Cowboys & Aliens & America’s Self-Consciousness

Okay, everybody. Here’s the deal: Cowboys & Aliens, yes that trailer that you saw and thought looked interesting until the title came up and then you laughed, is going to be the best summer film this year. First, some factoids:

1. Cowboys & Aliens is based on a critically acclaimed comic book of the same name.

The book gained across-the-board great critical reviews for its great story and its themes. The name is an obvious play on the phrase ‘Cowboys & Indians’, two historically entrenched enemies. The story of technologically advanced extraterrestrials invading the Old West created an effective and intentional metaphor for western domination of indigenous peoples. The experience of a high-tech, unknown force invading your land and being powerless to defend it is probably what the Native Americans felt and the book was an attempt at re-constructing that feeling in a sci-fi setting. Hence the concept has some inherent thematic value.

2. Cowboys & Aliens is directed by Jon Favreau. He directed Elf and Iron Man, two very successful and entertaining films. He was also the non-Vince Vaughan character in the GenX classic comedy Swingers, so he’s got a colorful, multi-faceted history in the movie biz and a quick wit.

My point: Favreau is one of the good guys. He’s a witty, talented actor-turned-director with a love for high-concept blockbusters. I’d call him the anti-Michael Bay. Every time he’s been put behind the wheel of a juicy concept and given a lot of money, he’s delivered surprising and clever results and he’s someone who knows how to make a good blockbuster, particularly one that deals with outlandish subject matter like an elf going to New York or a man who makes an iron suit and fights crime.


I’m going to go into full on ‘cultural grandma’ mode here and give all you little people a lecture here. Prepare to get scolded, America.

The audience reaction to the trailer has been the biggest, most egregious case of ‘judging a book by its cover’ I’ve yet seen. The mere mention of the title seems to send shockwaves of contempt through any gathered group. Theaters burst out laughing when the titles arrived. Normally, I’d call this sort of thing an obvious result of bad marketing, but this time, I think the problem lies on the other side of the screen.

There is a dim recognition that Hollywood has gone off the rails, is out to make money and pander to stupidity. This is true, but the ultimate joke is that America’s shallow awareness of this fact tends to put the wrong things in the cross-hairs. Why do we scorn the very idea of this film but not, say, Transformers which, even if we feel belabored by its overstimulation, seems to us to represent a more palatable concept?

Really? Transforming r0bots from another planet that turn into cars? But aliens invading the old west is too ‘ridiculous’? Explain your reasoning, America.

Favreau himself had this to say about it:

From /Film:

“The people in this room and the people at this convention are really comfortable with high concept films. They embrace an interesting concept because it becomes a challenge for the filmmaker to do it in a real way, a grounded way. It’s funny because there’s definitely a difference of culture where now with social media you can see reactions and when you see Cowboys & Aliens there’s only two things you hear. One is that’s awesome, that’s gonna be so cool. Or the other one is I can’t believe they’re doing that, this is offensive to me. They go see Transformers and see a trailer for Cowboys & Aliens and they’re like, no, cowboys and aliens they don’t fight each other, that’s completely implausible, they didn’t exist at the same time, this is insulting and I can’t believe Hollywood is making a movie like this so now the alien robots turn into trucks and that’s okay. That’s plausible. But you get James Bond and Indiana Jones fighting aliens, we’re crossed a line there.”

The concept of Cowboys & Aliens is no less ridiculous as any other summer film. Including overly talky films about thieves invading people’s minds. Yes people. There is no logical grounds upon which to disdain Cowboys & Aliens over/against other ‘slicker’ high concept films (Inception) or those that have beaten us to death for so long that we’ve grown to accept as a force of nature and maybe even go see for ironic enjoyment (Transformers).

[Wiki break!: High concept is a term used to refer to an artistic work that can be easily described by a succinctly stated premise. High concept narratives are typically characterised by an over-arching “what if?” scenario that acts as a catalyst for the following events. Often, the most popular summer blockbuster movies are built on a high concept idea, such as “what if a shark attacks?” (Jaws); “what if we could clone dinosaurs?” (Jurassic Park), and so on.]

Favreau again:

“I feel like all high concept movies are intrinsically ridiculous. That’s the whole idea of high concept. You’re taking a crazy situation and your bringing reality to it. That’s every high concept film. That’s every action film. A guy makes an iron suit. A guy injects himself and turns into the Hulk, trucks turn into robots. The trick with the filmmakers is you gotta make that emotionally accessible experience in something that has character arc and that you feel something. That’s the push and pull. So for me I think it’s less offensive to just say, hey, its cowboys & aliens. It’s like what Harrison Ford said to me when we were first thinking about the title. I said, a lot of people don’t like the title Cowboys & Aliens, should we change the name. He looked at me. He paused and said ‘what the hell else you gonna call it?'”

What’s the difference here? Why all the hate for Cowboys & Aliens? Well, my theory is because the obviousness of the title is a little too revealing to us. We watch silly movies about silly things, but we want to maintain the illusion that the media we choose are from a higher echelon of ‘cultural value’ than the rest. Many shallow, high concept films hide behind a falsely obscure title to obscure the fact that it’s a pretty simple concept (Cloverfield, I Am Number Four, Twilight, Super 8). What if Inception had been named what it was actually about? (‘Dream Criminals’? or maybe ‘Mind Job’?) I say it would’ve been the same story.

This sort of psuedo-intellectual spit-shine is not in keeping with the history of high concept films. Raiders of the Lost Ark, Close Encounters, E.T., Star Wars, Star Trek, Jaws, Planet of the Apes. The most loved high concept blockbusters of all time have the most obvious names. But we’ve moved on and now we’re self-conscious. Why do we have to name our movies things like Inception? We’re still making high-concept films, but no, these are even higher concept films. They’re slicker, shinier, minimalist, lens-flaired and rebooted. Fantasy is ‘darker’ and more intelligent, but really, what’s the more childish? Being proud of one’s childishness or making childish concepts appear adultlike? We put juvenile ideas under a thick veneer of ‘coolness’ because the very people who grew up on Spielbergian high concept are adults now and they’re self-conscious about the fact that they still love those youthful feelings of adventure and magic. They shoot it in muted tones with shaky cameras, write ironic dialogue and add political commentary. My diagnosis: embrace your inner nerd. If you’re gonna make a sci-fi or fantasy film, be obvious about it because all high concept movies are good old American cheese, and the ones that pretend they aren’t are cheese-filled caviar.

Spielberg never shied away from a concept because it was too juvenile. He embraced childishness and created art out of it. Don’t let go, America. We can still inspire a new generation of innocence. But first we have to get over our self-consciousness and give a fair shake to a film that’s not afraid to say what it is. Don’t feel self-conscious. Dont’ let the jock (Peter Berg) or the drama kid (P.T. Anderson) tell you you’re a geek. When you go to the movies, let your inner child play.

I got news for you, America, we’re all nerds. Time to start telling it like it is. Cowboys & Aliens is a movie about freaking cowboys and freaking aliens and it’s gonna be awesome.

Unnecessary post-script: Why is this important? Because who you give your movie dollars to matters. Hollywood’s in a funny place right now where films can be axed by a jittery producer in the middle of pre-production. These days, the concept is everything. It doesn’t matter whether or not you make a good movie. The powers that be in that far off tinseltown on the west coast seem to believe that people won’t see a movie if there’s something about the concept they don’t like or don’t understand. Therefore, concepts that are already attached to an established brand are more likely to get made than original or obscure concepts. Hence, Transformers is three films in and Inception almost didn’t get made. Basically, something needs to ‘catch on’ before it’s even made. Producers will look at a film’s concept and decide if it even deserves to get made irrespective of the talent is behind it. This sort of thinking results in crappy movies, particularly boring, awful reboots and remakes of properties that have been around forever since a remake is something that has a built-in fanbase and a familiar idea that people don’t have to expend precious brain-power deciphering. Friends, originality is gasping for air in a drowning pool of brand competition. For a more detailed (and damning) description of the state of Hollywood, see this excellent article. If you’re gonna give away your hard-earned moneys to a movie, give it to a good movie and not one that just sounds familiar.


About alexwilgus

Twentysomething from Texas. Living in Chicago. Working for a living. Writing for life.
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One Response to Cowboys & Aliens & America’s Self-Consciousness

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