Cowboys & Aliens: the devil’s in the details

My big beef with Hollywood is not its tendency to recycle the same formulaic plots, or its refusal to consider any but a stock good-guys-win, nice-people-fall-in-love ending. My big beef is its continued propensity to do this in the laziest possible manner, churning out those tired plots and those obligatory happy endings without, apparently, very much effort. It feels as if the writers are saying, “We’ve all seen this a dozen times before, so let’s just throw down the necessary lines and go home early.” Character development is clunky, lines are drawn from the Giant Hat of One-Liners, and they figure if there are enough pretty people and shiny effects viewers will be satisfied.

Every so often you see a movie that escapes this trap, and Cowboys & Aliens is just such a movie. I’m not saying it’s great, mind-altering cinema. It’s a movie about cowboys fighting aliens, and if that sounds stupid to you you’ll probably hate it. But if, like all right-thinking people, you saw the trailer and thought “ZOMG cowboys!! And aliens!! Squeeeee!” you will be pleasantly surprised, not just at how much Western sci-fi goodness there is, but how tightly written the scenes and overall plot are. It’s like the writers actually, you know, tried, and also have a knowledge of their craft beyond a college freshman in a creative writing class.

I could weep at the elegant brevity of the character development alone. Complicated character backgrounds are conveyed in a few swift, evocative exchanges: you can see the whole picture without having it spelled out for you. Doing that is hard, it takes effort and thought and lots of revision… and it’s what I expect from someone who’s getting paid far more for their writing than I ever will. (I was delighted to find that the one character I thought was a weak spot on the development front had good reason for being so.)

There was also a glorious avoidance of Clever and Catchy Dialogue. The pattern of dialogue in Hollywood movies has gotten so predictable that I can usually hear the line before it’s voiced. Sam Rockwell has a few cheesy Plucky Comic Relief moments, but aside from that, stuff that comes out of the characters’ mouths sounds like… things the characters had some reason to say, not someone in the studio seeing an opportunity to be clever. And there are even moments where — this may come as a shock to some of you — characters conveyed their thoughts or intents by expression and body language, rather than by ham-handed lines. It’s almost like the writers trusted their actors to do actual acting. It was pretty sweet.

(Just so we’re clear: when I say “writers” I don’t necessarily mean “the people who are billed as screenwriters in the credits.” I mean “the people who are responsible for the actual words in the actual movie.” These can be very different entities, and I know there are many talented and skilled screenwriters who have their talent and skill overridden by some exec who knows better.)

Anyway. The plot, while ridiculous, was carried out neatly. There were a few too many “demon ex machina” moments where the aliens just happened to show up when things were getting sticky for our heroes, and I still have no idea how Daniel Craig ended up with the power bracelet. (Yes, I know when and where he got it, but I don’t know why it was there so conveniently. Possibly I blinked and missed something.) But the story moves when it needs to move, exposits when it needs to exposit, and generally flows quite tidily without any major boring or WTF moments.

I like how Westerns are being increasingly absorbed into the science fiction genre. The Old West has always been a fantasy, a recent heir to medieval romance and classical epic, and in our age, and abandoning any pretense of realism gives the writers freedom to play with the conventions of the genre… in particular with race and gender issues, which have always been a problem in Westerns. I have some thoughts about both subjects in Cowboys & Aliens, but I need to muse on them a little further before writing.

Anyway. I’ve been looking forward to this movie since I first saw the trailer last winter, and it did not disappoint. In fact, for the first time in a long time, an unpretentious Hollywood blockbuster exceeded my expectations.

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