Cowboys and Aliens: mismanaging audience expectations

A man stands in desert canyon territory wearing Wild West costume (gunbelt, hat, chaps) under a dark and threatening sky.  He is shown from behind, half-turning, holding a rifle in one hand and wearing a metal cuff with blue laser lights on his other wrist

From the director of Iron Man – COWBOYS & ALIENS – Summer 2011

Yeah, I’m reviewing a film after it’s been in rotation on cable/DVD for ages. Deal.

Sometimes, when there are so many Great Big Ideas fizzing around for one film, it might be worth paying a lot of extra attention to more tightly focussing your promotional zeitgeist.

So you’re a bunch of Hollywood veterans putting together a Wild West sci-fi action film. What do you tell your target demographic about the film while it’s in development about which type of action film they’ll be coming to see? What sort of message are you sending with the title you choose for not just the film itself, but also the graphic novel you had published years earlier as part of the development process? What is the audience going to expect from the combination of stars whom you cast for the major roles?

Just maybe perhaps you don’t want to choose the conceptual path laden with pre-existing trope associations in the minds of your target demographic and then make a film with a script and mood which goes against most of those tropes. No matter how good the film might be as a stand-alone, if the packaging you’ve chosen leads the target audience to expect one sort of film and you give them a very different sort of film, then the word of mouth is not going to be all you might hope for, and watching box-office receipts struggle to reach break-even seems rather inevitable.

After all, this big-budget action film fan certainly got the word of mouth that it didn’t live up to expectations, which is why I never went to see it in a cinema. But even given that fore-knowledge, I still found myself let down by what was missing.

Seriously? You choose a film title reminiscent of carefree childhood fun and games, you cast James Bond and Indiana Jones in the Wild West versus aliens with frickin’ lasers under that title, and then the audience doesn’t get even bloody ONE deadpan quip from either of them? In fact, the whole film is severely lacking in the deadpan quip department?

How does anybody ever make money in Hollywood when veteran producers like Spielberg can miss something so very obvious that’s so very wrong?

This was not a particularly bad movie, not at all, when one takes the expectations above out of it. Various Western and SF genre conventions were neatly given their dues without overly intruding. The action sequences were choreographed tightly, the cinematography compelling and the special effects were excellent. The script gave both Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford a bit wider range of responses to work with than most action films would have done, and they play them well. The young boy riding with the cowboys was suitably poignant as he came of age. The ObSIKAW was refreshing, since Olivia Wilde actually got to be a protagonist and not just an appendage. There were some nice nuances, especially in the supporting contributions of Sam Rockwell and Keith Carradine, who both should have been given more to do (more disappointed expectations).

But it wasn’t a romp, when everything about the particular combination of title and stars and director screamed romp (sometimes the basic pitch title really isn’t the one you want to take to the box office). I plan to watch it again, now that I know it’s not a romp, and this time I’ll follow the story without half of me being distracted by wondering where the one-liners are going to drop. I expect I’ll be able to pay more attention to what the film actually is, second time around. It would have been much better for me, and certainly for the reputation of all the talents involved, to have not been herded down the path of expecting something different in the first place.

Categories: arts & entertainment

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5 replies

  1. Oh, I thought it was a kids film. So there you go. When you have watched it again, tell me if it is worth finding and watching willya? Ta.

    • Bother, one of TheFamily™ deleted the recording before I could mark it with a K for Keep. Never mind, I’m sure it will come around again. I’m not emotionally invested enough to track it down right now, but if I see it float past, I’ll record it for watching again. With a retrospective lens, there was quite a lot to enjoy/appreciate. Even the ObNativeAmerican quotient in a Wild West film seemed to me, as someone mostly reliant on another country’s pop-culture for my limited understandings, to be reasonably nonnot-too-problematic – the Native Americans were represented as actualised people with their own valid goals and concerns, possessing skills which made them full partners in the alliance against the aliens.

  2. By the way of contrast, yesterday’s school holiday arvo action film was 1995’s In The Nick Of Time, starring Johnny Depp and Christopher Walken. That combination of title and casting led me to expect something worth watching, but not much more than that. After reading a plot teaser I expected that Depp would be the bewildered patsy of a conspiracy represented by Walken as a creepy villain, and that with Depp on board it would probably have a fairly sharp script, and thus it turned out to be. I was also intrigued by the premise of the action of the movie taking place in realtime i.e. no narrative jumps to ten minutes or ten hours later.
    In this case the promotional team managed my expectations well, and no fundamental disappointment ensued (I wouldn’t rate it a must-see, but if it comes your way it’s a good show).
    Trying to think about other movies with mismanaged expectations. Prometheus is up there, deffo.

  3. Everyone I’m aware of that’s seen Prometheus has come away saying well, that wasn’t what I was expecting. Wasn’t what I expected. And damn, but those aliens have got dozens of ways to kill and reproduce.
    Not that Prometheus is a bad movie, but you do spend all the film waiting for something that never happens.

  4. A kind of flipside of this was Three Kings. Promo made it look like a straightforward US-as-heroes action flick, with! explosions! I snigger a bit when I wonder how many dudes accidentally found themselves watching a very sharp and challenging anti-war black comedy.

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