In 1997, long before the twitter meme where people replace one word in a movie title for comedy effect, comic book publisher Scott Mitchell Rosenberg came up with a funny title. Rather than turning the title into a comic book, to see if the idea had legs, Rosenberg sold the concept to Universal and DreamWorks, who (with Men in Black cleaning up in cinemas) saw its potential as a sci-fi-comedy-western. When sci-fi comedy-western Wild Wild West tanked at the box office, the studios swiftly put it back in a drawer, where it would have stayed, if only Jon Favreau hadn’t decided to cash in his golden ticket – that time in your life when you’ve directed two hits and you get to make Anything You Damn Well Please – to actually make it. (Did nobody tell him Spielberg followed Jaws and Close Encounters with 1941?) Sure, it looked good on paper: “What if we put Indiana Jones, James Bond and that hot tamale from Tron Legacy in a movie, get the Star Trek reboot guys to write it, the Iron Man guy to direct it and Steven Spielberg to produce it?” But when even the head of the studio describes one of his own films as “mediocre” “crappy” and “not good enough,” as Universal chief Ron Meyer did recently, you know you’ve made a turkey.
Yet Cowboys & Aliens isn’t a total loss. The initial set-up, in which amnesiac outlaw Jake Lonergan (Craig, scowling for England), wanted for crimes he doesn’t remember committing, strays into the path of a curmudgeonly cattleman (Ford), proves so promising, it’s almost a shame when the aliens show up. For a movie with such a toy-friendly title, it’s also refreshingly edgy, with an unflinching violence that’s a far cry from the Marvel movies. Much of the $163 million budget must have gone on salaries, however, as the film lacks the spectacle of a bona fide blockbuster, and even after ten years in development, the script feels unfinished. A missed opportunity, assuming it was ever an opportunity at all. ★★
EXTRAS: The DVD offers Favreau’s commentary and two featurettes, Finding the Story (possible subtitle: Still Looking) and a location report from the massive New Mexico shoot, which the Blu-rays expand into a full five-part ‘making of’. They also collect Favreau’s superb series of online interviews with Craig, Ford, Wilde, Spielberg, Grazer, Howard and three of the umpteen screenwriters. ★★★