Archive for October 26th, 2011

A Writer Reviews: Cowboys & Aliens

I finally got a chance to see Cowboys & Aliens thanks to dollar night at the local cinema and drafthouse.  I can say three definitive things about the movies.  It did contain cowboys.  It did contain aliens.  And I was glad I only paid a dollar to see it.  I’m not sure where it all went wrong.  It had writers I trust, a direct I trust, actors I trust, but the whole thing just failed to come together in any way shape or form.  I suspect it needed a little more western and a little less science fiction.  In the end it was an alien invasion movie that just happened to take place during the Wild West without really getting enough into the setting.  It was Independence Day with a general store instead of the White House and horses instead of fighter jets.

But this is Writer Reviews, so it’s time to look at this from a writing perspective.  So lets look at the use of tropes and cliches within fiction.

There were three notable alien species tropes going on within Cowboys & Aliens that tend to distract me from stories.  Two were being followed, to the movie’s detriment, and one was being ignored, to its benefit.

Trope one: How’d they build that?  Science fiction abounds with belligerent alien races.  Pure killing machine death creatures that show up on their spaceships with no intention but utter destruction.  Which is fine, every story needs a villain, and evil alien species is one of the go to antagonists of SF.  However, there are species that I can buy as being space faring warriors, and there are species that don’t feel like they should have advanced nearly so far technologically.  The latter is who showed up to kick butt in Cowboys & Aliens.  Granted, in a movie it’s hard to explore the aliens, especially with the entire movie told from the human perspective.  However, other movies have managed.  Independence Day did this in the short scene with Brent Spiner being used as a meat puppet by a capture invader.  Other movies choose to ignore it for pure action purposes.  I have a harder time buying the Predators1 as having advanced to the point of space faring without completely destroying themselves.  To be frank, I’ve always had a hard time with the Klingons in that respect.  Humanity seems to be about as internally hostile as a species can get without embarking on complete self destruction.  We hope.

So these aliens?  They clearly possess technology, but I got no sense through the movie that they were the ones actually behind the technology.

Trope two: Everyone loves humans.  This trope involves some spoilers, so if you still intend to watch the movie, perhaps skip down to Trope Three.  Throughout the movie Olivia Wilde’s character is making doe eyes at Daniel Craig.  Which is fine when we think she’s human, he is the ruggedly handsome protagonist in a western, all the ladies are supposed to fall in love with him.  However it’s revealed near the midpoint of the movie that she is, in fact, an alien.  And that the body she is using is one she constructed so as to walk amongst humanity.  Who makes doe eyes and Daniel Craig and even gives him a passionate good-bye kiss before going off to die nobly and thus ensure that none of the human characters gets a shot at that kind of sacrifice.

What?  I said this trope had spoilers.

Anyway.  We don’t know what Olivia Wilde’s species typically looks like.  But we can suspect they look sufficiently non-human if she had to take the form she did to walk amongst us.  Yet her desires still apparently conform to not just a human, but a Western (etymological, not genre) ideal of attractiveness.  This is a pervasive trope in Science Fiction, and even crops up in the hallmarks of the genre.  Star Trek has it.  Star Wars has it.  I don’t buy it.

Trope three: Invincible aliens.  Shoot them, stab them, blow them up, and they just keep coming, man.  It’s a bug hunt!  This is where I’ll give the movie some credit.  Throw a spear at the aliens, especially since they don’t tend to wear much by the way of clothing, and it’ll strike some major organs.  Shoot them with arrows and they’ll bleed.  Get them close up with a gun and they’ll die.  Any time it’s humans vs something else, there’s a tendency to make that something else invincible save for one fatal weakness.  This is used to replace tension in a lot of movies.  The heroes shoot it and shoot it and it won’t die.  They have to figure out the weak spot.

I’ll give you a hint.  In most of those cases the “weak spot” is the writing.

Using invincibility as a point of dramatic tension is a cheat, because it’s not actually tension.  It’s just toying.  The tension still needs to be internal to the humans, something within their dynamic.  A goal they’re looking to achieve other than not getting killed by the invincible boogie man set to chase them down.  Invincibility can be used, but I’ve seen it used badly (every single monster movie on Syfy) more often than I’ve seen it used well.  Cowboys & Aliens went for a spot I’d call “tough but fair” with the aliens.  It takes a little more to kill them, but they can be killed by such things as massive blood loss or damage to internal organs.  Ya know, the same things that can kill every single species on earth.  The tension wasn’t force through the creatures being unkillable, it came through the enemy-of-my-enemy army that humanity put together, through the attempts to save captured loved ones.  It was one of the few things the movie actually did decently well, largely carried on the shoulders of Harrison Ford’s character who possessed every bit of complexity in the entire movie.

I’m spitting out “tropes” here like it’s a bad word.  Like tropes are a bad thing.  As a universal, they’re not.  Oh sure, some are almost never used well, but there are exceptions to every rule.  As writers, we have to be aware of the tropes we’ve introduced into our stories, and determine whether they’re being used effectively or whether the trope is being used in place of something like tension or characterization.  There’s times, there’s places, there’s uses, and there’s abuses.  So practice safe troping out there.

1. I’ve been taken to task for the Predators.  I do like the theory that the ones we see are the rednecks of the species.  As my wife puts it, “everyone else is really embarrassed that Cletus shot another human and expects them to serve it at Thanksgiving.”  That’s different, that’s individuals, and I certainly couldn’t build the car I drive around in.  But there are certain examples of entire species who clearly don’t feel like they should have gotten to the space faring stage in development.


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