With Cowboys & Aliens, Iron Man director Jon Favreau attempts to mash up the Western genre with science fiction. How well does it work? We've seen the first two reels, and they conjure a robust John Wayne sensibility.
We also got the chance to talk to Favreau about his Western and scifi influences, and how his movie pays tribute to producer Steven Spielberg's early classics. And why he's aiming to make something more than the average blockbuster.
Back in November, we had the chance to visit the edit bay for Jon Favreau's upcoming movie Cowboys & Aliens, where we had the chance to see a rough cut of the first two reels of the movie. And now we've got the go-ahead to go into a bit more detail. While we still can't go into a ton of specifics, we're allowed to give our general impressions.
Simply put, everything we saw justified our early excitement. The movie is clearly made by people with a deep reverence and understanding for the Western genre — something that became even more clear during our subsequent Q&A with Favreau — and there's nothing jokey or twee about how the two wildly different genres fit together.
The footage we saw suggested a confident, deliberate film that wants to do right by both of its major influences. The Western elements aren't just a backdrop for some alien carnage — Cowboys & Aliens takes the time to realize the tiny town of Absolution as an authentic place, somewhere with history and conflicts that long predate the arrival of extraterrestrials.
Indeed, if the aliens never bothered to show up, the basic situation could easily still be a compelling film as a straight Western — albeit one that, as Favreau pointed out, no studio would ever green-light. We have less to go on when it comes to the aliens, but if the science fiction is handled half as well as the Western elements, we should be in very good hands.
As with previous Favreau efforts like the Iron Man movies, a lot of the film's strength comes from the cast, a point that Favreau himself stressed. James Bond star Daniel Craig makes a successful transition to the Old West, complete with convincing American accent. As Colonel Dolarhyde, Harrison Ford takes a step away from his usual persona for something a little darker and nastier, and Olivia Wilde remains a beguiling presence that defies easy categorization.
We see the amnesiac stranger, played by Craig, staggering into the town of Absolution, with no memory and no clues except for a mysterious shackle on one wrist. He soon discovers that the town lives in absolute fear, under the control of Col. Dolarhyde — and they don't much like strangers there.
With an actor's director like Favreau at the helm, it's not surprising that Cowboys & Aliens is the rare action movie gives its cast room to work. Of course, when your supporting players include the likes of Sam Rockwell, Keith Carradine, There Will Be Blood's Paul Dano, Justified's Walton Goggins, and all-purpose genre badass Clancy Brown, that's exactly what you want to see.
Many of the characters are essentially Western genre archetypes, but Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman's script gives each character enough detail for the actors to really run with them. In some ways, this feels like the follow-up to the similarly actor-driven Iron Man in a way that Iron Man 2 never quite did.
After we watched the footage, Jon Favreau sat down with us reporters for an epic hour-long Q&A. He discussed some of his key influences in making the film - on the science fiction side, he primarily looked at Steven Spielberg's early science fiction, particularly Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The movie's structure, he explained, allows it to move at a very methodical pace and yet still transfix modern audiences because Spielberg knows just when to "knock you on your ass" with a big moment or setpiece.
He also pointed to the mysterious nature of the aliens in Close Encounters as a key part of their success, arguing the aliens work best when they're mostly left to our imagination and allowed to tap directly into the audience's subconscious. What also attracted him to these early Spielberg movies like Close Encounters, E.T., and even Jaws is that they use the fantastical situation to work through very real problems for their human characters.
On the Western side, the name we kept hearing was John Ford, the legendary director behind such classics as Stagecoach, The Searchers, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, all of which star genre titan John Wayne. He also pointed to 1960s efforts like The Professionals and The Wild Bunch, both of which he suggested were successful unions of the Western and the then-emerging action genres, in much the same way Cowboys & Aliens fuses together the Western and the alien invasion.
Favreau explained that Western movies actually offer a natural, if unexpected thematic overlap with a lot of early alien movies. Movies like Clint Eastwood's High Plains Drifter, he argued, place a spiritual dimension on the gunfighter in a way that lines up with the ideas thrown around in a lot of alien movies:
A lot of alien and western movies are about dealing with coming to terms with moving to the next world. Drifting through this purgatory of a town, setting things right and moving on. In Seven Samurai, a little microcosm of life, what are you going to do in this moment, what do for stand for, what mark are you leaving here, and in Westerns it's a very contained little few days or weeks, but it's the larger question that we don't really face every day.
This deep understanding of Westerns was, according to Favreau, essential to making Cowboys & Aliens a serious film. He looked extensively at how old Western movies were filmed, and tried to bring as much of that as he could to this movie. At the same time, he explained that they didn't want to go too far and undercut the movie's science fiction aspects by making it beholden to the Western material:
We didn't want to go steampunk either, which is the other way to go where you cutesy up the scifi. You want the scifi to stand on its own too. The cowboys were in the old West and they didn't know aliens were coming, and the aliens didn't know they were going to the old West – they're both coming from their place. You find that common ground, that intersection of those two genres... and if you do it right, it honors both, and it becomes interesting and clever and a reinvention of something people understand the conventions of — instead of just a retread or a remake of something you've seen before.
The comparisons to Close Encounters and E.T. aren't simply rooted in their narrative structure, either - Favreau made it clear that part of his goal with this movie is to make the sort of entertainment that can be enjoyed equally by both children and adults. He's hoping the movie will work for genre fans, kids and adults alike who want rousing action entertainment, and also people who are looking for a somewhat smarter breed of blockbuster.
On this last point, he looked at how the movie manages to bridge the gap between the Western and science fiction elements, and how the movie makes it even conceivable that such technologically primitive cowboys could stand a chance against such powerful aliens:
The trick is to do it in a way that's plausible. But you're faced with such insurmountable odds that people are like, "There's no way…" A lot of the key is just having good material and good writing. And on this one, it's not like we're pulling it out of our asses as we go. It was very well laid out, very well planned, and we had a lot of discussion, a lot of actors who called me to task on things that seemed too convenient and we made sure we [considered] each step. So we create the rules and we find ways to solve the puzzle. And that's the fun thing about what we're doing now is really earning our intelligent audience, making sure they're on board, not just people who want see things blow up. But if you do want to see stuff blow up, there's plenty of that. We've got it! More than we've ever had. It gets bigger every step of the way.
Favreau suggested that the movie gains a more epic scope than other alien invasion movies simply from being so firmly rooted in the Western genre, as this is the area where American filmmakers have told some of the biggest, grandest stories in the history of cinema. This, he hopes, is part of what will set Cowboys & Aliens apart from this summer's other big blockbuster genre movies:
Now [we are taking] those [archetypal Western] characters and some of the actors who played them and put them right squarely back into this, and then all the richness that you're allowed to store in a Western, because you're really dealing with big dreams in Western. [Westerns were] the way the American artform could discuss big operatic themes and so it's fun to bring that into the genre, not in a tongue-in-cheek way, and really to make people feel something and make them feel scared, make them feel lost, make them feel hope and make it an emotional ride. You know we're not going for anything lofty here but I'm going for something that has more impact than just popcorn [entertainment].