By Andrew A. Smith
Scripps Howard News Service
'Cowboys & Aliens' movie lifts graphic novel's high concept
Another comic-book concept makes its movie premiere July 29: Cowboys & Aliens. And therein hangs a tale.
Cowboys & Aliens debuted as a standalone graphic novel from Platinum Studios in 2006 by writers Fred Van Lente and Andrew Foley, penciller Luciano Lima and a host of inkers. The story involved an expansionist alien species crash-landing in 1870s Arizona and annexing it while building a transmitter to contact their fleet to finish the job. Apache warriors, gunslingers and pioneer settlers joined forces to battle them, stealing alien equipment where they could to equal the odds.
While the thrust of the story was action, action, action, there was some social commentary too. One gunslinger remarked that the aliens had no right to conquer our turf just because they had better weapons, which resulted in a sheepish “Oh” after a stern look from the Native Americans. The “all men are brothers” theme was underscored by some cross-racial romance, as a gunslinger and a (female) alien science officer fell in love, as did a (white) female gunslinger and an Apache warrior.
None of which seems to apply to Cowboys & Aliens the movie. Starring Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford and Olivia Wilde, the film seems to take very little from the graphic novel except the name and the high concept.
But what a concept it is! It’s almost impossible to look at the GN cover, the movie posters or movie trailers and not have a thrill of anticipation. A cowboy shooting at a UFO with a sixgun? That begs the who, what, why and how response.
Which answers in part this question I hear a lot: How come Hollywood has come to rely so much on comic books as their source material? This is especially remarkable when you consider how comics were once fiercely snubbed by pop culture in general, especially the much-maligned superhero genre. For this 40-year comics reader, it’s a 180-degree turn from my youth, when I had to hide comics to avoid getting beaten up.
So what’s changed? A recent “Simpsons” episode depicted Bart explaining, “Hollywood has run dry of ideas.” While that may be partly true, I think some other things are going on here:
Movies that ignore these lessons do so at their peril. When you compare a list of the worst comic-book movies with a list of comic-book movies where the writers jettisoned or fundamentally altered the existing mythos, many names appear on both. (See: Catwoman, Elektra, Jonah Hex, etc.)
That deviation from source material is happening with Cowboys & Aliens, but here we’re talking about a single graphic novel, one which was a a fairly pedestrian take on what is clearly a cool concept. This time, the movie-makers might be right to start over.
And, honestly: Cowboys shooting at UFOs! How can you go wrong?
Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at firstname.lastname@example.org.