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Cowboys & Aliens

Entry updated 16 January 2023. Tagged: Film.

Film (2011). Dreamworks Pictures, Universal Pictures, and Reliance Entertainment in association with Relativity Media present an Imagine Entertainment/KO Paper Products/Fairview Entertainment/Platinum Studios production. Directed by Jon Favreau. Written by Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof and Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby; story by Fergus & Ostby and Steve Oedekerk, based on Cowboys and Aliens (graph 2006) by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg. Cast includes Keith Carradine, Daniel Craig, Paul Dano, Harrison Ford and Olivia Wilde. 119 minutes. Colour.

Amnesiac outlaw Jake Lonergan (Craig) wakes up in the desert with a mystery Weapon on his wrist; it emerges that he was abducted by gold-hunting, cattle-mutilating Aliens who have killed his wife, and he bands with the local landowner (Ford), sheriff (Carradine), and Apache to rescue the remaining abductees with the help of a mystery woman (Wilde) who is revealed as an extraterrestrial survivor of genocide.

A staggering amount of talent was flung at this high-concept flop over fifteen years as it bounced between studios; Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard were consulting producers, Guillermo Del Toro advised on the alien design, and the script credits, which name only six of at least twelve writers involved, are a gallery of A-list screenwriters. (To aid parsing, it may be worth recalling that in WGA syntax the operator "&" precedes "and"; that the former brackets members of a co-writing team while the latter separates drafts by different hands, normally but not always in left-to-right order; and that story credits generally credit earlier drafts of the script. In this case Orci and Kurtzman were initially producers but subsequently took over the writing from Fergus and Ostby and engaged Lindelof as their own co-writer.) The title was the subject of a complex intellectual-property trade history, beginning as a 16-page 1995 ashcan title by Tom Arvis for Sureshot Comics, sold as a trademark only to Rosenberg and pitched on that basis to DreamWorks and Universal; Oedekerk's unused comedy version dates from this phase, after which Rosenberg purchased the full rights from Arvis, developed a new comic under the title, and sold that to the studios instead, whereupon the comic was promptly jettisoned anyway and a new story erected in its place.

Favreau and his writers were keen to move away from the bantering ironic tone of their Iron Man films and treat the project seriously both as Western and as UFO film, in which they were encouraged by Spielberg. The film is most interesting in its exploration of sf tropes such as Aliens, Ray Guns, Spaceships, and Colonization of Other Worlds in a period setting which is unable to interpret them as the audience can and has to learn their genre grammar from scratch. Some modestly ingenious matches are found between the western and saucer genres – the cattle mutilations, the man with no name or past – but the film is a little too in love with recreating the Hollywood western to develop these in any depth, and the overearnest tone and performances inhibit more ironic forms of genre play. The novelization is Cowboys & Aliens (2011) by Joan D Vinge. [NL]


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