On paper, Cowboys & Aliens was a slam dunk. Not only was it a high concept comic book adaptation executive produced by Steven Spielberg that marked Jon Favreau’s first directorial effort since he changed the landscape of blockbuster cinema forever with the first two Iron Man movies, but the lead roles were played by James Bond and Indiana Jones. What could possibly go wrong?
A star powered sci-fi Western that finds A-list pair Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford forging a reluctant alliance to battle against an alien threat, backed by a stacked roster of character actors that included Sam Rockwell, Paul Dano, Clancy Brown, Walton Goggins and more, had all the potential in the world.
Instead, the effects-driven genre mashup took itself far too seriously given the inherent absurdity of the premise, and wound up bombing at the box office after earning just $174 million on a $163 million budget. However, creator Scott Mitchell was adamant in a new interview that studio politics were the reason why Cowboys & Aliens never launched a franchise, not the dismal commercial performance.
“They made a deal that they would do it together, which ultimately caused some problems. Steven was now at Paramount, which Universal was never very happy about. Then DreamWorks started getting into a fight with Paramount. There’s no good guys or bad guys in this, it’s just the way the business is. But it was a wild ride while we were making the movie. Universal announced the release date for the movie without going over it with DreamWorks. Had everything been cordial, it would have been bumped to the following summer because that way we could have gotten a lot of merchandising going.
It was just eleven months without a Christmas in between to do anything. They just weren’t working together on things, and people were pointing hands in different directions. It had its effect. They couldn’t figure out how to do it because of all the studios involved. It was just too complicated for them to deal with. That would have been the advantage of either Universal or Paramount making it, because when we were negotiating the deal we had all these different business affairs departments on the phone at the same time.”
Cowboys & Aliens has gained something of a second life as an unsung cult favorite over the last decade, with plenty of viewers getting a kick out of the same jarring tonal shifts between the classic Western format and sci-fi action that had generated such mixed reviews for the movie in the first place. Maybe it would have turned out differently had Robert Downey Jr. stuck around to play the lead role and worked some more magic with Favreau, but he dropped out to make Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, with the lead role being reworked once Craig replaced him to better suit the 007 star’s skill set.