Cowboys, Aliens, Snakes and Sharks: In Praise of Literal Movie Titles

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Timothy White / Universal Studios / DreamWorks II

Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig in Cowboys & Aliens

This piece was originally published on in August 2011. We are re-running it for the DVD release of Cowboys and Aliens.

I want to see the movie Cowboys & Aliens. I’m not particularly interested in a story of outer space visitors who travel to Arizona in the 1800s to mine for gold — which is what Jon Favreau’s $163 million action extravaganza is about. I just like the title, which comes from the 2006 graphic novel on which the film is based. In just two words (OK, and one ampersand), it tells me exactly I can expect to see: a showdown between cowboys and aliens.

This is surprisingly honest marketing from Hollywood. Traditionally, film studios have often employed the opposite technique, making a film seem more mysterious by choosing a vague and meaningless title: Blade Runner. Total Recall. The Dark Knight. Die Hard. What are these movies even about? I mean, how do you die hard? Who is dying hard? Why didn’t they just title the movie Bruce Willis Fights Some Bad Guys?

(MORE: The Top 10 Worst Movie Sequel Titles)

“Literal titles were very popular in the 1950s and ’60s, when you had all the ‘red scare’ monster movies,” says Chris Thilk, producer and writer of the website Movie Marketing Madness. “If you title your film It Came From Outer Space, no one is going to have to ask what it’s about.” Thilk says Snakes on a Plane (2006) helped revive the literal title trend, which also includes Hot Tub Time Machine, an upcoming film called A Good Old Fashioned Orgy and Thor. (What’s the movie about? Thor.) But in the case of Snakes on a Plane, even a viral marketing campaign and Samuel L. Jackson’s unique brand of badass couldn’t save a terrible movie: it flopped at the box office, earning $34 million in the U.S. (only $1 million more than its original budget). It turns out that just because a movie’s title makes people laugh doesn’t mean they’ll pay to see it. Snakes creator David Ellis has a new movie out next month, forthrightly titled Shark Night 3-D. The folks at Relativity Media decided against Ellis’ original suggestion; he reportedly wanted to call it Untitled 3-D Shark Thriller.

Shark Thriller is pretty amusing, but even that title isn’t perfectly descriptive; it doesn’t tell you if the sharks fight each other or eat humans or what. Cowboys & Aliens not only hints at the movie’s genre (part sci-fi, part Western) but also reduces the plot to an X-versus-Y battle. (The only flaw is that the “&” should be a “vs.”) My movie-watching experience would be so much easier if all film titles abided by these standards. In fact, I think we should just rename them.

Transformers: Trucks vs. Other Trucks

101 Dalmatians: Woman vs. Puppies

The Hangover: Middle-Aged Men vs. Alcohol (and Roofies)

Harry Potter: Tiny Wizard vs. Big Wizard

Twilight: Vampires vs. Werewolves vs. other Vampires

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: Creepy Man vs. Annoying Brats

My Girl: Children vs. Bees

The Great Escape: Prisoners vs. Nazis

Raiders of the Lost Ark: Indiana Jones vs. Nazis

Inglourious Basterds: French Lady vs. Nazis

Lord of the Rings: Hobbits vs. Jewelry

Reality Bites: Slackers vs. A—holes

X-Men: Mutants vs. Racist Mutants

Braveheart: England vs. Face Paint

Every Woody Allen movie: Man vs. His Own Neuroses

Monsters vs. Aliens: …oh

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