The James Clayton Column: Cowboys & Aliens — the buddy movie

Inspired by Cowboys & Aliens, James comes up with a few other potential sci-fi/western-themed buddy movies…

The title doesn’t lie. Cowboys & Aliens contains cowboys and aliens. Jon Favreau’s latest film has Harrison Ford, Daniel Craig and Sam Rockwell wearing Stetson hats, and has extra-terrestrials invading the nineteenth century American Old West.

If you like cowboys and aliens, this is clearly a movie you’ll want to see. It’s unambiguous and upfront about what it’s offering unlike, say, Super 8. (“Who are these Super 8? Is this going to be like X-Men?”)

As a minor quibble, though, the title would be more accurate if it were Cowboys vs Aliens, seeing as it’s a story about conflict between humans and hostile organisms from outer space. A versus title is justified, because it’s a high-concept film based around a core premise of combat between two elements already understood as legends of silver screen entertainment.

It’s a clash of the titans showdown that calls to mind battles like King Kong Vs Godzilla and Alien Vs Predator, except Favreau’s flick mashes together two whole genres rather than individual franchise characters.With star power and blockbuster might behind a geektastic premise, Cowboys & Aliens impresses itself as a movie of epic promise. I was excited already, but the title has also inadvertently got me eager to see films that don’t exist.

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Cowboys & Aliens sounds to me like the title of a buddy movie, and as such I’m sent through imaginative subspace imagining genre smashes, where the westerners and the extra-terrestrials form tag teams. Instead of pointing their rifles and rayguns at each other, I see nice opportunities for former rivals to combine forces against bigger enemies, like racism, the Imperial Empire or intergalactic pirate DVD rings.

Cowboys & Aliens is really Cowboys vs Aliens, and that’s all good, but I’d like interspecies bonding, alternatives to tradition, and tales of unlikely friendship. Let’s put aside the invasion archetype for a moment, and surf through cinema history to blend classic western and sci-fi films into buddy movies that will spread joy across the entire Milky Way…

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Motherf*cker

There’s gold buried beneath the grave of Arch Stanton and The Man with No Name is working with the non-terrestrial Predator to get it before The Bad (Lee Van Cleef) claims the booty. Advanced technology and off-world killer instinct thus crashes through the American Civil War setting, brought to beautiful life by the stylings of Sergio Leone.

With Clint Eastwood and his companion creature snarling and pulling faces all the way up to the climactic Mexican standoff in a cemetery, it’s the most epic, gnarled spaghetti western our galaxy has ever experienced.

The Searchers who Found Unlikely Friendship

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Trekking across the American West with vengeance in his heart, John Wayne’s driven character from The Searchers finds fresh compassion and tolerance thanks to his new travel companion, Paul. The eponymous alien star of the recent Pegg-Frost comedy helps embittered Ethan Edwards to lighten up as they go looking for his abducted niece (she’s been nabbed by the big brained invaders of Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks!). Having previously hated extra-terrestrials, the Duke comes to find that they’re not all bad. A beautiful bromance forms, lots of pot gets smoked, and under Paul’s influence, the cantankerous, rugged western icon becomes a spacey stoner.

I’ll Be Right Here

Stripped down to basics, Shane and E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial are essentially the same film. They’re both about lonely little boys who find a friend in a stranger who brings great happiness to the domestic environment, and aids the youngster’s individual growth. Despite the child’s insistence and devotion, the odd wanderer departs over the horizon in a tear jerking finale after a heartfelt goodbye.

Alan Ladd’s gunslinger and Spielberg’s glow-fingered alien are kindred spirits, and would make a great pair. I’m filling up just imagining the shot where the odd couple disappear into the moonlit western evening, one astride a horse and one riding a flying bicycle.

True Growl

The Bear Man cameo in the Coen Brothers’ take on True Grit rightly showed that the western benefits from the presence of a big, furry creature. Appropriately enough, when he’s hired by Mattie Ross to track down the man who killed her father, Rooster Cogburn reaches out to Chewbacca to ensure retribution is done right.

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The crossbow-wielding fuzzball of the Star Wars saga and the cranky cyclops make an excellent team, even if no one can understand a single word they say. Take heed, fugitives and sinners of the west seeking a quarrel with Chewy and Rooster. Let the Wookiee and Jeff Bridges win.

The Magnificent Xenomorph

Seven western legends are roped in to protect a village from marauding banditos in a sublime retelling of a samurai story that has its sight on the stars. It’s directed by John Sturges, and its cast of gunslingers includes Steve McQueen, Yul Brynner, James Coburn, Charles Bronson and Robot Vaughn, but not even their combined power is enough. The heroes-for-hire thus use Brad Dexter (the least interesting of the original seven) as an incubatory host for the alien egg and, post-chestburster sequence, they rally together and rout the invaders.

Bullets fly, acid burns flesh, bandits howl at monstrous HR Giger visions and, without a Powerloader, wicked Eli Wallach gets ripped to shreds by the Alien Queen.

High Noon with the Na’vi

The midday train to Hadleyville is packed with nasty men bent on murdering Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper), and no one will stand up and defend him. With everyone else selfishly seeking to protect themselves from violence, the abandoned Marshal’s salvation comes in the shape of the ten-foot blue-skinned beings from Avatar. The Na’vi help the human outcast overcome Frank Miller’s gang with the power of their collective consciousness and the spirit of Eywa.

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Relieved, Kane tosses aside his badge, and leaves Grace Kelly and the town that turned its back on him when he needed them. Journeying to planet Pandora with his peaceful, nature-loving new friends, he becomes one of the tribe, fuses with the environment, and goes through the transmutation ritual, in which he becomes a giant blue alien.

“I see you”, indeed, and you are bringing harmony and building bridges across the divergent sci-fi and western genres. Cowboys & Aliens may make a tag team out of Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford (that’s James Bond and Han Solo/Indiana Jones), but there’s greater geek-out potential and buddy movie material if you pair an earthling with an extra-terrestrial.

Westerners and off-worlders! Let’s get together! Yeah yeah yeah!

James’ previous column can be found here.

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