I ran across an article in The New York Times last week about a movie set in Arizona that's in trouble—six months before its release.
Cowboys and Aliens is a big period film scheduled to come out next summer. The problem is that it's an action-drama, and the first showings of the trailer had audiences rolling in the aisles.
The trailer's on YouTube, and it is a hoot. (Go, look!) There's something about its heavy-breathing collision of clenched-jaw gunslingers, torch-lit posses, art-directed cowboy haberdashery, tractor beams and dripping Alien spaceship interiors that's too movie-istically gaga for words.
The problem is right there in the title. Amazingly, some of the biggest people in Hollywood thought that the title, and all that it implies, was a good idea. The director of Cowboys and Aliens is Jon Favreau, who directed Iron Man. It was produced by Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard, among others, and stars Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford as sweaty, greasy post-Deadwood Western macho types, with Olivia Wilde (the hot, bony doctor-babe from House) as the requisite Tart in the Bar.
In short, no expense was spared. And yet, there you are, snickering at 007's Terminator bracelet-blaster. On a cowboy, somehow, it's just funny.
The movie, according to the PR, is about cowboys and Apaches in some place called Silver City, Ariz., back in haute-Western days, uniting to fight an invasion from space. (Wonderfully liberal there, copping to the desirability of the Apaches as allies in such a situation. I did not, however, spot any apparent native persons in the trailer, so maybe that's not really such an important theme.) The idea, it seems, was to juice up a straight-ahead Sergio Leone-inflected Western melodrama (not that Leone was ever serious for long) with the otherworldly menace of apocalyptic sci-fi.
Radical! But somehow familiar. My son and his preschool friends used to act out this same basic scenario (repeatedly). When the cowboys vs. Indians scenario started running out of steam, one of the 4-year-olds would often climb up on top of the monkey bars and become Darth Vader. It made sense to them.
For us, of course, the local angle adds savor to the probable disaster. The publicity is emphatic about the Arizona setting, but the thing was actually filmed in New Mexico and California. Whether the filmmakers wanted to invoke the mythic power of old Arizona without financially supporting our brutally stupid politics, or whether it was just more convenient to shoot elsewhere, I wouldn't know. But it doesn't matter. Arizona's role as universal laughingstock—the executed hero-dog story that went national a couple of weeks ago was a lovely touch—only adds to the richly layered ridiculousness of the whole enterprise. "Aliens." "Cowboys." These terms have extra-special meanings here.
Honestly, the movie-makers walked right into it. The concept, it turns out, was originally pitched as a comic-series-and-movie package, and, significantly, as a follow-up to Men in Black. Cowboys and Aliens, as a doomy, mythic action picture, was therefore wacked from the start.
MIB was a wildly funny movie (on purpose), and one that gleefully deconstructed immigrant-as-alien rhetoric for all time in the very first scene. In case you haven't seen it, the action kicks off at night on the border, with a fabulous Tommy Lee Jones—as a buttoned up, sunglassed federal agent—walking down a line of apprehended immigrants (as I recall, it's supposed to be Texas, but with charmingly fuzzy fake saguaros dotted around) and asking a few polite questions of each tired-looking immigrant in fluent Spanish. He waves all of the human immigrants along on their way; he is only looking, you see, for the actual dangerous space alien who is trying to sneak in with them! More than 13 years after seeing it the July day it opened (I was reviewing movies then), I'm happy just thinking about it.
If you want good movies with sympathetic aliens, there are those, too. For a genuine sci-fi masterpiece that examines apartheid through a space-alien-refugee drama, there's the thrilling 2009 South African film District 9. (Oscar-nominated and highly recommended.) Or take a trip down memory lane and into the everlasting weirdness of race in America with John Sayles' lovable, low-rent The Brother From Another Planet (1984), in which Joe Morton flees to Earth to escape extraterrestrial slave-catchers. (They're guys who order beer on the rocks—pure evil.)
But Cowboys and Aliens? I wouldn't get excited yet. You heard it here first.