07.28.11

Hollywood’s Riskiest Summer Movie

The $180 million sci-fi mash-up Cowboys & Aliens arrives, backed by Steven Spielberg and starring James Bond–which is why it might bomb at the box office. Chris Lee reports.

In a summer bursting with film sequels and prequels, reboots, and by-the-numbers numbskull blockbusters (yes, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, we mean you), Cowboys & Aliens is positioned uniquely; a cinematic odd duck. In terms of dollar-for-dollar investment versus expectations, call it Hollywood’s riskiest summer movie.

Since last November, when the drumbeat of its publicity began in earnest, and on through the promotional gold rush that accompanied Cowboys & Aliens’ world premiere at San Diego’s Comic-Con last week, no one—not its producers, stars or even its loquacious director Jon Favreau—has been able to succinctly explain what moviegoers are supposed to expect from this $180 million sci-fi mash-up. “I’m not sure anyone knows what to make of this movie,” star Daniel Craig told the Los Angeles Times in a story earlier this month.

And amid a crowded field of familiar movie faces and prestige brands—boy wizards, drunken pirates, muscle-bound avengers—the co-mingling of stagecoaches and UFOs has remained a head-scratcher right up to its release today.

Not that Cowboys & Aliens is exactly hurting for prestige. In the plus column, no less than Hollywood’s reigning box-office rainmaker Steven Spielberg, along with fellow Oscar-winners Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, is backing the project. The production also enlisted several of the sci-fi genre’s most acclaimed writers—writing partners Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (Star Trek, Transformers, Fox TV’s Fringe) and Damon Lindelof (Lost, who is also a sometime contributor to The Daily Beast)—to make Cowboys & Aliens3:10 to Yuma-meets-Close Encounters of the Third Kind conceit sing. Then there’s Favreau, the Swingers star-turned-comic book movie maven who walked away from the blockbuster Iron Man film franchise to actualize a project nearer and dearer to his heart: Cowboys & Aliens.

Nonetheless, in order to live up to sky-high expectations of its filmmakers’ collective pedigree—in order to hit break-even on the film’s astronomical budget and publicity costs—Cowboys & Aliens faces some significant hurdles. Among them:

  • Are audiences under the age of AARP eligibility even interested in Westerns? Howard and Spielberg remain passionate champions of the genre and, to be sure, the Coen brothers’ modestly budgeted Old West revenge caper True Grit took in $249 million at the box office last year. But the fact remains that only six Westerns have ever crossed the $100 million threshold and the most recent Western, Paramount’s animated animal romp Rango fizzled earlier this year. A dozen years after its release, the mere mention of Will Smith’s dud Wild Wild West is enough to strike fear into the hearts of those brave souls seeking to revitalize the genre, especially them that’s heapin’ sci-fi trappings onto a six-gun infrastructure. And another long-gestating Western-accented project—Ron Howard’s ambitious film-and-TV-spanning adaptation of Stephen King’s epic fantasy-horror-sci-fi series The Dark Tower—has been shelved because of industry skittishness about its commercial prospects.
  • The question of tone: When the announcement was made that Universal Pictures had green-lit Cowboys & Aliens, fan-boy websites lit up with a single question asked over and over: Is this thing going to be a joke? Fans familiar with the project’s genesis as a relatively obscure graphic novel would have been hard-pressed to come up with an answer. As the creation myth goes, Platinum Studios Chairman Scott Mitchell Rosenberg first attempted to sell several Hollywood studios on the title and a prospective comic book cover even before a Cowboys & Aliens comic book existed (for that matter, when a 16-page comic version was released in 1995, it didn’t set the world on fire). Moreover, the film’s billboards do little to clarify its narrative content. They feature co-star Daniel Craig staring solemnly up into the night sky from beneath a short-brimmed hat (that might have been stolen from his co-star Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones memento closet), his arm clad in a laser-lit manacle pointed skyward. Roger Ebert comes closest to summing up the film version’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to cross-pollinating distinct genres:

“Here is a movie set in 1873 with cowboys, aliens, Apaches, horses, spaceships, a murdering stagecoach robber, a preacher, bug-eyed monsters, a bartender named Doc, a tyrannical rancher who lives outside a town named Absolution, his worthless son, two sexy women (one from not around here), bandits, a magic bracelet, an ancient Indian cure for amnesia, a symbolic hummingbird, a brave kid with a spyglass, and a plucky dog who follows the good guys for miles and miles through the barren waste and must be plumb tuckered out.

"This is not a satire. Nor is it a comedy. Humanity is in danger, and it’s up to the rough-hewn cowboys of the Old West to save us.”

  • Marquee draws (and/or the lack thereof): In Cowboys & Aliens Craig portrays his first American character: a tough hombre who awakens in the desert with a case of amnesia, a weeping chest wound, and a mysterious metal bracelet strapped to his wrist. The British actor may boast international name recognition as the sixth actor to portray James Bond, having starred in two films, Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, that took in a collective $1.68 billion at the box-office. But outside the franchise he’s still a relatively untested commodity. Craig’s only star turn in a movie in which his character is not named Bond, as a Jewish resistance fighter in the 2008 drama Defiance, failed to catch fire commercially. Meanwhile at age 69, Ford is literally geriatric—in this writer’s opinion, a difficult person to buy jumping off broncos and kicking alien ass as a curmudgeonly cattle baron hell-bent on rescuing his son from extra-terrestrial abduction. Excluding Ford’s return to form as everyone’s favorite bull whip-wielding adventurer in 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (which grossed a whopping $787 million worldwide), you’d have to go back to the actor’s 2000 horror-mystery What Lies Beneath—and ignore a string of his out-and-out flops—for evidence of the erstwhile Han Solo’s movie superstardom. As well, with Craig in Sweden, starring in director David Fincher’s adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, and the famously misanthropic Ford’s chafing against his interview schedule, using their combined stardom to promote Cowboys & Aliens gets tricky.
  • The fan boy Hail Mary: Explaining his choice to premiere the movie at that Mecca of nerd triumphalism, San Diego’s Comic-Con, Favreau said: “I feel like [the Comic-Con crowd has] come out for me, they’ve supported me. That’s where it all started, and I want to give back. They should have the opportunity to see [Cowboys & Aliens] first.” Further, Favreau has used his considerable clout in the fan boy community—his million-plus Twitter following and chummy relationships with geek bloggers—to interface with his intended audience at every turn. Which, in another moviemaking era, might have been enough to put Cowboys & Aliens into the black. But in 2011, a year that has seen audiences drop by 10 percent and box-office receipts fall by 9 percent from the year before, even the goodwill of fan boy mavens may not be enough to prop up the film. In 2010, the action-romantic comedy Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World and the impressionistic thriller Sucker Punch went over gangbusters with the Comic-Con crowd. But when it came to selling tickets, both films were D.O.A.

At a time when other movie mash-ups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and How to Survive a Robot Uprising are set to storm the cineplex, Cowboys & Aliens has (depending on your perspective) either the advantage or the curse of being first out of the gate. Monday morning box-office tallies will dictate if the marriage of genres constitutes a new “my chocolate is in your peanut butter” moment or if Cowboys & Aliens will mix like, well, water and oil.