A note on Cowboys and Aliens















Cowboys & Aliens has been in development as long as I’ve been working in Hollywood.  When I was working on Antz at Dreamworks, Cowboys & Aliens was already in development there.

It’s an immediately “gettable” concept — a sci-fi/western mashup with exciting and unpredictable possibilities.  A perfect three-word pitch: “Cowboys and aliens.”  And everyone in the room goes “Oh, wow.  I get it.  Cool, let’s buy that.”

My son Sam (10) and I have been going to movies all summer — Thor, Green Lantern, X-Men: First Class, Pirates, Captain America — and, in front of each one of those movies, we saw the preview for Cowboys & Aliens.  Me, I was familiar with the project, I’m a big fan of Favreau’s, I loved Zathura and the Iron Man movies, I was looking forward to seeing it.  But Sam, for some reason, was reticent.  “That title is kind of, I don’t know, weird,” he’d say.  The next time we saw the preview, he’d say again, “It looks good, but the title is, I don’t know, kind of silly or something.”

Finally, the third or fourth time we saw the preview I finally turned to him, put on my best “pitch” voice, and said “James Bond (pause) and Indiana Jones (pause) fight aliens (pause) in the Old West.”  After that, he sparked up a lot more about seeing it — that sounded like a cool movie.  (He’s never seen a James Bond movie, but he understands it’s something “guys do,” and Harrison Ford is the first actor he ever learned the name of from his work with George Lucas.)

Then, just last night, Sam and I were chatting at bedtime and I mentioned that I would take him to see Cowboys & Aliens soon.  And again, he said “That title, I don’t know, it’s still too, I don’t know…”

I thought for a moment, “Hey, he’s never seen a Western, maybe he’s just unfamiliar with the genre.”  But he reminded me that he has, in fact, seen two Westerns — Rango and Back to the Future III.  (That made me smile, believe me.)

And then it hit me.  Myself, I was born in 1961, which was about five years too late to have seen a Western when they were in their heyday.  I myself had never played Cowboys and Indians — the earliest game I could remember playing with friends was Time Tunnel, based on the hit TV show of the same name.  I was a perfect cultural symptom, like Andy in Toy Story, caught between worship of cowboys and worship of spacemen.  And that was 50 years ago.

I said to Sam “Well, the title is a play on words.  When I was a kid” — and then I realized not even then — “or, back before I was born, kids used to play Cowboys and Indians, that was, like, the most popular thing kids would do fifty, sixty years ago.”  And I realized that, to him, “fifty, sixty years ago” might as well be “during the Napoleonic Era.”

Then his face lit up.  “Oh, now I get it,” he said, “Now it’s a good title.  I didn’t know it was referring to something.”  Myself, it had never occurred to me that it “referred” to anything, I didn’t think “Cowboys and Indians” was a “reference” any more than The King of Queens is a “reference.”

In any case, I read in the trades yesterday that Cowboys and Aliens is getting serious box-office competition from The Smurfs, which leads me to think that Sam’s case might not be that rare, that the target audience for this movie is actually too young to be familiar with the phrase “Cowboys and Indians,” (I mean, my son has Indian friends, that is, people who hail from India, he’s barely heard of Native Americans referred to as “Indians”) and that they, too, see the posters and think “That title, I don’t know, that’s, I don’t know, weird or something.”


18 Responses to “A note on Cowboys and Aliens
  1. That . . . is a really good point.

    I got the reference, but I’m going to be thirty-one in just over a month. Never played “cowboys and Indians,” of course, but the reference is as familiar to me as “cops and robbers” would be (another game I never played).

    What made me uneasy about the title was the risk that the story would potentially imply Indians = aliens. Having just seen it tonight, I’m very, very glad to see it didn’t. Nor did it ignore the presence of Native Americans (the other big pitfall I feared). I won’t claim the film’s treatment of the Chiricahua is ideal — there’s at least one thing that really bugged me, but it would be a spoiler to say — but it had a number of touches that were noticeably better than your baseline filmic average.

    Which meant I was free to sit back and enjoy Daniel Craig being hot, and that’s really what I wanted out of this movie. 😉

    • Shawn says:

      The last time I saw any kids actually play Cowboys & Indians was when I was one in the early 90s in Dallas, but even then the adults were making sure to have us play Cops & Robbers instead. The more rural or south you poll the target demo, the more you’ll find they’re familiar with the “reference”.

      • Rick Day says:

        Being 55 and from Dallas, I immediately “got it”. Actually, it kind of grabbed me and said “Hey gramps, it’s OK to come to this movie; unlike the others, it’s for ME too!”

        FWIW: I’m not the movie going type. I’ve been to 5 big screens in 8 years (the Elizabeth Films, and the Batman ones with Beale. I saw FF and swore off all other ‘comic character movies’. And I refuse to watch Adult Swim. Don’t watch any TV, to be honest.

        However, I think I’ll go see this one during the weekday, when the kids are all over at the Smurf’s Place.

      • Dallas is where I grew up, actually. But if we played those games, I don’t recall it. (Then again, my memory from before the age of nine is pretty spotty.)

  2. Winry says:

    My first thought upon seeing the title was that it referenced Monsters vs. Aliens, instead of Cowboys & Indians; the first time I heard it I was like “really, that’s the title? It sounds like they couldn’t think of a title and called it the pitch instead.”

    As a twenty-five year old, I never played Cowboys & Indians growing up, but I was familiar with the game – we never played Cops & Robbers either, now that I think on it. It was Turtles & Foot Soldiers with our posse.

    Not that any of this stopped me from seeing it in the first place; Jon Favareu + Daniel Craig + Harrison Ford meant I was on board from the word ‘go.’

  3. I had a few weeks of dissonance too before the parallel (oh, Indians) hit me. Without that, the title does sound rather silly: a bald declaration of two genre elements in the movie. “This Summer: Black Comedians and Car Chases.”

    • Jason says:

      …which actually soundslike the tongue-in-cheek title of a Jamie Fox/Will Smith movie I would see.

  4. Mal says:

    Dargis in the NY Times also noted a problem with the title–that the younger viewers the movie is aimed at don’t understand that “Cowboys and Aliens” = “Cowboys vs. Aliens.”

    Me, I’m kind of meh about it. While the development fairies were futzing around, Firefly already been there, done that. But then, I’m way out of the target demographic.

  5. Tonya says:

    I think you hit the nail on the head. We have been seeing the trailer for what seems like a year now and eagerly awaiting the release. Being a big movie going family, my husband and I assumed everyone would be excited to go. His birthday was yesterday and when we announced “let’s go see Cowboys and Aliens” we were taken aback by the negative response by all three daughters (ages 12, 18 and 20.) I realize girls of those ages aren’t the target demo, but it was the reasoning from them that threw us: “the name is just ridiculous”, “that sounds stupid” and “dumb name, sounds terrible.” I’m 44 and a girl and while I don’t recall ever actually playing cowboys and indians, I grew up hearing my dad talk about it (and he grew up in a small western town in central Idaho with real…live…Indians!! And rode a horse to school!) so it seemed quite cool to me. Well, we convinced the 12 yo to go with us and like us, she totally enjoyed the movie. Once she got past the name.

  6. Ryan says:

    If a person had access to the ticket sales and demographic data, my bet would be that C&A will do better in the traditional American cultures of the South, the Southwest, and the Midwest than on the coasts. I would also bet that the sales will slew older as well as selling more tickets in rural than urban theaters.

    The populace of the coasts and cities have imbibed too much of the PC worldview to either get or enjoy the title and the genre, and the children of the last decades have had little chance to escape correctness anywhere.

    I haven’t seen the film yet, but we drove by the theater on the reservation Saturday night, and the line was out the door and onto the park in the 105-degree evening heat…

  7. Marco says:

    It doesn’t help that for a wide swath of the audience Aliens are H.R. Giger nightmares. I mean, sure–there are a zillion different “aliens” but in the movies? The Aliens have some serious name recognition.


  8. Doug Orleans says:

    I admit I didn’t get the “reference” either– I thought it was just another “Snakes on a Plane”…

    • Eric says:

      Yes, exactly. I’m grew up with the phrase “cowboys and indians” but when I heard “cowboys and aliens” I also thought it was a SoaP-style non-title title. Or like “Scary Movie.”

      A friend of mine recently said “There’s no way I’m going to see Cowboys vs. Aliens. Any movie with a ‘vs.’ in the title is going to be no good.” And though I have been hearing about Cowboys and Aliens for a long time, and actually plan to see it at some point, I didn’t realize she had gotten the name wrong. It’s just not a catchy name!

  9. Ans says:

    Have you seen it yet? I was less than impressed. I feel like with that sort of concept they could have done so much, but held back and turned it into a movie that didn’t utilize its elements well enough.

  10. Ruud says:

    Cowboys and Indians is familiar to me even though i’m european. I don’t think we played it though. Cops ‘n Crooks was way more exciting to us.

    Yeah, i didn’t get the indians reference either from the title, but i always liked it.

  11. Noskilz says:

    I thought Cowboys and Aliens was an entertaining movie – although maybe not suitable for many kids. It’d depend on the kid, of course.

    That it had Smurfs for a rival didn’t seem that strange to me – Smurfs is certainly is instantly recognizable, at least to the people buying the tickets, and depending on the line-up at the local multiplex, that might be one of the few options for someone looking for a kids movie.. Smurfs looks like a terrible, terrible movie to me, so I haven’t seen it.

    Maybe in an enviroment where the economy still looks rather dicey, many people are just reluctant to take a chance on something they weren’t totally sure about – which would dovetail with your notion that maybe westerns may as well be serials to much of today’s audience. But isn’t almost every genre available to anyone who wants it, does anything ever really go away? Not that a persistent media buffet takes away from your notion that they may be currently long out of fashion.

    I haven’t read your True Grit articles – I’ve heard it’s a good movie, but I haven’t seen it yet and you do tend to go in to considerable detail – that was a western, and it did OK, didn’t it? Although that was a reworking of a famous movie, so maybe that’s an apples to oranges comparison

  12. NoonThirty says:

    So you haven’t talked about Jr. and Star Wars recently, but I thought you might get a kick out of this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZbV5hn_ET0U&feature=player_embedded