'Cowboys & Aliens' Mashes Up Alien Invasion And The Western

1873: Gunslingers sip whiskey in saloons, bandits roam alongside tumbleweeds, and giant alien spaceships attack from outer space. That's the combination audiences are expected to enjoy this Friday, when epic sci-fi Western "Cowboys & Aliens" lands in theaters.

Like the title suggests, "Cowboys & Aliens" will pit the bandits and gunmen of Absolution, Arizona, against real-live space aliens. While many movies blend elements from multiple genres ("Twilight" is a vampire movie, werewolf movie, teen romance and forbidden romance all at once), fewer films attempt the boldface blend that director Jon Favreau's latest puts forth. The New York Times reported that many audiences catching the trailer believed the movie to be a comedy.

The western itself, though it calls to mind straight-shooting classics like "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly," has been a popular source for creative cross-pollination. Within the confines of the structure, movies featuring samurais, lizards, musical numbers and more have all made it to the big screen.

Cinematically, a few previous mainstream entries have explored the sci-fi/western mashup specifically. "Back to the Future III" takes Marty McFly to 1885, while steampunk adventure "Wild Wild West" sent Will Smith and Kevin Kline across the country to battle a huge mechanical spider. Even "Star Wars," though populated with aliens, spaceships, Jedis and robots, has obvious Western influences -- the Mos Eisley cantina is more or less a raucous space saloon.

When you turn to books, comics, television and video games, the Western/sci-fi story proves to be a well-established subgenre. Cult favorites like "Firefly" and "Cowboy Bebop" flew their spaceships full of unlikely misfits onto rugged planets filled with dusty-faced scoundrels and high-noon shootouts.

The marriage makes sense. Both the western and science-fiction traditions have backgrounds in the pulp fiction of the 20s and 30s. And both take place at the frontier, a border standing between civilization and the utter unknown.

Those who live on these borders -- whether, as on "Star Trek," that border is the whole of the universe, or as in "Stagecoach," simply the treacherous plain of the uncivilized West -- face dangers that the city-dwellers never will. Those dangers could be roving bandits or alien marauders from Zaarb, but either way, these tales require their heroes to step up, and shoot fast.

"Cowboys & Aliens" starts out as pure Western, before aliens (and their genre) invade. Daniel Craig plays Jake Lonergan, a loner with a disreputable past who awakes with a mysterious bracelet in little town Absolution and ends up (presumably) saving them all once trouble strikes.

Unlike "Firefly" or "Wild Wild West," where Western and science-fictional characters and settings co-exist as a unified culture, "Cowboys & Aliens"' method of interweaving genre seems to be in imagining what the characters of a traditional western would do when confronted with the events of the alien invasion movie. A review by Kirk Honeycutt at the Hollywood Reporter pegged the combination as "70 percent Western paired with 30 percent alien invasion," praising the film for managing the balance between the two.

This is not to say that other kinds of genre mashup don't happen all the time already. Just look at Quentin Tarantino. "Jackie Brown" takes on 1970s blaxsploitation cinema, just as "Kill Bill" pulls together influences from Japanese samurai films, kung-fu movies and more. And he's certainly not alone. Lars von Trier took on horror in "Antichrist," and musicals with "Dancer in the Dark," resulting in films that, while classifiable as part of their respective genres, bear little resemblance to their compatriots.

But "Cowboys & Aliens" is more openly, and sincerely, a movie conceptualized around the meeting of two genres than any of these films. The alien invasion movie has a standard plot, set of characters, visual cues and general tone. So, too, does the Western. Some reviews have already suggested that the meeting of these worlds fails to improve on either one.

David Germain of the AP wrote damningly, "Really, the only clever thing about 'Cowboys & Aliens' is the basic idea itself. The Western trappings are mostly dull, the aliens and sci-fi elements are unimaginative, and cramming them together is not enough to make them interesting."

The New York Times' Manohla Dargis echoed the sentiment, saying it "wavers uncertainly between goofy pastiche and seriousness in a movie that wastes its title and misses the opportunity to play with, you know, ideas about the western and science-fiction horror."

But if audiences buy it, such genre mashups could end up a mainstay at the theaters. Anyone in the mood for a stoner vampire rom-com?