Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Cowboys and Aliens and all the plants

I finally got out to see Cowboys and Aliens this weekend. I enjoyed it. It wasn't great, but it was fun and action-packed and had all the major tropes of a good Western.

I had one major issue that jumped out as to why this was not a great movie: PLANTS.

A plant, in case any of you don't know the term, is when someone introduces an idea or object that will return in a later scene at an important moment. For example, if a character looks at an orange and take the time to put it in his pocket, that's a plant. Later in the, let's say, television episode, it will most likely come back into play.

Cowboys vs Aliens is loaded with plants. Way too many.


Although, one could say that all of these examples are spoiled the minute they're planted.

Plant #1: Doc shoots his gun
Sam Rockwell, the local doctor/bar owner, has never shot a gun. A preacher suggests he learn. He gets a hold of a rifle and shoots at some bottles but hits nary a one. In a later scene he tries to shoot some bottles again and still hits nary a one. Guess what happens in the final battle scene? Did you guess? Correct! He shoots an alien right on the button in a lovely moment of deus ex machina. It's so predictable, I just sort of shrugged when it happened.

Here's how that could be fixed. Let's say he's got this gun and he shoots the bottles, doesn't hit them. Okay, we've been introduced to the idea that he can't shoot, and now we expect him to learn. Instead of showing him shoot at bottles again to remind us of the plant, let's show him shooting at a person in a battle, maybe that final battle. Maybe he misses and misses, and finally he sets up that perfect shot and he just knows this one will hit and the music swells and - he misses. Aw, hell. then, he flips around and BAM! He hits! hooray! It's his big moment, but it's not so damn contrived.

Plant #2: The kid with the knife
Early on, Harrison Ford's character, Dolarhyde, sits around with this kid and makes a HUGE deal of giving the kid his knife. Then, in a later scene, Dolarhyde takes the knife back, explains its significance, then hands it back to the kid. So during the big battle scene, an alien chases the kid, backs him into a corner, and we're sitting there waiting.... and waiting.... and waiting for the kid to remember that he has the knife. We know he has the knife because we were reminded of it, and because we keep seeing it poke out from his belt. So it's a boring scene because we're just sitting around twirling our thumbs while we wait for the kid to figure out what we already know.

Remember that example with the orange I mentioned up top? Well, in David Tennant's first full episode as The Doctor, he woke up in a bathrobe and found an orange in his pocket. He made an offhand comment about it and shoved it back in his pocket. Then he did some stuff. At the end of the episode, an Alien came at him. He had no weapon, and his back was turned to the alien. He reached into his pocket, pulled out the orange, and threw it at a switch that made the alien fall off a cliff. THAT is how you do a plant. You mention it, let us forget about it, then pull it out just in time, so we go "Oh hell yeah I forgot about that!"

If Dolarhyde had loaned the kid the knife in a casual way, or the kid had stolen it, or found it, or we at least weren't reminded of its existence, we might have had a chance to forget about it.

Plant #3: Resolved arcs
Every single character in Cowboys and Aliens gets a resolved arc. They all have something to learn, and without exception, every single character learns it. Not everybody needs to have closure, and after a while it feels too contrived when each person gets their learning moment.

In the end, I felt like a lot worked in this film. Like I said, I enjoyed it, but I also felt like it was a little too neat, particularly for a Western.


  1. Anonymous2:00 PM


    Saw Cowboys and Aliens. Boring. My message to Hollywood filmmakers - to the producers,director and scriptwriters - shove this movie back up you ass.

    Stop making shit movies. Make good films then we will praise you.

    This movie is fat ass bad.

    (_!_) A regular ass bad.

    (__!__) A fat ass bad.

    (__)(__) A "wide load" ass bad.


  2. Terrence Crimmins2:27 PM

    What struck me in the movie was the remarkable similarity to Super 8, with the kidnapped characters who are rescued.

    The dissimilarity was the slightly more adult cast, with some provocative and funny lines.

    Nevertheless, it is as if Spielberg has gotten stuck in a formulaic moneymaker, and gotten away from the kind of creativity that has been inspirational in Dreamworks.

  3. Anonymous3:10 PM


    Speilberg movies are full of mistakes. Take a look part 2 Indiana Jones-full of production mistakes and amateur-like direction.

    Tin-Tin is gonna SUCK. Looks awful.
    Why doesn't he retire. With due respect, when you are over 60 years , there is not need to direct big budget films. Pack it in Mr. Spielberg. It's over.

  4. Please Leave Name4:49 PM

    I haven't seen Cowboys and Aliens (though I do have the script to read whenever I get around to it), but like you, if you description is accurate, which I'm sure it is, of the Doc shoots his gun scene I'd make sure that he missed everything he aimed at, but I'd also make sure he did in a standing position without "moving."

    Remember the scene in Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid when they're in Bolivia trying to go legit and they hook up with the Strother Martin character? The Kid tries to shoot something but he can't, then he says, "Can I move? I'm better when I move."

    I'd rip that idea and use it when Rockwell shoots the alien, he can't hit anything until he moves then he shoots lights out and says "I'm better when I move."

  5. Anonymous6:29 AM

    Saw it, what a pathetic piece of prattless shit. So lacking elagance in its direction.


  6. I feel that all the plants and such are forgiveable/overlooked if the story is engaging.

    It's a bit like when you watch a movie and notice the beautiful cinematography. That movie is probably a P.O.S.

  7. Anonymous9:32 AM

    Young Kim 11

    Most of films and script in NA are piece of shit. They s*** big time.
    Some film festivals got some good films.
    But as for scripts. Most of the good ones are written by pros and major talents. Sorry, this is the truth. Become a pro and discover your script talents. Not easy and not always possible.How many scriptwriters it took to write COWBOYS and ALIENS?

    Watching it felt like eating sand and drink oil...very sucky film...


  8. Jesus, what is with all the hate? It's like this movie ate your puppies.

    I don't know, Young. I'm not sure I can just watch a movie anymore without analyzing it. I really did like a lot of this film, but I think if they'd just eased up on all the arcs and the obvious plants it would have been that much stronger.

  9. This is a chicken or the egg thing a bit.

    Do you notice all the plants because the story itself isn't engaging? Or is it that the story is so engaging that you don't notice the plants?

    This is why I do like the purity of a spec script, especially by writers who NEED that script to get to the next level. They pour their heart and soul into the project whereas any iteration that's gone through the Orci/Kurtzman machine will feel studio safe.

    Mia, thanks for letting me know how screenwriting works.

  10. THANK YOU. I have always wondered if other people picked up on this stuff as much as I did (or if I was just weird).

  11. Anonymous2:00 PM

    Hi Emily
    Great post
    I just finish watching and reading Cowboys and Aliens :), not bad.

    BTW, have you read any of these?

    Halo - Script Review
    'Ender's Game' - Script Review
    'Killing on Carnival Row' - Script Review
    'Sub-Mariner' Script Review
    'Oldboy' Remake - Script Review
    'Untitled Chef Project' - Script Review
    'The F-Word' - Script Review
    Looking Cool - Visuality in Comic Blockbusters
    Voltron - Script Review
    'Priest' (2011) - Atmosphere


  12. Yes, I have read some of those.

  13. Over-obvious plants make it seem they think the audience is really, R E A L L Y slow.

    What bugged me was the deux ex machina of Oliva Wilde's character being SPOILER DELETED and ready to explain every little thing.

    I thought it was a lot of noise about nothing much, but not the worst I've seen.

  14. I thought it was boring. Agree with most of the reasons brought up here.

    I do think one thing that might have helped would've been to have less aliens.

    Maybe a small vessel makes a crash landing, first contact goes awry to some interesting battles, but then in a twist -- choice members of the "cowboy" group decide to help younger, "good" members of the aliens escape.

    Cowboys and Aliens is one of those cool concepts that's a pain in the ass when you actually try to write it.

  15. I haven't seen Cowboys & Aliens yet - I want to, and probably will enjoy it. Maybe not love it, but enjoy it.

    But like you, Emily, I'm having trouble watching things without being attentive to - not necessarily screw ups or mistakes, but things where I think, "I could have made that better so simply."

    I tend to do it more with dialogue then story though. Sometimes even one word can make an okay line awful. One example I always remember is Dakota Fanning in War of the Worlds as they speed away from the destruction and she asks "Is it the terrorists?"


    "The" terrorists? Like there's just one set? Where as if she'd said "Is it terrorists?" then I wouldn't have spent five minutes internally grumpy.

    (Oh, and no way the son walked away from that hill explosion intact, but I doubt that would have been something to fix with the script itself!)

    Don't get me wrong, I still enjoy movies completely when I watch them, but I will think my way around issues I have while I'm doing so.

  16. Anonymous1:23 PM

    I posted this on Done Deal. I think it had way more problems than plants. Here is what I said...

    "This movie was silly and not well written.

    An issue I remember debating with Script Shadow was that the "pros dig deeper." That is, SS maintained that what separated pros from amateurs is that pros go further, they dig deeper, they find better story angles to produce better work.

    This movie had any number of top pros working on it (ones whose work I like quite a bit), but the opening scene was so lazy and one we've seen so many times I wonder how so many pros could botch it.

    Any experienced gun fighter or wild west person (or any citizen knowledgeable about firearms) knows you never bring yourself close enough to someone where they can potentially grab your gun and use it against you. So what do the three toughs who first find Jake in the desert at the film's opening do? They get close enough where he can grab a knife and shotgun from them and kill them. One may argue that the tone of the movie is campy, but this is the opening scene so no tone has yet been established. Why would these obviously gritty and grizzled men of the west do such a stupid thing????? Furthermore, this type of scene has been done so many times in so many other movies I was slapping my head. Could not so many top pros come up with something different???

    And then this same scene is repeated about five minutes later in the bar when the sheriff comes to arrest Jake. Why do they not come in with guns drawn and trained??? They all get close enough (this time, more than three...and deputies and lawmen at that) with guns not drawn so he can beat them with their own weapons and his. Boggles the mind that these choices were made.

    One may argue that this film was a clusterf$%k, with too many cooks in the kitchen and they were lucky to produce anything that held together, but it's not like it fell apart 30 minutes in. Those two scenes are right at the beginning and I wonder how so many people could have said 'yes, this will do' when, with just a little more elbow grease, something more interesting and original could have been offered."

  17. Those are all really good points, Eddie. This was an okay movie that could have been great.

  18. I watched Cowboys & Aliens last weekend.Its not an out and out great movie but its a good movie.It has fine performances and good story track.Action sequences are very well performed.I personally like this movie.


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