Cowboys & Aliens: Not the first movie to mix film genres

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The upcoming, big budget flick “Cowboys & Aliens” has the enticing proposition of mixing the classic Western genre with Sci-Fi action. The trailer for the film teases the audience into thinking this may be a western only, then BAM!! We are now shocked by the arrival of aliens from outer space. It even stars Harrison Ford of Star Wars fame to help this effort “go over” with the public.

Such mixing of film genres are nothing new of course, although they are fairly rare. Usually such high concept approaches die before making it to production. One reason may be because after it is pitched, someone in the studio boardroom would say, “Okay, that’s the first five minutes, now what?” And if the person pitching the movie can’t come up with an answer, they go on to another pitch.

It remains to be seen if “Cowboys & Aliens” can overcome most of the previous efforts of mixing genres, but we can look at three previous examples and see how they did.

Alien

Probably the most famous, certainly the most successful mix of the sci-fi and horror genre. The plot is pretty straightforward; a space ship returning to Earth after a long mission is diverted to an unexplored planet. They find an ancient spacecraft filled with eggs from which hatch the most disgusting creatures we have ever seen. Until the “disgusting creature” grows up and becomes one of the most fearsome monsters in film history.

At the time of the film, most of the cast was relatively unknown to American audiences, save perhaps for Tom Skerritt (“M*A*S*H”) and maybe Yapht Kotto (“Live and Let Die”). But “Alien” helped make stars of Sigourney Weaver, John Hurt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, & Ian Holm.

Although Weaver’s final confrontation with the alien while wearing impossibly tight underwear is certainly remarkable, the most memorable scene belongs to Hurt who first discovers the “egg chamber” and discovers just how unpleasant the contents of the eggs are. After all these years, I still cringe when the egg first opens up.

Outlander

One of the most recent examples of genre mixing, here we have an alien spacecraft crashing into the land of the Vikings around 700 A.D. The alien creatures held prisoner inside the craft are set free and it’s up to the commander, a very human-looking Kainen (Jim Caviezel) to find the critters even if it means dealing with the primitive humans for help.

Perhaps more baffling than the premise is that the filmmakers somehow wrangled actors like John Hurt and Ron Perlman (though perhaps Perlman isn’t that much of a stretch) to co-star in this bizarre effort. The film suffered from production delays and went almost unnoticed when released, it does help that the pacing of the movie is fairly quick and Caviezel makes for a decent action star. “Outlander” does borrow heavily from the plot of “Dragonslayer” as Kainen must fashion a spear-like weapon to battle the alien creature after conveniently losing his laser rifle.

Maybe the most interesting thing about “Outlander” is that the ancient Norse language is spoken on film, possibly for the first time in movie history. We hear it first spoken by Kainen…the guy from another world.

Go figure.

The Valley of Gwangi

Certainly one of the stranger entries, this film is set in the Old West, but features pre-historic dinosaurs. Our hero, Tuck (James Fransciscus) goes hell bent for fame and fortune by travelling to the “Forbidden Valley” and capturing the legendary “Gwangi” (either a T-Rex or an Allosaurus). He then shows off his prize to a large audience of paying customers and “Gwangi” goes nuts, breaking out of his cage and going on a rampage.

Sounds like “King Kong” doesn’t it? Well, I suppose if you’re going to rip off the plot of a movie, make sure it’s a great movie. The “creatures” are the product of stop-motion legend Ray Harryhousen and there are a couple of pretty good scenes, in particular the roping of the “Gwangi” and when an elephant decides to tangle with the aforementioned dinosaur.

“The Valley of Gwangi” remains a curious effort that perhaps best represents how two different genres don’t mix all that well.

All in all, I will be curious to see how "Cowboys & Aliens" does at the box office. If history is any indication, the film had better go well beyond its premise to "go over" with audiences.

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