Science Fiction Repair Shop: Cowboys & Aliens

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012-11-03 15:00:00 No comments

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Over at Fan to Pro, where I blog regularly, I recently wrote a piece about the X Meets Y formula for stories. Somewhere in the piece I made indirect mention of "Wild West plus aliens", which as any sentient being would know is an indirect dig at Cowboys & Aliens.

That was no random choice. I'd seen the film earlier, and was so disheartened by it at the time that I couldn't summon the energy to lambast it. But now it seems appropriate, and I might as well inaugurate my long-ruminated Science Fiction Repair Shop this way.

Warning: spoilers.

C&A is a perfect example of what happens when you use X Meets Y as a creative formula instead of a descriptive one — heck, it's embedded in the movie's title. Daniel Craig plays a guy who shows up with no memory and some weird wristband that helps him fight off aliens that show up and steal people. He eventually teams up with the people who hate him and have been trying to make his life miserable (like Harrison Ford's sheriff character), and you can guess the rest.

The movie is littered with problems of logic that aren't overcome by the story's underlying human strengths. For one, the aliens seem weirdly underpowered, in the sense that they go about their business in ways which can be overcome by 19th-century human ingenuity. That's bad enough, though, because instead of making the human race seem scrappy and smart, it makes the aliens look like idiots, and there's little glory in beating an opponent whose weaknesses all seem hand-tuned to your strengths. It seems, in other words, less like drama and more like a screenplay.

But that leads me right back into the other, bigger, more fundamental problem with the movie, of which the above is merely a symptom: the way it manages to do nothing interesting with its setup. It's all so ... mechanical. And part of that, I attribute to the aliens themselves being fundamentally uninteresting, and the response to their presence being equally flat.

Imagine this instead. You have this group of aliens, let's call them the As (they're not from Oakland, sorry), who see mankind as being worth protecting and preserving, but they also see us as being more than a little stupid and self-destructive. They've taken it upon themselves to keep us safe from various Cosmic Eldritch Horrors, the Bs (B movie aliens, get it?), that are even worse than they are. The As don't think we're up to the task of keeping ourselves safe in such a universe — not yet, anyway. We can't be trusted with our own protection. Maybe someday, just not now. (Move those goalpoasts.)

The Daniel Craig character found out about all this. He may not be the best of guys, and he's been wounded (in more than one sense) by the rest of the human race, but in classic Western-hero tradition he still believes people qua people deserve a chance. So he says "screw that", steals some of the A's anti-B technology (which can be used in more than one way), and so the As are chasing him to get it back because they don't want the humans killing each other over something that powerful and dangerous. But the real enemy is something that threatens human and alien alike, and so they have to blend more than one kind of strength to work together lest they all be wiped out.

That's a bit more interesting than just add-N-to-X, isn't it? And I'd wager filming that wouldn't take more budget than what they already blew on this thing.

The fact that some very pedigreed people were responsible for this boring film — Jon Favreau, chiefly — made me wonder what went wrong. Maybe it was the six screenwriters they brought in to lick the story, proving once again the Hollywood fallacy that if you throw enough writers at a project they will somehow collectively add up to one good one.

One of the problems I have had with modern beat-sheet screenwriting is how it reduces human behavior to the fulfillment of programmed plot points. It's used as shorthand rather than as actual characterization. If we equip someone with a motivation (he wants X), we assume that by itself — the fact that he manifests desire — is enough to make us care about him. But not all manifestations of desire carry the same weight or have the same implications. Some thought about what people are actually like, what they really care about and why they care about it, is needed. This film left all that out, and replaced it with pure proceduralism. None of it added up to a human element whose presence would have redeemed the B-movie storyline.

Next time: I rewrite Avatar. (Boy, I'm really asking for it there, aren't I?)

Tags: Hollywood Science Fiction Repair Shop movies science fiction screenwriting storytelling