When the Wild West Meets Extra-Terrestrials

            In the film Cowboys and Aliens (2011), two genres collide explosively, literally.  The Wild West meets extra-terrestrials.  The film was directed by Jon Favreau and produced by Steven Spielberg, Brian Grazer, and Ron Howard (“Cowboys and Aliens (2011)”).  The film features Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, and Olivia Wilde (“Cowboys and Aliens (2011)”).  The film starts out with cowboys and aliens but shortly comes to include Indians in the mix, complicating the plot.  The movie mixes the genres of western and science fiction, staying true to their characteristics for the most part as the producers planned, but differing some as well.

The film Cowboys and Aliens (2011) is not a typical western or a typical science fiction movie because it combines both genres.  Producer Ron Howard discovered a script which combined the two genres that Executive Producer Steven Spielberg had previously worked on and given up on (“Spielberg/Grazer/Howard”).  Spielberg described the previous script as more akin to Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles and said that the original script “didn’t have much of the traditional western about it…and Ron said for this blend to work it’s gotta be tradition” (“Spielberg/Grazer/Howard”).  The film had to have more traditional western elements to it in order for it to work.  In fact, there is not much humor in the final version of the film; it is serious and action-driven with very typical western elements.  Howard said in an interview that “you’re doing something different…you are doing something bold and cool, and so there’s going to be…some experimentation…it’s never really been done” (“Spielberg/Grazer/Howard”).  The film is atypical for the reason that it combines the western and science fiction.  It mixes two completely separate genres convincingly and successfully.

The film compellingly combines the two genres of western and science fiction.  The mix of these two genres is rare; however, as Christine Gledhill says, “it is unwise to assert too confidently that particular attributes cannot appear or happen in a particular genre, because sooner or later you will be proved wrong” (Gledhill 217).  The movie opens in the desert, and the setting never transfers to outer space.  Instead of Indians, thieves, or other foes of the common cowboy bringing trouble, aliens try to take over the world.  The hunt for the foe is consequently not the same as in typical westerns.  The men are up against greater odds than they would be in a typical western, while the aliens are up against their normal, weaker foes.  A great number of the fighting “good guys” are killed which is somewhat abnormal for a western, but at the same time, (viewers assume) all of the aliens are killed by the end, which sometimes happens in science fiction films. 

            Cowboys and Aliens (2011) begins as a western with all of the conventions found in a western, though perhaps slightly modified.  According to Christine Gledhill, “convention takes on an inherently conservative connotation, its main function being to reinforce normative meanings and values” (Gledhill 214).  The film is quite conservatively a western, determinable by its use of western conventions; it reinforces values from previous westerns.  Typical semantic elements include: a desert setting, a small, failed mining town, adventure music, guns, knives, cattle, rope, a saloon, cowboy boots, horses, and (of course) the cowboy who must save the girl.  Syntactical elements common to the genre and present in the film include a shootout, a hunt for a threat to the town, various encounters with the foe in which some of the “good guys” are killed, a holdup, and a cowboy who saves the day (and the girl).  One stereotype reinforced in the film is the relationship between the cowboys and the Indians.  Richard Dyer says that “stereotypes are a very simple, striking, easily-grasped form of representation but are none the less capable of condensing a great deal of complex information and a host of connotations” (Dyer 208).  While the cowboys and Indians work together out of necessity, the same beliefs, reactions, and prejudices of a representative western are still present.  Throughout the movie the two main leaders of both groups, the Indian chief and Dolarhyde, argue and are at odds with one another.  At first, according to the whites’ leader, Dolarhyde, the whites are “prisoners,” but soon become “guests” of the Indians (Cowboys and Aliens, 2011).  Later, the Indian chief says he will not let his people follow Dolarhyde (but does so after Dolarhyde’s employee, Nat, convinces him), and later Dolarhyde saves the chief’s life.  There is a constant battle of who follows whom, and who plays by what rules in the Indian versus white interactions. 

            The film differs from a western in various ways.  For example, where cowboys tend to save the girl’s life, the cowboy in this film cannot save the girl the second time around; she gives herself up as a sacrifice.  Instead of a gun as the main character’s weapon, Jake uses an alien weapon, the only effective weapon against the aliens, he acquired by accident while an alien was operating on him.  Also, in most westerns, women are not normally encouraged to go on hunts or adventures with the men; they are usually dragged along as a hostage or left at home.  In Cowboys and Aliens (2011), Ella asks if she can ride along on the hunt to find the missing people (she also wants to kill the aliens); one of the characters, after giving her permission, mutters under his breath “got a kid and a dog, why not a woman?” (Cowboys and Aliens, 2011).  Not only does a woman have permission to ride along, she almost seems welcomed.  Also, no man touches her or teases her as men in westerns often do.

            The film also provides the same thrills and elements of other science fiction films.  Typical science fiction elements seen in this film are aliens, air ships, advanced technology, and powerful weapons.  The same syntactical elements recur in this movie as they do in other science fiction films: aliens have a reason or drive to be on earth; they try to take over the world, kidnapping and killing humans in the meantime; the aliens land on earth, harvest whatever they need and take off again, but are eventually destroyed by the humans.  Also, the aliens in the film share some stereotypical characteristics with aliens in other movies.  According to Dyer “The type is any character constructed though the use of a few immediately recognizable and defining traits, which do not change or ‘develop’ through the course of the narrative and which point to general, recurrent features of the human world” (Dyer 208).  Aliens are not part of the human world; however, the stereotypical traits defining an alien in a film are present in this film.  For example, aliens often look mushy and have a different number of fingers and/or toes than humans.  E.T., for example, only has three fingers per both hands; the aliens in Cowboys and Aliens (2011) also have three fingers apiece on two hands.  The aliens in Super 8 (2011) and on Cowboys and Aliens (2011) look very similar especially in their faces, and their appendages are similar.  Even nonexistent aliens have stereotypes in American films.

            While the movie does have some similarities to strictly science fiction movies, there are differences as well.  For example, people do not often rise back to life, even in science fiction movies; yet Ella comes back to life after dying and being thrown in a fire, albeit she is an alien just in human form.  Other differences between this movie and other science fiction movies are that the aliens are after gold, and they appear to run tests on humans.  Ella evens mentions that the aliens on the earth are scouts studying the humans’ weaknesses (Cowboys and Aliens, 2011).

            The film Cowboys and Aliens (2011) is a unique combination of the western and science fiction genres.  Semantic and syntactic elements common to each genre are present, yet some differences do exist.  The film combined both genres taking elements of each to form a cohesive whole, all part of the producers plans to produce something different. 

Works Cited

Cowboys and Aliens.  Dir. Jon Favreau.  With Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, and Olivia Wilde.       Universal Pictures, 2011.  Film.

 “Cowboys and Aliens (2011).”  IMDb.com.  2011.  IMDb.com, Inc.  Web.  30 Sept 2011. 

Dyer, Richard.  “The Role of Sterotypes.”  Media Studies: A Reader.  Ed.  Sue Thornham, Caroline Bassett, and Paul Marris.  3rd ed.  New York: New York University P., 2009.  206-212.  Print.

Gledhill, Christine.  “Genre, Representation and Soap Opera.”  Media Studies: A Reader.  Ed.  Sue Thornham, Caroline Bassett, and Paul Marris.  3rd ed.  New York: New York University P., 2009.  213-223.  Print.

Spielberg, Steven, Grazer, Brian, Howard, Ron.  “Spielberg/Grazer/Howard – ‘Cowboys & Aliens.’” Interview by Jon Favreau.  “The Cowboys and Aliens Interviews.”  YouTube.  Web.  <http://www.youtube.com/user/Cowboys AliensIntrvws#p/u/15/APiu7wu0f8Q>.

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About Allison L. Goodman

I am a stay-at-home wife and mother. I fill my days making taking care of my daughter, encouraging others, cooking meals for my family, managing my resources through DIY projects, and writing.
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