Writing — Dissecting Cowboys & Aliens


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.


28 comments to Writing — Dissecting Cowboys & Aliens

  • My biggest complaint was with the bracelets. If they came off merely because the wearer wasn’t paying them attention, why didn’t all those aliens who died in the fight lose theirs? And why didn’t the cowboys take the bracelets off the dead aliens?

    But honestly, whenever I think of the questions I had, they all pale against the memory of Daniel Craig in leather chaps.

    Sorry, what was I saying? ;D

  • I say don’t think on it too hard. It’s a Hollywood film based on a graphic novel. It’ll make your head explode. 😉

  • Misty – I’ve always wondered that in many a film or book. Why, if the enemy drops their awesome weapon doo-dad, the characters don’t follow the D&D creedo and take their stuff. I mean, I’d think a mega-uber-laser would be much more effective than a pocket knife and flashlight any day. 😉 Unless, maybe, you’re MacGyver. 😉

  • Misty — Yeah. The whole bracelet thing didn’t really work. It amounted to nothing more than giving Daniel Craig a BFG. I mean, really? Why would the alien doctor/torturer be carrying the same massive weapon as a grunt soldier? A species intelligent enough to create this sophisticated machinery surely has heard of the division of labor.

    Daniel — I know you’re comment was in jest, but I think too many people really think that way. Oh it’s a movie. Don’t think too hard. Imagine how lucky we would be if readers would let us writers off the hook so easily! No need for internal logic to my magic system. Heck, no need for a system at all. Just have my MC wave his hand and PRESTO, everything happens the way I need it to. I hate that Hollywood gets a free ride on this simply because CGI makes our brains turn to mush.

  • Stuart>I haven’t seen C&A, and now I probably won’t–at least not in the theater. That kind of stuff makes me crazy. I saw Conan the Barbarian over the weekend and it had it’s problems. Big, massive, huge, plot hole problems. The main lead was very good, as was the supporting cast. The opening, while gruesome, gave great backstory to Conan and the bad guy and the bad guy’s daughter. They had the makings of a really interesting conflict, and I thought it was going to end up with the daughter offing her ungrateful dad to become this great sorceress and then Conan and pretty side kick girl (who actually wasn’t useless, I appreciated that) would have to deal with her. Alas, no such luck.

    But the real problem was the last 45 minutes. They set up (with lovely voice over by Morgan Freeman) this whole group of nations, far apart… and in the last 45 minutes of the film, people travel to lots of them in a matter of hours (or even minutes). It was really weak. But, the guy playing Conan was beautiful, and he was good actor. Still, it had such potential, so I was so disappointed when it didn’t go well.

  • Stuart, I stopped watching movies for just this reason. They make my head explode. It’s no better than the bikini-clad, blond co-ed going into the basement to see what the screming was all about.

    I’m blond, and while I might do that, I’d put on a pair a jeans. I’d send the high school linebabcker down first and then I’d carry a butcher knife. The movie would be just as good, and I might believe it.

    We’ve let Hollywood get away with crap too often. Several years ago, I took my money where my mouth was and stopped watching movies. After reading your post, I feel reaffirmed. LOL
    Thanks for this.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    This is a fun, interesting post, Stuart, but I’d like to add just a few counters to some of the comments, since I still find that when the movie/TV industry DOES get it right (Firefly, yes?) the results can be so fabulous.

    -“V for Vendetta” is also a Hollywood make of a graphic novel and, I submit, a most excellent movie.

    -In my opinion, the live-action remake of “Avatar: the Last Airbender” proved that pretty CGI does not make our brains turn to mush. It may seem like that’s what happened, since a brain will feel pretty mushy trying to comprehend the shear awfulness of the story-telling involved, but really it’s the brain crying out in pain (and in sadness that such beautiful CGI was so utterly wasted).

    -The central point of this post, though, is so utterly true. THE most successful movies are produced by people who are in love with the source material and who want to work within that material to make something wonderful. I have heard interviews of the people who worked on turning “The Dark is Rising” into a movie reveal that they clearly neither understood nor really liked the original books, and oh it shows in the result. Whereas “Splash”, “Lord of the Rings”, “Transformers” (the first), and “Avatar” (James Cameron) were all done by people loving every minute of what they were doing.

  • I think we have to take these movies with a giant grain of salt. I saw C&A (and a trailer for what looked like Navy & Aliens – so I guess if they are successful we’ll have cops & A, crooks & A etc).
    As long as the movies come with some good beefcake I can live with the holes and use them as lessons for my own writing.

    But, yeah, getting the cowboys, town folk, Indians and crooks together to save the world was hokey to the extreme.

  • I think that it was a nice piece of Saturday Night popcorn fare. That was what the writers intended and that is what they got.

    BTW, I can’t believe you did not mention the nice Fan Service in the good alien girl with a six-shooter (which she never uses). I mean, if you were a regenerative shapeshifting alien, why would you take the form of a young girl in the Old West? Besides being the “Messiah” of the film, what was her purpose exactly?

  • Pea — I’ve been debating about Conan. The trailers showed enough that reminded me of the Robert Howard stories that I thought, hmmm, maybe this’ll be good. Now, I think I’ll save my $$$.

    Faith — Unfortunately, I’m as much addicted to movies as I am to books. I’ve not been brave enough to do as you and just forgo movies altogether. Maybe one day.

    Hep — I agree, there are certainly examples of Hollywood getting it right. However, usually, it’s not Hollywood’s doing. Avatar would never have been made if it wasn’t the fact that James Cameron had the money and clout to say, “I’m making this — the hell with the rest of you!” Sometimes Hollywood doesn’t even know what they’re paying for, they just are banking on the director (or actor) — such as Inception. I thoroughly enjoyed that film, but I have no doubt if not for Christopher Nolan and a young man named Leo, that movie would never have been made.

    Perry — You’ve made my point. Why should we HAVE to take these movies with a grain of salt? We don’t ask that of books. We don’t get the latest music and say, “Well, it’s not really that good, the singer is off-key, and the musicians forget to stay in beat, but man, it sure has a pretty cover!” Why do we allow filmmakers to get away with it? And I’m not talking about B-movies which as a genre ask that we ignore (or relish in) the badness. After all, books do have the pulps. I’m talking about movies that are made as A-movies.

  • Mark — Don’t get me started on her! What a waste of a talented, young lady. As for the “popcorn fare” excuse, I reject it. This may be my 40-year-old curmudgeon developing, but I’m tired of that excuse being used to suggest that crappy, lazy writing is anything more. It wouldn’t have hurt the film to take two extra minutes of screen time spread throughout to plug up some of these enormous holes. Doing so would have turned it from “a nice piece of Saturday Night popcorn fare” into a rollicking good time of a Saturday NIght popcorn movie that I’m happy to spend my money on.

  • It was meant a bit tongue in cheek, but not completely. I can honestly say that I will forgive a lot more in movies than I can in books, and there’re a number of reasons, of which I won’t go into because as I typed them out, I realized it was turning into a novella. 😉

  • Haven’t seen C&A or Conan, but I do find myself growing ever more intolerant of Hollywood taking shortcuts in the name of “entertainment.” I agree that a director’s passion can do great things for a movie, but that director also needs vision and good taste. Last night I happened upon the opening minutes of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, and was overwhelmed once again by the beauty and horror, the verisimilitude and artistry with which Spielberg recreated Omaha Beach. I know that every director can’t be expected to be Spielberg, but they can at least make us believe that they’re striving for his level of professionalism. Fun post; fun discussion. Thanks, Stuart.

  • Tim True

    Stuart, your post provides a good rationale for why books are often so superior to movies. Screen writers have incredible limitations; leaving out a lot of details is understandable, albeit maybe not pardonable. I wonder, has anyone on this blog ever attempted to write a screen play? David, you did some work with Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, right? Did you see the screen play firsthand? Care to comment?

  • Hi Tim. Good to see you here. I know that Faith has done some screenplay work. I wrote the novelization of ROBIN HOOD working almost exclusively from the screenplay, and the one thing that stands out most in my mind is how thin a screenplay is, literally and figuratively. Screenplays are less than half the length of a novel in terms of pages, and because of the open spacing of the screenplay, the content is even less than the page count would suggest. If a novel is 100,000 words, a screenplay would be maybe 35,000? (Someone else may be able to verify that.) The point, though, is that a screenplay has far less substance — much, much more is left to the camera. Emotional cues are given by facial expression and gesture and tone of voice, as well as music, lighting, etc. There is no internal monolog, no emotional or descriptive exposition. There is, in short, far less to work with from a writing standpoint. But as a movie like Saving Private Ryan or Schindlier’s List, or something else good that Spielberg DIDN’T direct makes clear, movies can still be enormously effective. It just takes vision and creativity and a commitment to pulling as much as possible out of the source material.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Amusingly (or not) Cameron wouldn’t have had the money (time/leisure) to make “Avatar” if he hadn’t been able to demonstrate before-hand that his CGI was going to be flipping awesome.

    Another front of the lazy-writing complaint is the use (or not) of the science adviser. I’m thinking of the Star Wars prequels here. Fandom means that Lucas could have had (did have?) tons of quality science advise absolutely free, and yet… In science fiction, as in fantasy, the writers get one or two gimmes that don’t have to be grounded in reality, but not when there are perfectly dramatic, story-line consistent options that ARE grounded in reality on offer.

  • Haven’t seen “Cowboys & Aliens” yet and would still like to. Sad to hear that it fell into the check-list trap. Cowboy movie? Horses and guns. Check. SF movie? Weird tech and some cool CGI. Check. The thing I don’t understand is why they keep making these half-baked checklist movies when with 10% more effort they could easily be upgraded into at least decent movies. Not every flick is going to be a Saving Private Ryan, but it would be SO damn easy to upgrade most of the rest of them with just a modicum of… oh, I don’t know… thought.

  • The title of C&A set my expectations perfectly. I was expecting a somewhat campy mashup of a cliche alien invasion movie in a cliche western setting, with explosions, cool CGI, and pretty, cool people. I also expected a very simple plot, and a few plot holes.

    I got all that, plus some decent acting by the leads (Ford and Craig).

    I found the movie fun, and have no regrets. Heck, the movie is actually verging on making a profit (cost $100m, made $90m+), so others probably feel the same way.

    The movies that claim to have an epic, life-changing plot made by great directors…well, those are the ones that really piss me off when they fail to meet expectations.

    Books are different for me. I need to put a lot more investment into a book. I gotta crank up my imagination and spend a lot more time getting through the story. If books short me on continuity, character development or plot, well, I won’t be happy. So, were I to read C&A, I’d probably get a bit cranky. The cliche handling of the Apache folk’s mysticism, battle styles and such. Aliens with blasters being successfully fought with spears and 6-shooters, Olivia Wilde’s character. Weak all around.

  • Razziecat

    This is why I feel that movies are accorded way too much worship as a genre. While it is lovely to see one’s words brought to life, few movies can attain the depth of story that’s possible in the written word (in my opinion). Books will always rank higher in my mind and heart; a great book doesn’t change, but the movie version is likely to be disappointing.

    On that note, I wonder what you guys think of the HBO version of “Game of Thrones”? I note that they are sticking very closely to the story as written. How do you think it translates to the screen?

  • Cindy

    Hi, time to quit lurking and join in.
    Movies can attain the depth of story, but in a visual way. Most books, in my opinion, don’t translate well to the screen. I can’t comment about the “Game of Thrones” since I didn’t watch it, but I think HBO’s version of “True Blood” is better and richer than the books.

  • There’s no doubt that movies can (and should) find depth visually. They can also achieve it through dialog. While I’ve never written a screenplay, I started out writing stage plays and have seen several of my works produced. Armed only with dialog and a few scarce stage directions (you can put in more, but directors ignore almost all of it), I know that it’s very possible to bring out all these things and more on stage. The only reason we don’t see it on film as much as we should is that it takes a little more effort and a little more time. And in Hollywood, time really can mean money.

    I don’t have HBO, so I’ll have to wait until it’s out on Netflix or Hulu. I did see the opening ten minutes or so when they put that on the net and it was excellent. Obviously, when done with care, these things can be done well. LOTR is a perfect example. It’s not a word for word recreation (which would have been horrible), but instead, the movie version found a way to make an unfilmable trilogy into some of the greatest fantasy movies ever. But they did it through passion, attention to detail, and taking the time to get everything right.

  • Most books, in my opinion, don’t translate well to the screen.

    Cindy, I agree. It’s the rare filmmaker who manages to capture the flavor of a book when he makes the movie. And so many of them don’t even bother sticking to the story. I’ve loved Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence since I was very young, and despite adoring Ian McShane and Christopher Eccleston, I still couldn’t bring myself to watch the film version when it hit theaters. The director changed so much of it, it was no longer the book I’d loved.

    Then again, once in a very rare while the movie turns out to be head and shoulders above the book. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a great example. The book was horrendously bad, but somehow it managed to translate beautifully to film.

  • Razziecat

    I don’t have cable at all, but you can watch Game of Thrones by going to Surf the Channel and click on Television. I watched the whole first season this way.

  • TwilightHero

    This is why I’m not really a movie person: only the best movies have depth and story quality equivalent to books. It’s true that they’re two different mediums, but I agree, and find it sad, that people will forgive a lot more in movies than they will in books.

    It’s certainly true that, as with any form of media – heck, any form of work or creation period – some movies, like the above-mentioned Avatar – I hear they’re making a sequel – and Inception – now that was an original concept; dreams within dreams within dreams – stand out from the crowd. Most are just okay; not perfect, but not that bad. And then there are those that are downright horrible…

    Likewise, there are a very, very few book adaptations, like Lord of the Rings, that are actually as good as if not better than the books themselves. Then you have the ‘okay’ flicks, that have a few unanswered questions, but are more or less acceptable. The Harry Potter movies, anyone?

    I can’t think of an example for downright horrible. The Last Airbender comes to mind – being a fan of the series, I loathed it from the very depths of my soul (how do you use up a 150 mil. budget and get THAT) – but that’s not based on a book, is it. Guess I haven’t watched enough movies =P

    I haven’t seen Game of Thrones. Been thinking of it though, since the series is getting good reviews, and people say it more or less lives up to the books. Read A Clash of Kings and found it quite well-written, though a bit brutal. That scene where the wounded boy is killed by soldiers? Ouch.

  • Tom G

    I can’t believe how everyone keeps saying how great Saving Private Ryan was. That movie made me cry. Bad movie! Bad, bad movie.

    Worse, my wife saw me tear up. She keeps bringing it up, too. Bad wife. Bad, bad wife.

    Wait. Is my wife allowed to read this?

  • @Tom, making you cry means it did something right, storytelling-wise. If a movie creates emotion, that means the viewer has buy-in that we expect from our experiences reading. It’s when you don’t care one way or another, or get angry because something doesn’t make sense.

    I’ve been blogging about storytelling in movies, comics, and games for the last month or so. It’s been fun because of the content, but more so because I look for why these modes of storytelling succeed and fail.

    Thanks, Stuart, for this distraction from Hurricane Irene.

  • I often wonder why it is that books get such good authors because there are so many writers and only so many sales possible which means only the good stuff (generally) gets through and yet Hollywood writers seem to be 15 year old boys and girls barely able to string a scene together. There must be so many talented and well trained script writers out there pulling their hair out because their work is looked over or turned into tripe.
    Some of the best TV series in recent years have been based on novels:
    Game of Thrones,
    True Blood, (I’ve only seen season 1 though),
    Dexter (only the first 2 seasons, after that they ran out of books)

  • […] no real equivalent in other art forms.  Over at Magical Words, I posted my disappointment with Cowboys & Aliens — a B-movie dressed up to look like an A-movie […]