The cast boasted Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Paul Dano, Sam Rockwell and Walton Goggins. Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg were on board as producer and executive producer respectively. Damon Lindleof was one of the writers. Jon Favreau was in the director’s chair. And all that’s before you even get to the main attraction: Cowboys! AND! Aliens! With the deck stacked so absurdly in its favor, with all the possible ingredients to make the perfect summer blockbuster, how did it go so wrong?
The plot: It’s 1873, and amnesiac cowboy Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) arrives in the town of Absolution with a strange metal device on his wrist and no idea how it, or he, got there. Just as he’s getting to know the citizens—including the mysterious Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde) and cold-hearted cattle baron Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford)—a phalanx of aliens attacks Absolution, abducting some of the townsfolk. The rest of the movie follows Lonergan and Dolarhyde as they form a posse, track down the aliens and go get their people back.
Sure, Cowboys & Aliens has a title that sounds like a ridiculous comic book adventure (creator Scott Mitchell Rosenberg first pitched his idea as a feature film and a graphic novel simultaneously, all the way back in 1997), but from the outset, the production team was determined that their movie be viewed with the utmost gravity. Amongst many other films, they cited High Noon, Unforgiven and The Searchers as references. This was to be a serious work, a solemn reinvention of the classical western—that just happened to also feature aliens.
Unfortunately for them, the viewing public had other ideas. When the first trailer debuted in November 2010, in front of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—Part 1, there were widespread reports of audiences thinking it hysterical. These reports inspired a New York Times article with the awkward headline, “Question for Big Film: It’s Not a Comedy?” Things were not off to a good start.
In all likelihood, if Cowboys & Aliens had embraced the inherent comedic potential of its premise, then it would have fared a lot better. Favreau had such an overwhelming determination to make a weighty movie, he seemed to be laboring under the illusion that serious movies can only be serious. Watching today, it’s striking how many missed opportunities for repartee are littered throughout the duration; you have James Bond and Indiana Jones in the same film—why wouldn’t you want them to banter with each other? Instead, the only cast member permitted to add a little levity to the joyless proceedings is Walton Goggins, and his brief appearance is dwarfed by the countless, lifeless exchanges between indistinguishably grizzled, taciturn men.
It feels as though the many writers of Cowboys & Aliens (five are credited, but more took passes at it—you know what they say about too many cooks…) are relying entirely on the audience’s pre-existing familiarity with the leading names, and so don’t bother to give the characters anything but the barest flickers of personality. Daniel Craig is a strong, silent type. Harrison Ford is grouchy. That’s it. The dearth of personality renders the action scenes completely unexciting, since it’s impossible to be invested enough in any of the characters to care what happens to them. As they slog their way through a narrative journey with dull company and an obvious conclusion, it becomes ever more frustrating that a film filled with promise could turn out so terrifically mediocre.
It’s no surprise that the few things the movie does well have nothing to do with the human element. The sole area in which the film distinguishes itself is in the design of the aliens, who have a biology and a hierarchy that makes them far more interesting than the earthlings. And with Hollywood still riding a 3-D wave after the phenomenal success of 2009’s Avatar, Favreau’s decision to defy the studios’ wishes and keep his film in two dimensions was artistically brave, even if the lack of 3-D ticket premiums didn’t help the lackluster box office.
Although Cowboys & Aliens wasn’t a big flop either critically or commercially—it made $175 million on a budget of $163 million, and earned positive reviews from Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and Roger Ebert—because there were such high expectations, the disappointment of its underwhelming performance was magnified. For a film with lofty ambitions, to draw at the opening weekend box office with The Smurfs was not a good look, and the accompanying press was not kind.
Still, the debacle of Cowboys & Aliens didn’t seem to do the big names involved any lasting damage. Harrison Ford had been spinning his wheels for more than a decade prior to the film’s release and has continued to do so in the decade since. Daniel Craig became the longest tenured James Bond, and with Logan Lucky and Knives Out, showed a comedic talent that has cemented him as the first Bond since Connery able to maintain a consistently successful career outside of the franchise. Olivia Wilde and Paul Dano went on to direct their own movies, made with far less money, and released to far more acclaim. Damon Lindelof created the groundbreaking TV shows The Leftovers and Watchmen. Jon Favreau followed Cowboys & Aliens with the well-received 2014 comedy Chef (which he also wrote, produced and starred in), and then embarked upon a host of big-budgeted Disney projects.
The success they found after Cowboys & Aliens reinforces what a wasted opportunity the movie represented. It took an unfathomably stacked cast—all engaging, gifted performers, excellent at bringing nuanced roles to life—and asked that they play empty caricatures, without a whisper of charm or interiority. It took Lindelof, a writer adept at digging into the messiness of humanity in thoughtfully unexpected ways, and made his unique voice just one of many on an overstuffed writing committee. The misguided quest to make Cowboys & Aliens a deathly serious movie smothered any life out of it, and the result was little more than generic, dreary competence, ill-befitting the skill of everyone involved.
Understandably for a movie that underperformed enough to be considered a disappointment, but not enough to be an embarrassment (unlike the following year’s notorious sci-fi bomb John Carter, which earned itself a place in the top ten movie flops of all time with a titanic loss of $200 million), the afterlife of Cowboys & Aliens has been almost non-existent. With no real distinguishing features, just a muddled tone and a wealth of lost potential, there was nothing to stick in the public imagination. So it faded, destined to become a footnote in a great many illustrious careers.
Chloe Walker is a writer based in the UK. You can read her work at Culturefly, the BFI, Podcast Review, and Paste.