The world seems to have forgotten Cowboys & Aliens and I can’t say I blame it. I saw it at the cinema 12 years ago and forgot it existed for much of that time since. A stray IMDB scroll returned it to my attention and then I couldn’t find any evidence it existed anywhere else. No streaming service had it in its library, no DVD available on Amazon. Eventually I bought a second-hand Blu-ray on eBay and sat down to watch it. The film itself perhaps doesn’t deserve any more recognition than it has received, but there is one reason why it might now be of interest: it’s directed by Jon Favreau. Since, Favreau has gone on to create his own corner of the Star Wars universe, mixing western and sci-fi in The Mandalorian, much like he did in this earlier film. With The Mandalorian, Favreau brought the western to space and in Cowboys & Aliens he brings space to the western.
The film contains every western trope in the book. Every character archetype uttering over-the-top tropey dialogue. The character arcs are solid but wholly predictable. It thinks its sci-fi twist is enough of a fresh take on the genre but it’s not really. Protagonist Jake brings some stolen gold back for his wife and it gets her killed, but instead of bandits coming to steal it back its extraterrestrials who crave gold because, well, just because. It’s a weak script, notably worked on by Damon Lindelof, who was a writer on the Rey Skywalker film before leaving. Lindelof is responsible for some tremendous television, particularly The Leftovers and Watchmen, but his film work is usually of a much lesser quality.
It’s this mixture of western and sci-fi that should be the film’s big pull but it turns out to be the weakest element. There’s so much more that could be done with the incongruous nature of aliens appearing in the Old West. No one reacts appropriately; they all take it in their stride. UFOs fly over but they look like fancy planes and they don’t blow people’s minds as they should. The aliens are just big CGI monsters to fight. In some ways the film reminded me of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and honestly, I wish it was more like it. The aliens needed to be more intelligent, more beyond human understanding, to make the contrast work. It felt like this was a cowboy world in space that was used to aliens coming and going. Hey, just like The Mandalorian.
You can definitely feel Favreau testing out some of his ideas in this film, although of course some similarities are there simply because both independently fit into western archetypes. The film’s protagonist is the classic quiet cowboy, just like Din Djarin. Here the ‘man with no name’ idea is taken to the extreme because even he doesn’t know it. When we (the audience and he himself) do discover his name, it’s almost laughable: Jake Lonergan. So much of a loner it’s literally his name. He begins as a low key baddie on the wrong side of the law before learning to be more noble, just like Mando in his series. Perhaps a more direct connection is they both use wrist-mounted weapons, with Jake’s alien blaster feeling similar to a Mandalorian gauntlet.
As well as classic sweeping western movies being an influence on Favreau, he clearly holds love of HBO’s western series Deadwood. He cast Timothy Olyphant and W. Earl Brown in The Mandalorian in essentially the same roles they have in Deadwood, as sheriff and bartender respectively. Cowboys & Aliens follows suit and casts Wild Bill Hickock himself, Keith Carradine, as Sheriff Taggart. The film even has an answer to The Mandalorian’s Greef Karga, too. Harrison Ford is Dolarhyde (no doubt a Red Dragon reference) who, like Greef, is the crusty old de facto boss of a settlement who begins antagonistic towards the hero before they team up to face the bigger threat to the town.
The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett have been praised for their expansion and exploration of the Tusken Raiders as more than just mindless tribal natives, matching previous offensive portrayals of Native Americans in traditional westerns. The same is true in Cowboys & Aliens with actual native people. The threat to the white heroes is transferred to some other being, here the alien invaders and in The Mandalorian it was the Krayt Dragon, so the Native American population is also at threat and can team up with their past foes, learning of their shared humanity. But, again like the Tuskens, they have a hallucinogenic substance they give to an outsider to give them a vision quest, which in the film begins with the sight of a humming bird while in The Book of Boba Fett it’s a lizard.
These points might be a little tenuous in their connection to Favreau’s Star Wars work, but there are a couple of sequences in Cowboys & Aliens which are directly repeated in the shows. Jake has flashbacks throughout the film and the visuals of them are copied for Boba’s flashbacks in The Book of Boba Fett. They have brightly lit, high contrast, grainy transitions, accompanied by a flash of greenish light, identical to those in the show. There’s also a chase sequence where a UFO grabs someone and flies off, only for the hero to give chase. This plays out identically in an episode of The Mandalorian season 3 when a big alien bird grabs a kid in its talons and flies off with him, with Din and other Mandalorians in pursuit.
But the biggest connection, and the one people don’t want to hear, is tone. The Mandalorian season 3 felt like a disappointment for many because it was a lighter and often sillier season than the two previous. The grit had dissipated, especially when viewed straight after Andor. But this shouldn’t have been a surprise. In fact, I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner. It’s Jon Favreau’s way. He may dabble with serious aspects for a while but, really, Cowboys and Aliens feels like his sensibilities unleashed. It’s a silly film that, viewed with the right mindset, can be enjoyed as such. It feels like the precursor to The Mandalorian because of that, and I feel it will become more and more apparent that both works were shepherded by the same man. Cowboys & Aliens might not only reflect the past of The Mandalorian but the future of the show too.