How to Read a Movie Poster on the Side of a Bus

This morning as I was about to step out onto LaSalle Street in downtown Chicago, a CTA bus ran a red light and turned the corner. As the bus passed a few inches in front of me, this advertisement flashed before my eyes:


Near death experiences happen all the time in the Loop, so I remained calm enough to take in the poster as it was meant to be seen. Here’s what I learned:

  1. Two stark visual juxtapositions: an unidentifiable piece of technology and a cowboy hat; cool blue against a sweaty face. This is a high-concept film with lots of special effects.
  2. Two generic juxtapositions that aren’t as far apart as they might seem: the Western and science fiction, two genres already with a lot in common, particularly a simplified moral structure. 
  3. The alien apparatus–clearly a weapon–is unusual in that it hasn’t invaded the human body, a common feature of sci fi films. The technology is a lethal appendage. There’s a further hint at the plot: the character faces a threat off to the left, defensive position, and therefore more consistent with pre-1950s Hollywood Westerns.
  4. At first I didn’t recognize the actor, so I immediately assumed the producers had invested their money in special effects at the expense of star talent. That meant, among other things, the action of the film would be even less character-driven than usual in the sci fi genre. However, I later learned the actor was Daniel Craig, a name star if not a top-level one. Harrison Ford is in the film, too. He’s not the headliner, so he’s just showed up for a couple of weeks of shooting and went home with an extra million or two. He’ll deliver a relaxed and affable performance because he doesn’t want to be seen as trying too hard. Ford will probably flash his trademark grimace at least once, but otherwise he won’t get too worked up.
  5. The title: Cowboys and Aliens. The film may be a brilliant mashup of the Western and sci fi genres, but I doubt it. Postmodern play is very unlikely to be the film’s main selling point. The entire concept of the film fits into three words. This is a film made to be marketed.  The prototype of this kind of film is Top Gun (1986). Compare it to An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), which wasted time developing its main character, having him fall in love, allowing him to grow, and so on. In Top Gun, the main character shoots down an airplane. Any marketer could sell that premise. The only dramatic question left in Cowboys and Aliens? At whom is the gun pointed? A cowbody or an alien?


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