Cowboys battling extraterrestrials: pretty off-the-wall, huh? Maybe not. The concept underpinning Cowboys & Aliens reflects a carefully thought out response to inexorable new realities besetting the world of cinema.
Such is the implication of director Jon Favreau‘s frank account of the thinking behind the film. During the press conference accompanying its European premiere at the Locarno film festival, he was asked an apparently irrelevant question about piracy. This prompted the chain of reasoning outlined below, with a few of the gaps tentatively filled in by Between the lines.
Revenue from DVD sales has been collapsing (largely because of piracy) and this has reshaped the film business. Hitherto, home-entertainment sales sustained output that couldn’t have survived on mere box office receipts. Now, the multiplexes have regained their dominance of the industry finances. The only people who are prepared to turn out regularly for a night at the movies are the young. Their requirements must be met.
Young filmgoers enjoy spectacle, sensation and moral simplicity; they want to watch a physical conflict in which a team with whom they can easily identify confronts an unambiguous enemy. Unfortunately, the field from which this foe can be drawn has narrowed.
The red Indians who played this role in the westerns of old are now sacrosanct native Americans. Contemporary sensitivities preclude the demonisation of other racial or social groups. Animals that might once have been accepted unquestioningly as monsters now attract anthropomorphic sympathy.
Until recently, it’s been OK to pit Anglo-Saxon nations against their “less admirable” counterparts, such as second-world-war Germany or cold-war Russia. Here, the problem isn’t just political correctness, but something rather more pressing. Today, Hollywood makes more money overseas than it does on its home turf. Germans, Russians and Asians have become revered customers to be wooed rather than vilified. “America is no longer making movies just for itself”, as Favreau put it.
Last week on this site Joe Queenan advanced six possible explanations for the current profusion of extraterrestrials on the big screen. There’s another, according to Favreau: “The nice thing about an alien movie is that the bad guy is a bad guy to everybody on earth.”
So much for the aliens. But how did the cowboys get in there? Well, it’s not just that they’ve proved their worth as readily acceptable white hats over the generations; it’s that they’re capable of fulfilling this function beyond their home range. “It seems that Europe embraces the western more than the Americans do,” Favreau declared. Yet there’s something else going on as well.
Favreau insisted that in spite of the economic forces that now constrain film-makers such as himself, they’re determined to combine commercial triumph with creative achievement. The trick is to find a way of doing both. A fusion recipe of apparently mismatched ingredients might satisfy such artistic ambition. “Combining these two genres is what attracted me to the project,” Favreau told the festival magazine.
On the mammon front, Cowboys & Aliens hasn’t altogether delivered. It was expected to be one of the summer’s smash hits, but its opening weekend in the US found it in a slightly undignified photo-finish with The Smurfs. Up until last week it had taken $83m at the US box office, against a budget of $163m. Perhaps global enthusiasm for cowboys and hostility to extraterrestrials will bring it greater success on the world stage. We shall see.
Aesthetic success is a more subjective matter, but here too the indications are mixed. The film has won the qualified approval of some respected critics, including Roger Ebert and Nick Pinkerton. Overall, however, it’s scoring only 45% on Rotten Tomatoes. If Favreau’s argument stands up, we might have hoped for a better performance on both fronts.
It’s hard to blame the cowboys, who are doing fine in the first reel while the film still looks like a comically traditional western. I blame the aliens. The trouble with globally acceptably guiltlessly slayable antagonists is that they’re boring. Enemies need to be interesting, even if this means they take on characteristics that some might find offensive.
You may reasonably have hoped that such an audacious genre mash-up would shine new light on the nature of cinema and/or the human psyche. It doesn’t.
As enunciated at Locarno, the Favreau doctrine seems to make good sense. Still, when it comes to the big screen, perhaps logic isn’t enough.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
Seit 1996 bin ich freier Mitarbeiter der Salzgitter-Zeitung, als Experte für das Geschehen im hiesigen Kreisfußball. Daneben sind meine Kolumnen seit 2005 fester Bestandteil im Lokalteil der Salzgitter-Zeitung. Zusammen mit Frau und Tochter sowie zwei gefräßigen wie faulen Stubentigern versuche ich das zu meistern, was das Leben, das Universum und der ganze Rest an Absurditäten für uns bereithalten.