Posts Tagged tropes

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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A Writer Reviews: What Remains vs The Naked Now

If I am to criticize a show for what I feel it is doing wrong, I suppose it is only fair that I applaud when it corrects course.  And so I am here to applaud last night’s episode of Terra Nova, which did something I’ve never seen a show do before: use amnesia to further characters.  But first, because I’m a fan of when things go wrong, I’m going to look at a show that went horribly wrong with a similar plot device.

I’m going to look at Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Specifically a first season episode called The Naked Now.  This is an infamously bad episode, nestled firmly in that rocky first half of a first season that included vaguely African civilizations used to recreate the Ponn Farr duel from the original series, and Wesley Crusher at his most annoying.  The Naked Now was the first episode after the pilot, and if you don’t recognize the name, most fans of the show will recognize it from one scene.  It’s the episode where Data is “fully functional.”

There is oh so much that can be criticized about that episode.  If I were writing a full review of it, I’d scarcely know where to start.  But if I’m talking Terra Nova, I’m talking characters, so I’m going to stick to that.  This was a new show, fresh of an ambitious pilot meant to relaunch a franchise to television.  In doing so, it chose to pull a familiar plot line from the original series, The Naked Time, and I can’t fault it for doing so in order to create continuity.  What I can fault it for was the decision to take the second episode of a new series, when viewers don’t yet know the characters, and choose to make them all act out of character.  As the sort of contagious drunkenness moves through the crew one by one, they lose their inhibitions and become entirely different people than they will be for the rest of the series.

This is not characterization.  This is the exact opposite.  It’s something that requires a well established baseline so we, the viewers, can sit down and say “aha, Picard wouldn’t act like that!  He must be infected!”  But we don’t know these things.  The show wasted what was its first chance to establish characters for the crew, many of whom got only brief introductions in the pilot.  Instead, we’re left with a confusing mish-mash and a disturbing mental image of android/human sexual relations.

When I saw the trailers for last night’s Terra Nova episode, I worried the show was going in a similar direction.  These ads promised a virus that was wiping out the memories of the settlers, one-by-one.  While it’s not a highly contagious virus simulating drunkenness, amnesia is still a plot device that causes a character to act against type and against previous characterization.  It is also, to be blunt, a weak plot device often better deployed in sitcoms as they run out of steam and are desperate for stories.

Color me surprised, therefore, when the show found a unique twist on amnesia by having characters not forget who they are.  Instead the virus only allows them to remember who they were, rolling their brains back roughly twenty years.  This allowed the show a way to fill in the characters of Commander Taylor, Elisabeth, and Malcolm Wallace, introduced last week.  Through the retrograde memory the viewers got a chance to see their pasts in a way that didn’t require flashing back to the rather expensive dystopian future shown in the pilot.  Jim also got a chance to interact with Malcolm, and briefly the new girlfriend and boyfriend of his son and daughter.  The character played against some of the archetypal problems highlighted previous, and actually became a character in the process.  Specifically, it feels like he’s turning into Jack Carter from Eureka, but that’s a far better choice than the Jim Shannon from the first three hours of Terra Nova.

Characters, then.  They need to exist.  And I mean that more than “you must have characters,” I mean that in the sense that characters need to feel like real people.  Like you could meet them on the street.  This is what Terra Nova finally felt like it was doing last night.  If characters are going to act inconsistently for plot purposes, there needs to be an established baseline of what consistent is.  That was the trap of The Naked Now, and that was the trap that What Remains came nowhere near.  This is important in serialized television, it’s important in novels, it’s important in short stories.  I’m hoping Terra Nova is on the right path now with actually characterizing their characters.

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