"Cowboys and Aliens."

There is a bluntness to that title which should help it cut through the noise that surrounds the summer season, or at least that's the gamble that Universal's making.  This film has been in development longer than I've been working as an online writer, but in different forms.  It took a long time before they finally clicked into the creative team that finally took it from "title in search of an idea" to the film we'll finally see onscreen this year.

And this is a case of a title that existed before a story.  The comic book was an attempt to develop the material in some form after Platinum Studios had optioned the title and a drawing to Hollywood in the first place.  The project went through a lot of hands, and it was one of those things that seemed like it would never happen.    And not because anyone got it wrong, per se, but rather because it seems like there's so few ways to get it exactly right.  That's the thing about these genre mash-up movies.  Once you get past the high concept notion, you still have to make a real movie that stands on its own.

Last November, a group of writers was invited to Santa Monica to sit down with Jon Favreau in the editing room for "Cowboys and Aliens," and we ended up seeing the first 40 minutes of the film before talking to the director for about an hour.  I've known Favreau for a while now, and I can tell you that the enthusiasm he has for this movie is different than anything I've seen from him during production of a film, and that includes the first "Iron Man."  Whatever "Cowboys and Aliens" ends up being, Favreau seems pleased with it, and I have a strong feeling audiences are going to agree.

I've actually seen that presentation of the first 40 minutes twice now.  The second time was about a month later at Butt-Numb-A-Thon, and I wrote about that in December.  Here's what I had to say about the footage at that point:

Jon Favreau, Bob Orci, and Ron Howard came rolling in, and they brought a full 40 minutes of footage with them for next summer's "Cowboys and Aliens."  I'd actually seen this at a recent visit to the editing room, just before the release of the trailer for the movie, and I'm impressed with it.  Starting with Daniel Craig waking up alone in the desert, confused, his wrist wrapped in some sort of mechanical device, no memory of who he is or how he got there, the film moves quickly.  Even before the main title comes up, we get a look at Craig in action, taking out a group of armed men, even tackling one of them off a horse. 

Clancy Brown, Keith Carradine, Sam Rockwell, and Adam Beach all show up in interesting roles as townspeople who have to struggle with the iron fist of Col. Dollarhyde, played with appropriate grizzle by Harrison Ford, and his idiot son Percy, played by Paul Dano.  One of the best things about the footage is the near-constant abuse that Dano takes, and I hope it's a running thread in the film.  Craig and Ford both come across as big giant alpha males, and the idea of the two of them having to work together to sort out the mystery of what happened to Craig and what happened to the townspeople that are abducted in the action set piece that wrapped up the sequence we saw. 

I like the slow burn in the 40 minutes we saw, the emphasis on character, the Western tropes played just right.  Olivia Wilde plays a local woman who seems to know something about Craig and his troubles, and we saw some footage that hinted at a larger mystery involving her.  Favreau seems cautiously optimistic about the film so far, excited by what he's doing, and Ron Howard couldn't have been more effusive in his praise right before it played.  They were smart to show an uninterrupted chunk of the movie like this, because it demonstrates exactly what the tone is, and how the genre mash-up will work when it's finished.

There's not much I can add without spoiling it beat-for-beat, but I'll say that the thing that worried me most was the feeling I've had for the last however-many years now that Harrison Ford's heart isn't in the films he makes these days.  Seeing him here, I feel like this is the real magic trick that Favreau pulled off, more than any special effect that ILM is working on.  Col. Dollarhyde starts the movie as a figure of fear for everyone in town, and even in what we saw, the way that he plays him and the way his character starts to evolve suggests that this is going to be one of the roles that defines Ford and his career, a new benchmark in his filmography.  Setting him against Daniel Craig is a great idea, and it's always fun to watch one generation of onscreen machismo hand things off to the next.

What was obvious as we spoke to Favreau about the film is that he's well aware of the value of iconography, especially in dealing with this genre.  The Hollywood Western has been bent and twisted and broken and reconstructed so many times that it's hard to bring something fresh to it.  Much of what we saw was simply a western, without any science-fiction mixed in, and you can immediately see the archetypes that Favreau is playing with.  We're deep into John Ford territory in this film, and Favreau invoked the names of John Wayne and Steve McQueen when talking about the roles that Ford and Craig are playing.  Silver City is populated with a great cast of character actors who all seem to be in the middle of another movie that has nothing to do with aliens.  The key for me to a great Western town is a sense of life, believing that these people really are somehow holding together a community in the midst of what was still a terrifying wilderness.  This movie does that very well, and I'm excited to see more of Sam Rockwell and Clancy Brown and Keith Carradine and the rest as the movie plays out.

Putting a group together to face an enemy is a major tradition in Western films.  "All the people they meet along the way, all these different groups coming together, a ragtag group finally confronting this unapproachable enemy… that's what's fun about a good Western like 'The Magnificent Seven.'  How are they going to defeat this enemy?  It's all about heart and faith," Favreau told us.  I'm glad I've seen nothing from the later part of the film, because I want to enjoy whatever surprises Favreau and his writers Bob Orci, Roberto Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof have in store for us.

So if all the Western stuff works on its own, why even bother introducing an extraterrestrial element?  Well, as Favreau explained, that was the only way the film was going to get made.  'I could have come to the studio with a movie called 'And Aliens' and they would have greenlit that, but if I came to them with a movie called 'Cowboys,' no matter who was in it, I would not have gotten that made."  That seems sort of blunt, but realistic.  "Westerns are troublesome in the marketplace, but alien invasion movies seem to be universally well-received."  So this is almost a smuggling act that Favreau pulled off.  He's getting to make a traditional Western and using his FX-event movie experience to soup it up in a way that the marketing people have to be loving.

I think he's avoided many of the pitfalls of this idea.  It is not, for example, "The Wild Wild West," where they tried to make all the technology sort of steampunky and Old Westy.  As he explained it, "The cowboys lived in the Old West and didn't know there were aliens coming, and the aliens didn't know they were going to the Old West.  You have to find a common ground, an intersection of those two genres."  It pleases me to hear how firm a grasp Favreau has on the value of the Western, and how limber it is on a metaphorical level.  "Westerns were the American artform where you could discuss big operatic themes."

Obviously, I haven't seen the whole film, but just from the time we spent with the director and based on what he had to say about his vision for the film, I'm feeling confident that it's going to be a serious attempt at adding something to both of those genres.  We couldn't ask any more of the cast and crew, and I look forward to unraveling the surprises and mysteries of "Cowboys and Aliens" when it hits theaters on July 29, 2011.