It was a long-ass journey to write this comparison of Cowboys & Aliens the graphic novel vs. the movie. Feel free to skip ahead to the review (past the photo), and ignore the following bitching.
Cowboys & Aliens is the movie I get asked most about – why haven’t I reviewed it yet? Haven’t I seen it? Duh, of course. I saw the movie ages ago. I read the graphic novel ages ago, too. But when I started this Western review site, I felt it was my duty as a huge Paranormal and Sci-Fi Western fan to revisit them both before writing about them.
Unfortunately, it’s REALLY F*CKING HARD to get your hands on the Cowboys & Aliens graphic novel!
It was out of stock online for over a year before I finally settled for a used copy, which turned out to be a library discard from Iowa. It’s in great shape, no idea why they deleted it unless nobody was signing it out, which is entirely possible given how weak it is.
Whoops, gave that away.
When the graphic novel finally arrived I immediately looked for Cowboys & Aliens the movie, only to discover that it’s now only available in Canada on Google Play. So I had to go through this whole process of signing up which was not actually that bad but SUPER annoying when added on top of everything else that had got in my way.
But I’d decided from the get-go that it wasn’t worth reviewing either of these works by themselves. It was a comparison or nothing. I did this for you, my imaginary followers.
So here we go: Cowboys & Aliens the graphic novel vs. the movie.
Cowboys & Aliens the graphic novel is the story of a violent alien race that comes to a frontier town in 1873, deems the people simple and slave-worthy, and sets out to colonize the planet by force as they’ve done with countless others in the galaxy.
The white people are all like, “WTF, this aggressive race with arms more powerful than ours wants to kill us and take our land?!” The Native Americans are like, “yeah, that must suck…” The people have to work together to learn how to use the aliens’ various weapons against them.
Cowboys & Aliens the movie also takes place in 1873, and aliens come blasting their way into a frontier town. That’s where the similarities end.
While the aliens in the graphic novel have panels from their perspective, so you understand what they’re after, the aliens in the movie are your classic giant, bug-like race that wants to dissect humans and that’s about it. They’ve engineered impressive spacecraft and weaponry, but can’t shoot for shit.
The characters are completely different, which was a smart choice for the movie. The graphic novel’s main characters of Zeke and Verity are thin at best, and nobody else other than science officer Kai is even memorable.
In the movie you get the mysterious, brawny Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig), powerful bully Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), the unnecessarily sexy Ella (Olivia Wilde), plus strong supporting parts played by Adam Beach, Keith Carradine, Sam Rockwell, and Clancy Brown.
Here’s the long and short of it –although not so short if you waded through the top half of this review:
- Cowboys & Aliens the graphic novel has a great premise, but the writing does nothing with it so the result is forgettable
- Cowboys & Aliens the movie decided to take that premise and actually do it justice by playing it straight with serious actors, high action, and excellent special effects – and it MOSTLY succeeds, if you watch it in the right mindset
If you hold Cowboys & Aliens the graphic novel up to other Western comics, it falls flat. It’s nowhere near the storytelling and art of DC All Star Western, which is my personal gold standard. There’s no depth to the characters, and the art is inconsistent.
This panel where cowboy Zeke jumps a barricade makes me laugh so f*cking hard. They obviously drew from a photo of a grand prix jumper – what cowboy wears stirrups that short?!
The only reason the Cowboys & Aliens graphic novel is even getting a review on my site is because of the movie. I did give it two stars on Goodreads because like I said, it has a good underlying concept that could have been awesome. There are even interracial and inter-lifeform romances.
Now, if you’re a Western purist you’ll probably just hate the Cowboys & Aliens movie on principle. But if you enjoy Westerns and Sci-Fi movies for the action and the visual eye candy of weapons and/or cinematography, there’s a lot to like here.
The notoriously hard-to-please Roger Ebert gave Cowboys & Aliens three out of four stars while admitting, “As preposterous moneymakers go, it’s ambitious and well-made.”
When done well, the juxtaposition of ultra-modern or fantasy elements and Western characters is f*cking enthralling. It’s like Chicago mix popcorn – cheddar is rad, caramel is rad, and they shouldn’t go together but THEY DO AND IT’S AWESOME. Look at Westworld and Firefly. Heck, Star Wars has blatantly Western themes.
“You kind of swing back and forth between the two extremes and the tone until you find the exact right point where a Western and a Sci-Fi movie can really shake hands without it seeming unnatural,” said screenwriter Roberto Orci. “Imagine you’re watching Unforgiven and then aliens land.”
Director Jon Favreau wanted to stick to proper Western themes and characters – but also to do a proper Sci-Fi movie as far as his aliens. With the killer VFX and nonstop action, it’s got lots of thoroughly satisfying elements of each.
Ford and Craig are solidly Western in their roles. Adam Beach is both strong and endearing, and because I’ve been watching so much Yellowstone I feel extra angry at Harrison Ford for being a dick to this great guy who looks up to him like a father. Oliva Wilde’s character was kind of just a ‘tough pretty girl’ who was actually useless until the end.
And it was a bloody waste to cast Keith Carradine and then NOT have him in every scene. Everything’s better with more Keith Carradine!
I do think that rather than the theme of redemption that runs through the movie, they should have stuck with the commentary on invading and wiping out other races. It would have further elevated the serious action vibe that Favreau wanted from Cowboys & Aliens.
But you don’t watch a movie called Cowboys & Aliens expecting a cinematic masterpiece. You want to see a shit-ton of action in a short time – explosions, shootouts, horseback chases, dizzying spacecraft chases, punch-outs, alien guts, the works. It’s all here, and you can kind of tune in and zone out.
My final verdict is that Cowboys & Aliens the movie is fun to watch, while Cowboys & Aliens the graphic novel is not worth spending a whole year chasing down to purchase. But hey, I got to write this review for y’all.