By Matt Neufeld

July 29, 2011

The basic idea of combining elements of the science fiction and Western genres on film, on television and in books and comic books is not new. In fact, you can time travel all the way back to good ol’ 1935—that’s right, 1935—at the very dawn of film history, in a studio era far, far away from today’s often-uninspired and seemingly desperate Hollywood, and there in all its glory exists something called “The Phantom Empire.” That was a successful movie serial starring Gene Autry—he was known to several generations as The Singing Cowboy—that indeed combined science fiction and Westerns, with settings on frontier ranches—and deep below the earth in futuristic underground empires!

From there, continuing through an eclectic, crazed pop culture history of combining science fiction and Westerns, you can find several dozen examples of this still-interesting idea, encompassing the good, the bad and the ugly: “The Beast of Hollow Mountain,” from 1956, which introduced dinosaurs (the prehistoric kind) to the Wild West, thanks to mid-twentieth century special effects wizard Willis O’Brien; the brilliantly named and conceived “Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter,” from 1966, which was released on a double-bill with “Billy the Kid vs. Dracula,” and I am not kidding you here (one of those great old-style movie ads for “Jesse” promised “Roaring Guns Against Raging Monster!”); Michael Crichton’s classic from 1973, “Westworld,” which was not actually set in the Old West but did indeed combine science fiction and Westerns (this film prompted the sequel “Futureworld”), and featured Yul Brynner as a robot called The Gunslinger, which in turn was based on Brynner’s classic character from “The Magnificent Seven;” Robert Zemeckis’ “Back to the Future Part III,” which was set in the Old West and made some inventive uses of Old West props, locales and trains and somehow creatively included ZZ Top as a Western-era band; one of the great genre shows of the late 1960s, “The Wild, Wild West,” which only ran for four seasons, 1965 to 1969, and was as wildly and crazily inventive as a television series could be, combining elements of spy thrillers, science fiction, Westerns, comedy and even horror; the hugely disappointing film of the same name, from 1999, which somehow managed to completely lose the spirit of the television show despite starring Kevin Kline and Kennth Branagh; the “Tremors” movie and television show, which was set in modern times but had a Western feel, and both had great performances by Kevin Bacon, Michael Gross and Fred Ward playing modern-day Western cowboys fighting scary wormthings tunneling through the desert; Joss Whedon’s television show “Firefly” and film “Serenity,” which are set in the future, but have decidedly Western aspects; and numerous episodes of science fiction television shows through the years, including the classic original “Star Trek” episode “Spectre of the Gun,” written by Gene L. Coon, in which Kirk, Spock, Scotty, McCoy and Chekov find themselves in a surreal, bizarre recreation of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

So it’s a bit unsettling when certain members of the crew of “Cowboys & Aliens,” yet another loud, brash, over-bearing comic-book adaption hitting theaters this summer, suggest in interviews and in p.r. materials that this is some grand, inspired inventive revelation, this wondrous combination of science fiction and Westerns! Hey, guys, guess what?! You’re 76 years behind the curve on this one! (And we haven’t even listed the various books and comic books that have dared to delve into this area.) To suggest that something is new when that something is decidedly, factually not new is the very worst style of marketing, advertising, public relations and hype—and it’s dishonest. It also displays a basic lack of insight.

But that’s just the beginning of making promises that you can’t keep in association with “Cowboys & Aliens.” This film, alas, ends up being yet another average big film, and yet another summer popcorn comic book/video game/super hero/whatever film, filling the screen with scores of fancy computer-generated effects, explosions, more explosions, loudness, frantically-paced edits, frantic pacing, fistfights with punches that land with noises resembling more explosions, gunfights with guns firing shots that sound like rocket launches, and buggy, scary aliens that never utter a word, never reveal anything other than an urge to kill and conquer, and exposition that lacks depth, insight, character development, well-developed backstory and varied sub-plots. The film is poorly written, with just the most basic dialogue jamming a script that doesn’t seem to want to ever get too literate, deep, or insightful about the nature of buggy aliens from outer space invading the 1873 West, and what that means in the cosmic nature of things. The opportunity was clearly there for some introspective, intelligent exploration of the mysteries of the universe—but in the surface context of this film, it’s never explored. The meaning of life here, and of other life out there, remains undiscovered country.

On top of all of that, the two main characters, played with stoic, unblinking, one-dimensional stares and ridiculous macho posturing that borders on parody—but not funny parody—by Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, are two of the most thoroughly unlikable, unmemorable and uncharismatic lead characters in a big-budget film since June. Craig and Ford barely crack a smile, barely break their steely veneers long enough to be human (Ford tries a few times, but it never really gets to a point of likability), and they just barely register as real people you can relate to. Some may argue that Craig is channeling the Western’s clichéd Old West loner/frontiersman/outlaw anti-hero, but you can play that role with at least a hint of humanity beneath the mystery. That’s what Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, Lee Van Cleef, Yul Brynner and Robert Redford did in classic Western loner or villian roles. But there’s little humanity here from Craig, even as he’s mourning a lost girl and dealing with attractions to a new girl. As for Ford, defenders will say he’s the Old West’s conflicted villain/cattle baron/corrupt rich guy/militaristic bigot and imbecile with too much power. That’s fine, that’s an Old West stock character, too—but, again, the better portrayals of these types of characters show at least some indications of conflicted emotions and tortured humanity. Ford, even in a scene that was meant to be touching with a young kid, remains as cold as his gun handle and as unflinching as Craig’s frontier outlaw turned reluctant hero. The best villains are those that display an evil touch of oddball likability—with a slight indication of the good behind the bad.

“Cowboys & Aliens,” based on a 2006 comic book by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, Fred Van Lente and Andrew Foley, tells a surface tale of Craig as an outlaw, Jake, who wakes up one day in the desert with a mysterious metal bracelet on his arm, knowing nothing about himself, what happened to him, or the bracelet. He manages to make his way into a classic rough-and-tumble frontier town, Absolution (great name), where everyone is on edge, hates life and seems miserable. That’s not exactly a welcoming scenario, either. In the best tradition of Western Strangers not bein’ takin’ in too kindly by the townfolk, Jake immediately crosses the son of the cattle baron villain, Ford’s Col. Woodrow Dolahyde (not a great name), gets into a fight or two, and of course ends up behind bars. You could see that one a comin’ a couple thousand miles across the beautiful New Mexico desert when the film was shot. And before you can say “Super 8,” buggy aliens suddenly swoop into the town, dropping bombs, abducting people and setting the story in motion. Jake, Dolahyde and an assortment of colorful townfolk set out as a rag-tag posse to kill the aliens, rescue the abducted townfolk and save the West. Along the way, they hook up with some understanding American Indians—who are respectfully and honorably portrayed, it must be said—and together, the anti-hero, the villain, the Indians and the townfolk band together to fight the aliens.

There’s a good story in there somewhere, and it must have seemed like quite the concept to the posse of producers and scriptwriters who worked on the film, but it appears that too many chuck-wagon cooks were fiddlin’ around in the prairie mess tent. Although the production crew (Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer are among the bevy of producers involved), director (Jon Favreau), actors and effects shops are all top-of-the-line, it appears that too many producers and writers tugged and pulled at too many angles, and along the way, a decent backstory, more controlled pacing and timing, literate dialogue and clearer story explanations were dropped in favor of more action, aliens and explosions. This is the same general problem that afflicts most of these genre films, and it’s become a guessing game as to when Hollywood is going to wake up from its own amnesia and get out of this rut.

Again, the film barely explores the possibilities of combining deep-rooted science fiction and Western elements—which you would think would be a main point. Observers would think that a film with Spielberg, Howard and Grazer on the long list of producers would be much better regarding the science fiction elements, but it’s not. It’s always amazing how producers and directors somehow seem to forget the elements that made their previous, similar films so much better, such as the humanistic and down-to-earth characteristics that populate “Close Encounters,” “E.T.,” “Splash” and the great “Cocoon,” possibly one of the most heartfelt, poignant and well-written science fiction films in recent times. Re-visit “Cocoon” and listen to that beautiful, insightful dialogue, from the start of the film right through to the literal last words—words that reflect deeply on life, death, friendship, relationships, family, what has passed, and what is in store for us in the future. Re-visit “Close Encounters” and “E.T.” and marvel at the deep levels of pure, human emotions that consume the lead characters and their families. All of that is missing on the same scale in “Cowboys & Aliens.”

There are sparks that suggest some of this humanity in “Cowboys & Aliens,” but, bizarrely, they’re quickly extinguished. That can’t be explained without giving plot points away. Basically, the most likable characters are several of the supporting actors—but, in yet another bad move—those characters are not explored deeply enough, they don’t have enough screen time, and they’re just not given as much dialogue and backstory as they should be given. The great Keith Carradine, Sam Rockwell and Clancy Brown are simply under-utilized.

Despite its history stretching back some 76 years, there’s still some wide open spaces available for the continued further exploration of this melding of science fiction and Westerns. Future worthy endeavors should attempt to explore cosmic and frontier mysteries with one eye focused on the science fiction side and the other eye focused on the Western side, but with some intelligent insight into what each means to the other, and some delving into how both are connected to each other. The possibilities are many, and the science fiction Western still has a future, and the genre does not have to ride off alone into the sunset, never to be seen agin’

Cowboys & Aliens (99 minutes, at area theaters) is Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of western and sci-fi action and violence, some partial nudity and a brief crude reference.

Matt Neufeld is a longtime journalist, actor and film critic in the Washington and Baltimore areas. He has participated in many local film events and projects in the region, and he has appeared as an actor, supporting actor and extra in more than 45 films projects, at all levels, during the past 20 years. He was previously a daily local news reporter and features writer for The Washington Times and The Frederick News-Post, and he was the media relations publicist for The Washington Performing Arts Society. Matt is currently the News Editor for Carroll Publishing in Bethesda.