I’ve decided today to rip apart the movie Cowboys & Aliens, and I mean that in both good and bad terms. There’s a lot to learn from dissecting a movie or a book or any form of storytelling you come across. I chose this particular film for today’s talk because it straddles two genres and in doing so, shows the great weaknesses of failing to understand the genre(s) you’re working in.
Cowboys & Aliens stars Daniel Craig as a cowboy/stranger waking in the middle of the desert with a strange bracelet locked to his arm. He doesn’t know who he is or how he got there. Harrison Ford is the rancher who controls the local town. When Craig arrives in the town, Ford’s bratty son is bullying the nice townsfolk, so Craig beats up the young man. Thus, Ford and Craig are destined to clash. But just before they can really go at it, aliens arrive in the air and start snatching townspeople up. Now, Craig and Ford must team together in order to defeat the aliens and save the people.
Before I pick things apart, I should note that the movie is fun, well-acted (which is to be expected), light, and if you don’t think too much, entertaining. But, it could have been a great film had they concentrated a little more on writing within the genres.
Okay, so there are two genres — Westerns and Science Fiction — two genres of film I happen to love — and mashing them together breeds a lot of potential. It could’ve been the creation of a new sub-genre — horsepunk! The problems, unfortunately, are many.
For starters, let’s look at the western side of things. Westerns, like those of Sergio Leone, work well from the understanding that the mythic “West” parallels, in many ways, the somewhat-mythic feudal days of Japan in which the gunslinger is represented by the samurai. That’s why many of the great western films were actually remakes of Japanese samurai films — Fistful of Dollars was a remake of Yojimbo and The Magnificent Seven was a remake of The Seven Samurai to name two. Even the John Wayne westerns, which were not based on Japanese samurai films, attempted to create that mythic-ness around his characters.
Unfortunately, Cowboys & Aliens ignores the Western part of the equation other than to provide an interesting background for a science-fiction story. All the characters are two-dimensional, western cutouts such as “Doc” the bartender/doctor who is afraid of the wild world he lives in and has never fired a gun. After a little practice — which he fails to ever be seen hitting the target — guess who saves the day at one near-death moment? Now, if the writers had taken the time to give us a scene to show some depth to “Doc,” perhaps letting him (or any character) tap into that mythic aspect, then maybe we would have felt some sort of triumph for him. As it stands, the Western-side of the movie is just ticking of a checklist of western clichés.
Of course, if the SF-side had been better, we might never have noticed. But, alas, SF is one genre that the movie industry rarely gets right. Why? Because SF (and Fantasy) require serious world-building that goes beyond “Gee, look what pretty pictures we can make with CGI.” It’s not enough to have some cool looking equipment, bizarre aliens, and a few made up words. SF uses those things on the surface just like a Western uses horses, six shooters, and saloons. And like a Western, in order for SF to be any good, the writers must provide a greater depth than just cool visuals and lip service to character.
But even if the writers can’t accomplish that, SF (and Fantasy) demands greater thought into the world building. In Cowboys & Aliens, the aliens have supposedly come for our gold. Why? Because they covet it just like we do. Except we began to covet gold not because it’s pretty, but because it is a useful and rare metal. It can be molded with great ease, it can conduct electricity (obviously not something we knew from the start), it can be used to fill holes in teeth, and much more. Now, if an alien race needs gold so badly that they are willing to attack another planet (granted, it is pointed out that they see us merely as insects), shouldn’t there be some evidence of gold being used in their ships, on their bodies, something? And considering the difficulties involved in interstellar travel, is gold their top priority? Really? If so, why?
And that’s just one line of inquiry. How about the fact that destroying this one ship doesn’t account for why the rest of the entire planet these aliens come from suddenly will turn away? Come on. That’s just lazy at best, and stupid at worst.
Now, I know a lot of people think that’s all nitpicking, but it’s not. Not for a writer. We’ve talked enough about world building on this site that the MW regulars should know how important it is for the writer to know these answers. They don’t all have to get used in the story, but the fact that you know the answers shows up in the details. When you’re writing your fantasy story, keep in mind that great depth of character or fully-realized world-building is merely a matter of going that extra mile, adding that key detail, and not relying on the checklist of what is expected. I have no doubt that the writers of this movie gave little to no thought regarding anything beyond aliens attack us for our gold, and it shows.