han Solo and Indiana Jones, but it’s very easy to lose track of how good an actor he is. Whatever virtues the entirety of the slog of Cowboys & Aliens have are almost completely on Ford’s back, because he completely sells Dolarhyde. This is a man who has seen it all, has done it all, and has no patience with fools—and also believes that everyone who isn’t him is a fool. He has given away his entire supply of fucks and has none left, nor any interest in obtaining more. It’s a bravura performance, one that stands out, as he and Brown are the only ones who are able to take their collection of clichés and turn them into people. Sam Rockwell and Olivia Wilde do their best, but there’s no there there. And Craig is actively awful, muttering his way through the part, mistaking talking in a low monotone for acting. (Hilariously, Craig sounds more like an old-fashioned cowboy in the trailer for Knives Out than he does in this movie where he’s playing one.)

Ford is worth seeing here, but it’s not nearly enough to make this movie anything other than mediocre.

 

Next week, a look at the world of espionage as we examine the adaptation of Warren Ellis & Cully Hamner’s RED.

Keith R.A. DeCandido will be at Shore Leave 41 this weekend as an author and music guest, the latter with his band Boogie Knights. Other guests include actors Nichelle Nichols, Anson Mount, Ethan Peck, Michael Shanks, Lexa Doig, John Glover, Erica Durance, Aaron Ashmore, Laura Vandervoort, and Alex Mallari, and more fellow authors and science guests that can possibly be listed here. Three anthologies that have stories by Keith will be debuting at the con: Thrilling Adventure YarnsFootprints in the Stars, and Brave New Girls: Adventures of Gals and Gizmos. His full schedule can be found here.

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