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Film / Cowboys & Aliens

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First contact. Last stand.

A 2011 film directed by Jon Favreau, produced by Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard, and starring Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Daniel Craig, Sam Rockwell, Clancy Brown, and Keith Carradine, set in The Wild West. It is based on a 2006 graphic novel, which even started as a movie pitch but Development Hell made the comic be released first.

An amnesiac man by the name of Jake Lonergan wakes up in the middle of the desert with a strange metal device on his forearm. He soon finds himself to be a wanted outlaw hunted by Federal Marshals and bounty hunters, but then discovers a much more pressing issue when mysterious lights begin to shine in the sky, and the device on his forearm activates to devastating effect.


This film provides examples of:

  • Action Girl: Ella, who is the person who really defeats the aliens by killing a number of them and then blowing up their evacuating ship.
  • Adaptation Distillation: The comic is an allegorical condemnation of Manifest Destiny - the aliens come to Earth to add it to their empire and treat the indigenous peoples like dirt. There's actually a scene where a white guy screams "they don't have the right to do this to us just because they have better guns!", only to be met with a Death Glare from an Indian. In the movie, the aliens have Gold Fever, abduct people via techno-lasso - and it focuses more on people trying to do what seems right no matter their past deeds.
    Meachum: I've seen bad people do good things, and good people do bad things. God don't care who you were, son. Only who you are.
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  • Alcoholic Parent: Dolarhyde. He gets better, both in terms of sobriety and as a parent.
  • Alien Among Us: Ella, although she's of a different species from the main aliens.
  • Alien Autopsy: Species inverted.
  • Alien Blood: The aliens have greenish blood.
  • Alien Invasion
  • Aliens Are Bastards: The aliens are complete assholes, except Ella, of course, who's a different species of alien.
  • Aliens in Cardiff: The aliens come to Arizona looking for gold, and the Wild West still has plenty.
  • Aliens Steal Cattle: Or blow them to smithereens in this case.
  • Annoying Arrows: Arrows do little more than distract the aliens.
    • That said, so do bullets.
  • Anti-Hero: Lonergan and Dolarhyde.
  • Arm Cannon/Hand Blast: The device attached to Lonergan's arm packs a hell of a punch.
  • Asskicking Equals Authority: A source of friction between Dolarhyde and the Apaches. They don't accept him as a great warrior because they expect this trope; if he were, he would already have a big band of followers behind him.
  • Awesome Mc Coolname: Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde. Jake Lonergan sounds only slightly less badass.
  • Badass Preacher: Meacham. His advice to Doc is to get a gun and learn how to shoot it. So much for turning the other cheek.
  • BFG: The aliens who aren't packing arm cannons are packing these.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Ella sacrifices herself to ensure the alien scouts don't return home, and Lonergan decides not to settle down, but the aliens are dead, and the town of Absolution sees a boom on the horizon, as all the gold the aliens mined and refined has rained down over the praeries nearby.
  • Bizarre Alien Biology: The aliens have a secondary pair of arms that come out of their chest, which they seem to use for more delicate work than their main arms, which seem more suited for combat. This is also an Achilles' Heel, as using these arms also exposes their hearts.
  • Boom, Headshot!: Doc learns how to sharpshoot at just the right moment.
  • Bounty Hunter: The people seen at the beginning of the film assume Lonergan might have a bounty, given the state they find him in. Turns out he does, but they fail to collect.
  • But Now I Must Go: Lonergan rides off at the end, even though Dolerhyde and Sheriff Taggart urge him to stay.
  • Butt-Monkey: Percy becomes this to Lonergan in the first part of the film.
  • Cattle Punk: Cowboys. Aliens. Exactly What It Says on the Tin.
  • The Cavalry: Lonergan's old gang.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • Emmett's knife.
    • The scorching effect of the aliens' gold-mining device.
    • The dynamite
    • The fact that the town is a mining town.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Doc learning how to shoot.
  • Cigar-Fuse Lighting: After one of the bandits drops all the matches off a cliff, he asks how he's going to light the dynamite. The answer is the lit cigarro he's been smoking the whole scene.
  • Clarke's Third Law: The aliens are never called as such. They're most often called demons and the cast never thinks of them as being technologically advanced. Ella, another alien, says that she came from beyond the stars, giving the impression of an angel.
  • Colonel Badass: Although he's not in the army anymore, Dolarhyde has the requisite military rank. And boy does he kick ass.
  • Contrived Coincidence: ...that everything they need to run into is pretty much all lined up on the route they take while following the trail of the alien. The riverboat, the house Jake was living in, the bandits he worked with, the Indians to help him regain his memories, and the spaceship itself, all out there in a line and in easy riding distance from each other.
  • Convenient Cranny: Emmett hides from an alien in one.
  • Conveniently Timed Attack from Behind: When Dolarhyde has run out of bullets while facing one of the aliens in combat, the alien lets out a Roar Before Beating but is then shot in the head by Doc from behind.
  • Cool vs. Awesome: Cowboys and Aliens.
  • Cowboy: Of course.
  • Criminal Amnesiac
  • Deadpan Snarker: Jake does this even when not talking.
    • Doc has his moments
  • Died in Your Arms Tonight: Happens twice: first with the preacher and second with Nat. There's also a subversion with Ella.
  • A Dog Named "Dog": The dog that follows Lonergan around — nobody bothers to give it a name except Emmett, who calls it "Dog".
  • Don't Call Me "Sir": Dolarhyde, a colonel in the The American Civil War, hates being referred to by that title. (Although Lonergan calls him Colonel at the end, out of respect.)
  • Emotionless Girl: Ella sort of comes off as this as she's particularly and uncannily calm in most of the situations she gets into. This makes more sense when it's revealed she's not a human and turns out to be an alien.
  • Enemy Mine: Dolarhyde, Lonergan, and the townspeople working together to beat the aliens. This later expands to include a tribe of Apaches and Lonergan's old gang.
  • Evil Is Hammy: Harrison Ford really piles on the gruff, threatening voice when he appears to just be a sadistic villain, but lightens up on it as the character's Hidden Depths are revealed.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: If you walked into a movie called Cowboys and Aliens and expected anything else, you totally deserved to be disappointed.
  • Exposed Extraterrestrials: The aliens don't wear any clothing except maybe for their Arm Cannon bracelets. Ella doesn't seem to be fazed by the fact that she's completely naked when she revives in the fire either.
  • Fanservice: Olivia Wilde has a scene of her naked around a campfire in front of EVERYONE. Although nothing but her back (from the waist up) is shown.
    • Daniel Craig runs around in tight breeches and leather chaps. Not to mention the Shirtless Scene.
  • Fire-Forged Friends: Dolarhyde and Lonergan.
  • A Form You Are Comfortable With: Ella's human form is a disguise. Her true form is never seen.
  • The Good Shepherd: Meacham.
  • Heal It with Booze: Meacham the preacher pours whiskey over Lonergan's wound before stitching it up.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Dolarhyde, Lonergan and a dozen bandits rediscover their inner goodness during the course of the movie. Most unnamed characters die in the process.
  • Hellish Horse: When the alien ships first appear in the sky, they appear to be a fiery stampede.
  • Heroic Sacrifice:
    • Ella takes Lonergan's Arm Cannon into the core of the alien ship and overloads it, destroying the ship, the aliens, and herself.
    • Meacham is critically wounded while rescuing Emmett from an attacking Alien.
    • Nat does one for Dolarhyde, lassoing an alien to prevent it from killing Dolarhyde, and getting mortally wounded in the neck for his efforts.
  • Hero of Another Story: Nat briefly gives an accounting of Colonel Dolarhyde's previous exploits to the Apache chief. We hear the beginning of that story earlier from Dolarhyde himself, telling of his youth to Emmett.
  • Hidden Depths: Almost all characters started out as standard Western characters and archetypes, only to display more subtle personalities that are revealed by the unusual situation.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard:
    • How do the alien spaceships abduct people? With weapons that basically amount to lassos.
    • Comes full-circle during the climax, where a lasso gets used on an alien.
    • And lets not forget Lonergan fighting the aliens with their own weaponry. Even more ironic as we discover that Lonergan acquired it when an Alien took it off to dissect him, but didn't think that putting an Arm Cannon next to an unrestrained human would mean he'd grab it.
    • The same alien is killed with their gold mining technology.
  • Hollywood Atheist: A downplayed example with Doc, who in his words: "I don't mean no disrespect preacher, but either He ain't up there, or He don't like me very much", due to to slew of bad luck. After a few theological conversations, and out of respect for the preacher, he gives his best shot at a religious eulogy at the man's grave.
  • Hollywood Tactics: Dolarhyde insists that you can't just run around in a big jumble shooting in every direction, but that's exactly how the climax goes. The aliens, for their part, rush right out of their base and straight into the melee, some completely unarmed. Later, they rush headlong down a hallway into Jake's fire, heedless of their brethren in front of them getting blasted to bits.
  • Hospitality for Heroes: Doc's wife lets Jake have a drink for free after he stood up to Percy.
  • Humans Are Warriors: Cowboys and Indians manage to overcome their cultural differences and find a common language - that of a good battle. They're Not So Different after all.
  • Humiliation Conga: Spoiled brat Percy's first run in with Lonergan starts with a kick to the groin, then getting arrested after accidentally shooting the deputy in a rage, then getting slammed into the bars of his cell by Lonergan and knocked unconscious (falling head first into his own piss bucket, no less), getting his thumb broken by Lonergan so that the man could slip the cuffs off the two of them, and finally getting abducted by aliens.
  • I Let Gwen Stacy Die: Alice and Ella.
  • Immune to Bullets: The aliens' exoskeletons shrug off regular period hanguns like they're nothing, though they still are reasonably affected by the impact. Shotguns actually seem to wound them slightly, but their main problem is still the kinetic energy of those bullets—Jake uses this to great effect in the climax.
  • Insufficiently Advanced Alien/Low Culture, High Tech: The alien technology, though far better than that of the humans of the Wild West, bobs back and forth between sci-fi and modern technology. They have anti-gravity technology and energy weapons, but their ships fly on jet engines. The aliens themselves have a hard exoskeleton that deflect bullets, but it has a lot of weak spots and they don't bother wearing armor. The latter is justified: they are far superior combatants to humans and don't consider them a threat, so they aren't ready for a real battle when it comes to them.
  • Interspecies Romance: A bit between Lonergan and Ella. Of course, it results in nothing but a kiss as she pulls a Heroic Sacrifice in the end.
  • It's Personal:
    • In addition to the protagonists whose loved ones are taken by the aliens, there's Ella's grudge against them for wiping out her home planet and her people.
    • And on the alien side of things, there's the alien that Lonergan stabbed in the eye while escaping their ship. During the climax, they run into each other again, and the alien seems to be taking great pleasure in trying to return the favor until Dolerhyde stops him.
  • Jerkass: Both Dolarhydes, Percy more than his dad.
  • Karmic Death: The alien's death by a shower of molten gold.
  • Laser-Guided Amnesia: Lonergan can't remember his name or anything about his past, at first. Turns out this is a side-effect of the aliens' control device; all the abductees suffer from this to one extent or another.
  • Last of Their Kind: Ella, on account of her people being destroyed by the aliens.
  • Like a Son to Me: Dolarhyde says this of Nat as Nat dies in his arms.
  • Lovable Traitor: Dog the dog starts the film by spotting for the people who find Lonergan, then Lonergan, then the posse, then Lonergan again, if the final fight had gone on any longer presumably the aliens as well.
  • Love Makes You Dumb: In a humorous scene, Lonergan needs to remove the gauntlet and give it to Ella. She tells him to remove it by emptying his mind of thoughts, and he can't do it. She plants The Big Damn Kiss on him and it falls off immediately.
  • Love Redeems: Lonergan quit his gang because he fell in love with a prostitute named Alice and stayed with her. That said, he did steal the entire bounty of gold from their last heist when he left.
  • Magical Native American:
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Lonergan = Loner again?; he's a loner. Dolarhyde = Dollar Hide; he's raising cattle and is responsible for keeping the town going.
    • Lonergan... might also be Lone R(ay) Gun? Since he's the only human to wield one in the show.
    • Lonergan also sounds a bit like a play on "alone again".
    • The town is called Absolution. And redemption is a major theme of the movie.
    • Claiborne (clay-borne) might also apply.
  • The Medic: Meachum the preacher stitches up Lonergan's wound, even though there's a trained doctor just across the street running the saloon. Doc eventually joins the group as The Medic, though he rarely gets a patient who isn't already dead.
  • Meek Townsman: first.
  • Mentor Occupational Hazard: The preacher.
  • Misplaced-Names Poster: That's not Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, and Olivia Wilde! It's Olivia Wilde, Daniel Craig, and Harrison Ford!
  • Mugging the Monster: Three men try to take Jake in at the beginning of the film, thinking that he is a suspicious person and there might be a reward. Things do not go well for them.
  • Mysterious Waif: Ella.
  • Naked on Revival: Ella.
  • A Nazi by Any Other Name: Inside the alien spacecraft, Jake comes across a pile of pocket watches and human teeth...
  • Nice Hat: Par of the course for a western. And yes, we also remember those movies where Harrison Ford also wears a hat, thank you.
  • Ninja Pirate Zombie Robot: Cowboys and Aliens, plus Apaches and bandits too!
  • Non-Indicative Name: Despite the title, all the cowboys except Dolarhyde and Nat quit, so the final fight is mostly bandits/Indians and aliens.
  • Not So Different:
    • In a good sense, cowboys and Indians. Both share a passion for a good fight, had loved ones abducted by aliens, and want to defend the land they consider theirs.
    • In a bad sense, cowboys and aliens. Both lust for gold, and are more than willing to destroy the natives that stand in their way. When Lonergan learns that the aliens are Planet Looters, he very visibly hangs his head down in shame.
    • In a neutral sense, Dolarhyde and Jake. Although they hate each other's guts (at first), they are both less-than-entirely-moral men with a Dark and Troubled Past who rediscover the brighter side of their souls.
  • Not Using the "Z" Word: Not once is the word "alien" used. Makes sense; at the time, the word "alien" referred solely to "people from another country." Instead, thanks to the preacher, they've been labeled as "demons".
  • The Noun and the Noun
  • Only Mostly Dead: Ella. Being an alien, she revives herself from death, but she admits she wasn't sure if she would be able to do that in her human form.
  • Ontological Mystery: The film starts with Jake not being able to remember anything, up to and including his own name. As they travel across the plains, though, more memories come to him and he pieces together his past.
  • Our Demons Are Different: They're actually aliens. The concept of space travel and aliens hasn't really taken root in the 19th century. Ella later has some difficulty trying to explain to everyone that she's from another world.
  • Outrun the Fireball: Dolerhyde and Jake running through the caves staying ahead of a blastwave.
  • Outside-Genre Foe: Alien invaders isn't exactly something the average 19th century cowboy would even consider.
  • Papa Wolf: Dolarhyde turns out to be this. Also, the sheriff is a Grandpa Wolf; later inverted when Emmet has to save him.
  • Pet the Dog:
    • Dolarhyde with Emmett (giving him a piece of apple and a knife) and later Nat (telling him that he's the son he's always wanted).
    • Taken literally numerous times when Jake pets the black-and-white dog that accompanies the cowboys. It deserves it, too, seeing as how it acts as an able lookout on many occasions.
  • Pistol-Whipping: Used against Jake.
  • Planet Looters: This time, aliens come for gold.
  • Please Put Some Clothes On: Jake covers a Naked on Revival Ella with a blanket, though he does seem to stare a bit before finishing the job.
  • Preacher Man: The preacher, who's also something of a Badass Preacher.
  • Previews Pulse: The pulses of this film's trailers are fairly muted, but they culminate at 2:07.
  • Protagonist Without a Past: Lonergan.
  • Pun-Based Title: It's not just Cool vs. Awesome, but a pun on "Cowboys and Indians".
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: The posse that sets off after the wounded alien. A former military man, an amnesiac outlaw, an Indian tracker, a meek bartender, and a preacher. Lampshaded by Meacham when Ella asks to join the hunt.
    "Yes, ma'am. We got a kid, a dog. Why not a woman?"
    • And for some insane reason, a CHILD.
  • Raise Him Right This Time: Dollarhyde gets the chance to do this with his son Percy at the end, since Percy has suffered massive amnesia.
  • Rated M for Manly: Grizzled, muscular cowpokes teaming up with Apache warriors to kick alien butt. Few things are manlier than this.
  • A Real Man Is a Killer: Emmett's sideplot. Dolerhyde almost says the trope name verbatim.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Despite having the option to flee to Mexico, Lonergan's old gang opt to stand and fight despite overwhelming odds, and are almost all killed while distracting the aliens in the climatic battle. The few that survive however are treated as heroes in the town. However this makes them...
  • Redshirt Army: Lonergan's gang, who are wiped out to nearly a man and just there for provide fodder for the aliens.
  • Retired Badass: Dollarhyde was a Colonel in The American Civil War, and does not like being called by that title. Lonergan was trying to quit his life as an outlaw and settle down with the woman he loved. Both are called back into action by the sudden attacks of the aliens.
  • Rock Beats Laser: Spacefaring aliens repulsed by revolvers, dynamite, arrows, and spears. However, it does take quite a lot to bring an alien down, and the aliens suffer very few casualties against inferior weapons. It's only when the humans get a good bead on their vital spots (the head and the eyes, as well as the interior of the torso with the two "chest-arms") that they manage to kill them.
  • Saharan Shipwreck: A riverboat is found in the scrub, 500 miles from the nearest river that would hold it, upside down. Though it was obviously dumped there by the aliens, there's no explanation as to why or how.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Connections!: Percy believes that since his father practically runs the town, he can do whatever he wants. And he's almost right, were it not for the timely intervention of certain things not of this world showing up right around the time his dad comes to try and pick him up.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: Several of Dolarhyde's men abandon them after their first encounter with an alien. Longergan appears to be doing this near the end of the film, but it turns out he was just bringing some more men to the fight.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Dolarhyde, as a result of the The American Civil War and the atrocities he witnessed in the Indian Wars.
  • The Sheriff: Sheriff Taggart, who seems to be a Reasonable Authority Figure (and is therefore sidelined for most of the film).
  • Shout-Out: The alien ship explosion at the end looks a lot like the Death Star explosion pattern in Star Wars. The Indians hooting/hollering sound a lot like the Ewoks in the same movie.
    • Throw in the arrows being slung from high ground near the start of the battle and, oh yeah, Han Solo leading the battle.
    • The initial appearance of the spaceships attacking the town, the large boat mysteriously placed in the middle of the desert, and the abductees leaving the spaceship at the end are all likely references to Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
    • The sequence inside the misplaced riverboat is highly reminiscent of Alien, especially in terms of lighting and atmosphere.
  • Spoiled Brat: Percy.
  • Stalking Is Love: Narmishly averted when Jake confronts Ella about it.
  • Storming the Castle: The attack on the alien mothership during the climax.
  • Super Wrist-Gadget: Lonergan's wrist blaster.
  • Tagalong Kid: Emmett.
  • Team Pet: The dog that follows Lonergan around from the beginning of the film.
  • Teeth-Clenched Teamwork: Between several different teams, no less.
  • That Man Is Dead: At the end, Lonergan decides to leave, since he's still a wanted man, only for Dolarhyde and the sheriff to declare that Jake Lonergan the criminal died in the final battle.
  • Took a Level in Badass: Doc and Emmett.
  • Toplessness from the Back: Ella gets a nude shot.
  • Trailers Always Spoil: When Ella dies the first time, the audience knows that she'll get better because this happens before the "naked in front of a bonfire" scene. Additionally, given everyone's reaction to seeing Olivia Wilde naked, savvy viewers may infer that Ella is an alien.
  • The Unreveal: Ella's human appearance is stated by herself to be A Form You Are Comfortable With. We never get to see what she actually looks like.
  • We ARE Struggling Together: Dolarhyde tries this with the Apaches with little luck, until Nat paints another side of him. It still doesn't work (the Apache chief wonders where his warriors are at if he's such a mighty one), until Lonergan shows back up with The Cavalry.
  • Weird West
  • The Western: With aliens.
  • What a Drag: Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (wrongly) punishes a hand for killing his cattle by letting him be dragged behind a horse.
  • The Wild West
  • Worthless Yellow Rocks: Averted. The aliens are invading for Earth's gold, which is as valuable to them as it is to humans. Possibly even more valuable since their more advanced technology seems to be electrically powered.


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