Cowboys & Aliens is the ultimate concept-movie. It simply does what it says on the tin. It pits cowboys against aliens in a battle that takes place when spaceships arrive in Arizona in 1873. Imagine The Magnificent Seven mixed with Independence Day.
A familiar line-up of cowboy characters is there in Iron Man director Jon Favreau's blockbuster. The mysterious gunslinger is played by James Bond's Daniel Craig, the no-nonsense old-timer is Harrison Ford (his first cowboy adventure since The Frisco Kid in 1979), the feisty female at the centre of their hearts is House star Olivia Wilde, and there are a slew of local outlaws and native Americans.
It's not the first time this summer that a bunch of unlikely lads have had to battle against aliens. That honour goes to Attack the Block, Joe Cornish's comedy about a South London working-class teen gang doing battle with aliens on an estate under the tag-line "inner city versus outer space".
Indeed, the phenomenon of mixing characters from different movies and pitting them against each other in the same film has become more and more prevalent in recent years. Part of the reason for this is that is that such films have been seen as a way to breathe new life into a franchise. When Nightmare on Elm Street seemed to have run its course, the producers hit upon the idea of having Freddy Kreuger do battle with Jason Voorhees, of the Friday the 13th franchise. Freddy vs Jason was the eighth Nightmare on Elm Street film and the eleventh of the Friday the 13th franchise. In 2004 came Alien vs Predator, which was so successful that, three years later, it spawned a sequel, Alien vs Predator – Requiem. The film restarted the Predator franchise that had seemed to have died when the original sequel to the hit Arnold Schwarzenegger film failed to star the Austrian muscleman and flopped.
The success of these cross-over films did, however, reignite all these franchises. Ridley Scott is currently filming a new Alien film called Prometheus, starring Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron and Noomi Rapace. Friday the 13th rebooted in 2009, Predator did the same in 2010 with Adrien Brody as the unlikely leading man, as did Nightmare on Elm Street with Jackie Earle Haley replacing Robert Englund. Yet, apart from the Alien film, none of the other films has captured the attention of the public as much as the "versus" titles.
This fact has clearly come to the attention of the Hollywood money-men. The spate of Marvel comic-book movies, Iron Man, Thor, and the forthcoming Captain America, have all been geared towards The Avengers, scheduled for release in 2012, in which all these characters are slated to appear. There is also Sam Jackson's Nick Fury, which title character has had a promotional cameo in most of these Marvel inspired films. Comic books have had a big part to play in this trend. It was a comic that first put Alien and Predator together, and both DC with Justice League, and Marvel with The Avengers, have comics that bring together the best of their characters.
The creation of Cowboys & Aliens owes much to the power that comic-book characters have in enticing Hollywood. When former Senior Executive Vice President for Marvel Comics Scott Rosenberg formed his own film company, Platinum Studios, he came up with the concept for the film. When it first went into development in 1997 the comic book didn't actually exist. All that he had was a mock cover and the name. When the film idea ran aground he commissioned the graphic novel to be written and it came out in 2006.
It's reported that Rosenberg encouraged bigger comic shops to order thousands of copies of the graphic novel. The shops then sold the already cheap $3.99 graphic novel for 50 cents or gave it away free with any purchase to help shift copies. Entertainment Weekly reported the graphic novel as the biggest seller of the week, although many disputed this claim. The comic ranked 12th on the all-important Diamond Comics Distributors list for the month, when copies paid for by Platinum were discounted. Nonetheless the ploy worked sufficiently to drum up a film sale for the concept and, ironically, the comics that were being handed out for free are now selling for $15 on eBay.
There has been a long history of these "versus" films in cinema. In 1943 British director Roy William Neill made Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, in which Frankenstein, played by cult horror star Bela Lugosi, fights with the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr) who digs Frankenstein out of the ice while looking for a cure for his own curse.
Comic duo Abbott and Costello were forever running into classic gothic literary characters after they encountered Frankenstein, the Wolf man and Dracula in Abbott and Costello Meet the Ghost in 1948. In a series of films they met, among others, The Invisible Man, a mummy, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and, in the strangest concept of them all, "The Killer Boris Karloff". Likewise, in Japan, Godzilla seems to have done battle with everyone, including King Kong. Recently Seija Chiba's Alien vs Ninjas was released on DVD. The whole concept became something of a joke with films such as Indians vs Vikings, and the forthcoming Strippers vs Werewolves, starring Robert Englund and Steven Berkoff, all going for the cheap gimmick approach. And Emma Stone has reportedly just signed onto star in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
Occasionally, bigger-budget action films have tried to mix heroes in battles against each other. Examples include Roland Emmerich's 10,000 BC, which saw cavemen do battle with the alien warlords of Egypt. No prizes for guessing that that flopped.
Indeed, the concept of mixing characters together seems to work best in films where it's not immediately obvious that we're watching a "versus" film. (It's debatablewhether to count films such as Twilight and Underworld, as vampires against werewolves has always been part of the lore of these characters. However, it's easy to forget that, in the first Toy Story, a cowboy does battle with a spaceman.)
The 2009 animation Monsters vs Aliens is the most obvious contribution of cartoon movies of this ilk. Here the characters being revived come from 1950s B-movies. And some create their own fictional battles on YouTube with mash-up mock trailers – the best is Watchmen/My Little Pony.
Jon Favreau has said that one of the problems he's facing with Cowboys & Aliens is that people imagine it's a comedy, whereas he sees it as a Western in the tradition of John Ford and Sergio Leone. But the legacy of these mash-up films is bad, and so Cowboys & Aliens remains a risk, as box-office-prediction companies in America can't decide whether it will be a flop or a hit.
'Cowboys & Aliens' is out on 19 August
Toy Story (1995) Cowboy Woody feels challenged amongst a collection of Hasbro and Mattel favourites when new toy spaceman Buzz Lightyear threatens to become Andy's favourite.
Abbott and Costello Meet the Ghost (1948) In 2001, the United States Library of Congress selected this film, in which the comedy duo cross paths with Dracula, Wolf Man and Frankenstein for the National Film Registry for its being "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant"
Godzilla vs King Kong (1962) A pharmaceutical firm brings King Kong to Japan. When he escapes he's yet another monster to take on Godzilla in a series of Japanese films pitting the lizard against various foes.
Monsters vs Aliens (2009) This hit cartoon resurrects characters from 1950s B-movies in a battle against an invading robot.
Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943) The film often credited with starting the whole genre stars the great Bela Lugosi as Frankenstein's Monster.