Will Alien-Free Marketing, Lack of 3D, and Tonal Ambiguity Make Cowboys & Aliens a Tough Sell?
When it comes to conventions, Jon Favreau is nothing if not a man of the nerd people. Mindful of how much he owes to the Comic-Con faithful for jump-starting early word of mouth on the Iron Man franchise, he came to San Francisco this weekend with a treat: Nine minutes of footage from Cowboys & Aliens cut exclusively for the WonderCon audience, including a special reveal of the film's big, bad aliens -- aliens that Favreau otherwise intends to keep under wraps.
At least, that's the plan: Favreau and co-scripter Roberto Orci came to town to test a few things out regarding their upcoming July tent pole, including the patience of their bosses at Universal Pictures. Favreau wants to keep all alien details out of the film's marketing campaign save for the brief reveal at the end of the exclusive WonderCon reel, which closes with a look at one of the marauding invaders.
But that marketing gamble isn't the only obstacle Favreau's set for himself. Unlike his Iron Man films which came with a built-in audience, Cowboys & Aliens is a summer tent pole based on relatively unknown source material and a catchy-but-gimmicky title that, by Favreau's own admission, makes for an ambiguous tone. He's got his name as a director, the star power of his leads (James Bond and Indiana Jones, effectively), and impressive visual effects, but Favreau seems mildly concerned -- though strong audience support Saturday seemed to put his mind at ease.
The footage Favreau and Orci brought to WonderCon is a blend of previously released scenes and new looks intended to give fans a better sense of the film's tone, Favreau told press after the panel: it's not jokey as in early iterations of the project, but a genre study-slash-adventure tale with much deeper historical and social underpinnings. (He mentioned both manifest destiny and the displacement of Native Americans, both of which will play a role in the story.)
The WonderCon reel begins as a wounded and dusty Daniel Craig rides into town, circa 1870s, and seeks refuge in an abandoned shack only to be discovered by Clancy Brown; elsewhere, a gruff Harrison Ford interrogates a hired hand who has seemingly blown up a herd of cattle for kicks. The man insists that a blinding white light was to blame, but Ford doesn't believe him and sends him off to a brutal and uncertain fate, bound and dragged behind a horse.
Later, Ford and his men arrive in town and he demands to be given possession of Craig, who has been jailed and no memory of who he is; in flashback, he wakes up disoriented to find a mysterious high-tech gadget on his wrist. Moments later alien spaceships materialize and attack, only to be repelled by the alien weapon that Craig wields. As the townsfolk gather to assess what just happened -- including Brown, who suggest the aliens might be devils, and Sam Rockwell as a man whose wife has been mysteriously snatched along with other locals and loved ones -- a commotion in a nearby building attracts their attention and they witness a hail of gunfire within, culminating in a splatter of blood against a window. Ford assembles a posse to track the alien intruder by the trail of bloody footprints it's left behind.
Also included are plenty of looks at the aliens' people-snatching technology; rather than use tractor beams, these spaceships are equipped with mechanical tentacles inspired by bolos, according to Orci. Olivia Wilde goes from spunky local girl in a dress to spunky pants-wearing heroine with a pistol, although not much is revealed about her character. And then there are the aliens themselves. Based on the two-second look shown only once during the panel, they appear to be bipedal and almost lizard- or turtle-like, dark-colored, and possessed of sharp teeth. And they seem very, very angry.
But there's another reason for keeping the aliens under wraps: They're not done. "Part of it's the mystery, part of it is that you want it to be subjective," said Orci. "And part of it is that it takes so long to finish them that you don't want to show an unfinished alien."
Orci admits that events like WonderCon offer the chance to test ideas on a focus group. "We'll see what they say," he said with a smile. "It's not too late to change the alien."
As for the emphasis on 2D, Favreau himself opted not to take the popular box office-boosting route and make Cowboys & Aliens in 3D. Originally, he'd pushed Universal to let them film in 3D with cinematographer Matthew Libatique. But unsatisfactory 3D test footage convinced Favreau that 3D wasn't the right choice after all, and Universal, he says, agreed.
Overall, the film may not suffer as much from these obstacles as Favreau himself may fear. The crowd-pleasing footage bore the distinct mark of Favreau, director of Iron Man -- dynamic action, eyeball-searing visuals, clever interplay between macho icons Craig and Ford (who, judging from the footage, are locked in a contest to out-seriousface one another). Some shots called to mind Sergio Leone, others Starship Troopers in unabashedly gleeful way.
Still, Cowboys & Aliens hits theaters in the middle of a tough summer, just weeks after Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, and Captain America. Will audiences respond if they don't quite get what the film is about, especially if they only get to preview its cowboy heroes and not its aliens? Favreau and Universal might want to rethink their strategy on this double-edged sword; it's charmingly idealistic to think your audience will come just for the uberserious genre study, but when it comes to a movie called Cowboys & Aliens, most ticket buyers want to know exactly what they're in for.