Lots of films are intended to have sequels, launch franchises, or even be the start of a new cinematic universe, but things don’t always work out the way they’re planned. There are plenty of times that a film should’ve worked, and I’m going to be looking at the ones that I think deserved better, by analysing why they failed, why I think there’s potential there, and then giving a few sequel or franchise ideas.
This time in ‘The Franchise That Should Have Been’ – Cowboys and Aliens
As always, spoilers ahead.
I only have myself to blame for this one. Much like the rest of the world, I didn’t go to the cinema to see Cowboys and Aliens, but instead I saw it very recently on Netflix. I was surprised at just how good this sci-fi adventure was, and how many hallmarks of a franchise it had to boot. I’ll explain just why I think it would make a great start of a film series below, but first…
Just why did it fail?
I can remember there being a pretty big push for this film at the time, but considering I didn’t watch it, despite being an avid film goer my whole life, it can’t have been particularly impressive. It has a few notable names in it, but Olivia Wilde has no track record to speak of at the box office (in fact she has the opposite, having starred in Tron: Legacy just one year earlier), Daniel Craig has no track record outside of the Bond franchise (and this was coming off the back of his worse received take on the roll – Quantum of Solace), and, while his name brings prestige, Harrison Ford hadn’t been had a hit outside of an established franchise for a decade leading up to this.
But what about the team behind the camera? Jon Favreau was the man behind the hugely successful Iron Man, but had also directed the turkey of a sequel, once again only one year earlier. Other than that, he wasn’t really a notable name at that point in time, with Elf being his only other major hit. The problem probably comes from the fact that both Elf and Iron Man have definite stars in front of the camera, Will Ferrell and Robert Downey Jr. respectively, so Favreau was never going to walk away with much of the glory.
A case could easily be made for the writers (notably Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof), however outside of Tarantino, Sorkin and the Coen brothers, very few writers can pull in an audience.
This one has me truly stumped. While 43% on Rotten Tomatoes (from both critics and audiences strangely enough) isn’t exactly and embarrassment, it’s not what any film maker sets out to achieve. Perhaps expectations were too high, or maybe it just came out at the wrong time. Whatever it was, the mediocre response no doubt contributed to this film only making around $174 million worldwide, on a production budget of $163 million. When you take into account a marketing budget and cinemas taking their cut, this film definitely lost money.
This film was released in the middle of a packed season. It came out the same weekend as The Smurfs, one week after Captain America: The First Avenger, and two weeks after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. These films don’t all have huge crossover in terms of target demographic, but this many big films out at the same time would no doubt effect the box office in some way, and the biggest casualty was always going to be the non franchise / non branded film.
Why did I like this film so much?
Science fiction is arguably the biggest genre in modern cinema, and this looked like it was going to give sci-fi fans everything they wanted. People are always saying that they want more originality on the release slate, but when they were given it here, it was a big ‘no thanks’. On top of that, not only was it a new story, it was a setting that this genre doesn’t often mix with. There was also a heavy reliance on practical effects, which, while it’s become more of a talking point recently, is another thing people seem to always be asking for.
It’s more then likely that the title was too silly for some people, but not for me. It’s simple, you know exactly what you’re getting, and for kids that grew up loving action figures, this is literally a fantasy come to life.
I can’t help but feel like Daniel Craig could’ve been the biggest star on the planet, if only he’d cared more. I’ve spoken in the past about my dislike for his take on James Bond, but I’ve always believed that he was a good actor. He’s got a unique look, he can physically transform to fit rolls, and he’s hugely talented.
Olivia Wilde is another person that perhaps deserves better, but back to back disappointments in the form of Tron: Legacy and Cowboys and Aliens no doubt killed any momentum she had with general audiences. Still, she played a good female lead, and even got a few hero moments for herself.
Harrison Ford actually acted on the set of this film (even if he didn’t push himself that far), something he doesn’t always do, and even though they’re in small roles, Sam Rockwell, Clancy Brown and particularly Paul Dano flesh out the cast very nicely. They’re also all believable in this period setting, which isn’t something you always see.
Just a warning, minor spoilers ahead, but let’s face it, if you haven’t seen Cowboys and Aliens yet, you probably don’t have plans to.
There are some very creative ideas on display here. The alien design, and the alien craft design is all original and visually intriguing, the weapon that’s stuck to Daniel Craig’s wrist is very cool and well realised, and the moment Olivia Wilde is resurrected is not only a surprise, but it’s done in a way that gave the reveal even more impact.
The whole film is filled with nice little ideas, from the way the aliens harvest gold (which is actually a realistic prospect compared to other alien invasion films), to the way they capture humans. It’s also all shot in such a way that the action is always clear, and you never question who is where, or what they’re doing, and we definitely have Jon Favreau to thank for that.
Something else that sci-fi is good for is wrapping up social messages in an accessible shell, and that’s something else this film does. Even though it’s not a major part of the story, the grander themes of racism and humanity are both touched on.
What are we missing out on?
The film ends with our main character heading off into the world to do… whatever we can think of. A sequel could pick up literally anywhere else on earth, so what else was happening in the world at this time? Imagine now an alien invasion of Victorian London. It wouldn’t even have to be set in London, the British empire was so vast at that time you could’ve had aliens killing Englishmen on four continents! Although this is the first thing that comes to mind for me (I’m English so naturally it’s the history I know the best), this was a time when the world was beginning to shrink in size, so why couldn’t the universe shrink with it?
But why stop there? We could treat this franchise like Assassin’s Creed treats it’s games, and go literally anywhere in the world at any time. You want Ninjas and Aliens? Done. Spartans and Aliens? Here you go. Pirates and Aliens? WE HAVE THAT. A series of films set across decades that slowly unravels a deeper mystery? That sounds pretty good to me.
As well as different locations, this was also a golden age for inventions, the most notable of which being electricity. Without wanting to sound too much like Wild Wild West, watching people create some crazy, steam punk electricity / alien tech hybrid weapons is something I want to see.
So what do you think about Cowboys and Aliens? Have I convinced you that the world lost a great franchise, or do you think I’m wrong, as usual? Share any thoughts, comments, or suggestions for other franchises that should have been below.
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