Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Monthly Archives: July 2011

Cowboys and Aliens

*cough cough* Wow, the dust in here. It’s been over a year since I posted. There are a number of reasons for that, most not worth going into in a movie review post. But hey, just to catch people up: I am in my fifth week of Clarion, which is awesome in too many ways to describe without its own dedicated post (forthcoming). As a result of Clarion I will be setting up a myname.com site and probably moving this blog there sometime in the next few weeks. Also there will be stories and such so lots of work to do. Fairly warned, be ye, says I.

Clarion bears mentioning because it was with several of my classmates that I saw “Cowboys and Aliens,” and if you have not yet had the chance to see a badly-structured SF movie with a bunch of SF writers, then I highly recommend it.

The trouble actually started, had we known, before the movie. The trailer selection was schizophrenic, including a heist movie (which actually looks fun–Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy and Alan Alda in a Bernie Madoff wish-fulfillment vehicle), a horror movie (disease–“No one is immune–FROM FEAR”), a twenty-something comedy that turns into a horror movie (sharks? really?), a SF war movie (“Battleship.” Christ.), a historical drama/specfic (“Three Musketeers” with cannon-laden airships–actually looks visually awesome), and a Robert Downey Jr. Movie (Sherlock Holmes 2). I asked at one point, “Do they know what movie we’re here to see?” Answer: yes. Yes, they did.

“Cowboys” starts really well. I mean, for the first half or so of the movie we had nothing to say. You all know the plot from the trailers. Daniel Craig wakes up with no memory and an alien gizmo strapped to his wrist, kicks ass. The setup of the town he wanders into is pretty neat too. Paul Dano is more or less wasted as rich entitled kid of cattle magnate Harrison Ford, taking advantage of all the money his dad brings to the town. So, right, redemptive arc for the son? Not so much. Conflict is ramped up when Craig and Dano are to be turned over to the federal marshals, and Ford comes riding in to save his son. He has a beef with Craig, it turns out, which Craig doesn’t remember. Pretty good, right? Decent character conflicts and motivations, a few pretty good actors, a reasonable script to that point.

Then the aliens attack. The attack itself goes on probably about half again as long as it needs to. That early in the film you just want a fast exposure. But the aliens strafe the town approximately seventeen times (by my rough count) before Craig shoots one down. The other aliens get away with a bunch of the townspeople, including Dano (and pretty much ending his role in the movie). Craig is the only one who can shoot them down; Ford must go save his son. An uneasy partnership is born.

Except it isn’t, not really. Craig has no real reason to chase the aliens except the vague memory that someone he cared about is also a kidnap victim, and the bonds of affection he is forming with the townspeople in his essentially new life. There is a powerful story buried there about reform, how a hardened criminal whose past is wiped away might be able to start anew and be a good person, but that is only one of the dozen or so stories the filmmakers were attempting to explore.

From about that point, things rapidly spiral into incoherence. There are outlaws, cringe-inducingly stereotyped native Americans (both the war-whooping and mystically spiritual kind). There is a Mysterious Plot-Advancing Woman. There is a gang of outlaws who might have made Craig question his current path if they were anything more than buffoonish stereotypes themselves. There is a surrogate son–actually there are like three of them by the end of the movie, four if you include the dog who was apparently in the movie because hey, one of the people had a dog and he can sit on command and look cute. There are three dying-in-someone’s-arms death scenes which would be tear-jerking if any of the dying people had enough character for the audience to latch onto. There are aliens, of course, and there are at least three moments where the “alien jumping out at you” is telegraphed so loudly that I was counting off the beats on my fingers. There is alien technology that works according to Plot Necessity (one of my classmates leaned over and said “You know who’s really bad at using the alien super-weapon? The aliens.”). All of the things you see set up in the first act are paid off fairly artlessly in the second half. I can’t even analyze it in terms of structure because I think the main character is supposed to be Harrison Ford, but then again Daniel Craig sort of changes, but then again I can’t tell where the real character change is for either of them, and hell, you know, at some point you can’t build a house out of Silly Putty.

On the plus side, there is a lot of pretty scenery. Daniel Craig does wear him some tight pants. And there are two attractive women with long dark hair, who seem pretty interchangeable, not only to me, but also at one point to characters in the movie. Harrison Ford is still Harrison Ford; Paul Dano does a pretty good acting job and provides some of the best comic moments. And there is some pretty alien tech. Also a cute dog.

So y’know, go with a group of people and advise the people around you that you will be making whispered comments throughout and that they are welcome to join in. Or wait for the DVD and watch it with friends at home. I have a feeling that you could make a few pretty awesome drinking games out of it.