COWBOYS AND ALIENS: Why did audiences laugh at the trailer?

It seemed an ill-omen when audiences responded to the theatrical trailer for Cowboys and Aliens with laughter. Not full throated laughter indicative of pleasure, but thin, nervous, awkward, even scornful laughs, titters and jeers. I recall seeing the trailer twice in a theatrical venue, but both times the reactions of my fellow moviegoers were similar.

Last week, I began looking at significantly underperforming films of 2011 and asking whether their trailers offered any advance warnings. Cowboys and Aliens featured prominently on that list. (Budget: $163M / American B.O. results: $140M) As I watched the trailer recently, I tried to understand how such a likely and appropriate audience (ticketbuyers for another action-intensive blockbuster, with a-list stars and spectacular special effects) responded so skeptically. I’ll begin with a description of the trailer and then set out my explanation for the challenges it faced and the response it received.

At 2:24, the trailer spends fully half its length presenting a classic, or formulaic western story. Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) awakes in the desert, unable to remember who or what he is. After dispatching of one group of “bad guys,” he comes to town where he’s recognized: his face is on a “wanted” poster. Local beauty Ella (Olivia Wilde) marvels that he doesn’t remember anything. He’s arrested by the Marshall, but claimed by local potentate, Dolarhyde (a nasty Harrison Ford) who has unstated grievances with him.

And then, as Craig’s fate is being decided, aliens attack. Dolarhyde, on horseback, stares at the approaching lights of the UFO and exclaims: “What the hell.” The director’s credit (“from Jon Favreau, Director of Iron Man”) interrupts scenes of alien bombing and extractions. The producer’s credit follows—a card naming Brian Glazer and Ron Howard—further establishing the distinguished provenance of the film.

After this card, a shell-shocked Ella demands of Jake, with whom she is sheltering from the attack, “it it demons?” “Why are you asking me,” he replies, through the smoke and rubble. Then, executive Producer Stephen Spielberg’s card appears, in what I would call “Provenance overkill.”

Cut to daytime and a stock establishing shot of cowboys riding out to meet the threat and defend the town. Lonergan and Dolarhyde set aside their unspecified personal grievances to fight against the more pressing existential threat from an enemy so technologically advanced as to defy comprehension.

In the final 15 seconds or so, before the title card, release date and credit block, we see Lonergan shoot down an alien fighter craft using the high-tech bracelet that encircles his wrist. He appears surprised at the power and independence of this weapon he wields; we cut to a reaction shot from Dolarhyde, whose eyes widen in astonishment, envy and acknowledgement that Lonergan has superior firepower. (This is a classic pissing match: Lonergan obviously has the bigger gun.)

For this trailer, the marketers have replaced the traditional enemy and other—Indians—with Aliens, although we never see any aliens per se. Instead, their technology– lights, vehicles, weapons—stands in as a sign of strength and other-worldliness. All we know is that they are hostile and constitute a threat so dire as to make routine matters of justice and revenge temporarily inconsequential. Aliens, in the representational field of this trailer– unlike Indians in recent Hollywood Westerns– are unknowably “other” and beyond identification and sympathetic consideration.

They are terrifying and obviously not from here. Dolarhyde and Ella can only conceive of them within their Christian worldview: “What the Hell” asks Dolarhyde, in a more than rhetorical ejaculation. “Is it Demons” demands Ella. Lonergan reply, “why are you asking me?” is disingenuous. They’re asking him because like the aliens, he’s a mystery. Like the aliens he wields extraordinary and unfamiliar technology.

The trailer smartly exploits the formula of a man of mystery, embraced in a time of crisis. But here, it runs up against a challenge that may be insurmountable. If westerns are epistemological exercises—concerned with establish what is knowable and true and just– alien (or Sci-Fi) films entail ontological questions– those concerned with the nature of being and existence. I don’t mean to obfuscate matters by recourse to these fundamental philosophical terms, only to suggest that with a film like Cowboys and Aliens, it was always going to be difficult to get audiences to process this clash of genres.

Indians pose no challenge to our ideas about the world. They are a recognizable entity, regularly and familiarly opposed to their cowboy adversaries, like Montagues and Capulets, Royalists and Jacobins, etc. Aliens, on the other hand, throw everything we think we know about ourselves, the nature of existence and our place in the universe into doubt, and that’s part of what’s so thrilling and exciting about science fiction/space-exploration stories.

The title of the film isn’t doing the marketers any favors, even though it’s the title of a well-known graphic novel with a built in fan base. That’s because it comes across as clever and arch, knowing, self-conscious and even “funny,” since it combines two categories that aren’t supposed to co-exist. It’s a joke, right? Well, no. The world of the cowboy, existing in a pre-modern technological world, has no ontological room for aliens. The only sense that can be made of them is that they’re demonic, which is what the good townspeople immediately assume.

So the audience laughed because it didn’t quite know what to make of this (sky) high concept film. It couldn’t quite assimilate this combination of genres, each with very different philosophical commitments. Cowboys and Aliens no doubt sounded great in the pitch meeting: two great genres that go great together; or you got western in my sci-fi! And you got sci-fi in my western! But in the theater, the premise engendered perplexity from audiences that couldn’t decide whether they were in on the joke or if the joke were on them. Is this a comedy? Parody? Farce? Or the existential drama is appears to be?

Certainly, the other challenge the trailermakers faced, beyond how to present this class of genres with a straight face, was the quality of the Western and Sci-Fi stories that were being juxtaposed. Cowboy’s and Aliens isn’t a very good or compelling western; it isn’t a very good or compelling alien story. All the CGI and special effects in the world couldn’t quite conceal those weaknesses in script, casting, performance which the trailer discloses, regardless of the promises of quality the director and producer credits so emphatically assert.

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movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

About Frederick Greene

Entertainment Copywriter & Visiting Assistant Professor, UCLA Dept. of Theater, Film & Television. I teach a graduate seminar in new movie marketing, which focuses on the history, contemporary practice and likely future of a/v advertising for motion picture entertainment.
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