Cowboys, Aliens, and Consistent Science

I expected a couple hours of entertainment in the summer blockbuster vein when I went to Cowboys and Aliens, and that’s exactly what I got—manly men, explosions, a token love interest, and poor science. Not just poor science, because with Hollywood I’ll accept just about anything if it works with the story, but inconsistent science. When writers don’t even bother to think the cool thingamabobs through or combine sci-fi elements believably, I get annoyed.

What do I mean by inconsistent science and not thinking things through? Read on! But be warned: if you read any further, you will be spoiled!

Really, if you haven’t seen the film and don’t like spoilers, STOP READING NOW.

I mean it.

Let’s start with the alien ships. Actually, no. Let’s start with the premise: An Old West town is attacked by gold-mining aliens. A posse lead by a rancher and a stage robber with a laser gun on his wrist must follow the aliens to rescue the townsfolk the aliens have abducted. Sounds like cinematic gold, and no, that isn’t entirely sarcasm.

Back to the alien ships. They come in two shapes and sizes—small, nimble scouts, and the long, ponderous mothership. The scouts aren’t big enough to fit the alien pilots unless the pilots are scrunched up, and why would you build a vehicle that wasn’t comfortable? The scout ships also lack an obvious propulsion mechanism, so for lack of anything better, I’m going to say they use antigravity. It’s a trope and these are Hollywood aliens, so why not? However, the mothership appears to use chemical rockets, and probably not enough based on its mass. Why use two different mechanisms for the same goal?

Speaking of the mothership: it’s sunk deep into the ground for better access to a lode of gold. When it takes off, the earth shakes as if there was an earthquake, which is what I’d expect. I’d like to know how the ship got into the ground without bucking and churning the land around it though, because there’s no evidence to support anything other than that the ship entered the earth without resistance. The valley’s flat, not even broken up around the base of the ship. I can’t think of a way to leave the land intact yet have a hard time extracting the ship later, unless the aliens tunneled through from the opposite side of the planet. Even then, there should’ve been signs that the ship broke through the surface.

Let’s push aside the fact that the aliens are humanoid again, and ask more important questions like: Why do aliens with energy weapons frequently use teeth and claws in battle, when they can disintegrate their enemies at a distance? Why do aliens capable of interstellar travel need to land on a planet to get gold, instead of just creating gold in a lab? And why don’t aliens living on a ship full of molten gold not wear more protective clothing? Bullets and spears can pierce their skin, so surely there’s all kinds of equipment on the ship that can do so as well. Not to mention the molten gold.

Of course, those first two questions can be answered fairly neatly. The aliens could be a warrior race that still values bodily contact; and it takes an enormous amount of energy to create even one atom of gold. Even with how much energy it takes to launch and maintain a ship and a mining operation, and even though a civilization that travels the stars has to be using the energy of their whole planet or sun, the aliens could well be saving money by choosing this route over a particle accelerator. Why weren’t we shown that? The explanation could’ve been a couple words, or a camera shot. We wouldn’t even know there’d been questions to ask, and the story would’ve felt tighter.

The third question, on the other hand…. Have the aliens really grown so complacent in their use of technology that they don’t even think it might malfunction and hurt them? Do they really have so many people that they can afford not to have safety procedures? I find it hard to believe the answers are yes, though maybe they are. Still, I would’ve liked to have seen the explanation even in a byplay.

This feels like as good a time as any to note that I’ve always been skeptical of aliens who say, “I’ve taken this form to talk to you.” I’d love to know what they really look like and how they’re able to fit into a human body without any bulges or awkward movements (see Men In Black for a counter-example). Where do they get the body? Are they shapeshifters? Are they using a holographic projection? In the case of Cowboys and Aliens, I’d also like to know why the alien chose a waif-like woman over a man, especially an authority figure of some kind. I’d imagine it would’ve had better luck in a male-driven society if it were also male.

Two last flaws in the science: 1) Unless the Apache foreman had a chance to practice his language after being taken into the white community, he shouldn’t be as fluent at translation as he was. Language atrophies if you don’t practice. 2) At one point, the posse of protagonists comes across a steamboat in the middle of scrub, far from water. We’re left to assume that the aliens put it there. My first question is why the aliens would do that. My second is, the aliens must have some kind of tractor beam, so why are their scouts lassoing people?

This isn’t to suggest that all the science in the movie was in error. Cowboys and Aliens had some intriguing technology that I couldn’t find flaws in, though that’s partly due to not knowing enough about the disciplines in question. The aliens have mind-controlled energy weapons, though how they access the nervous system I can’t tell. They have forcefields (which follow from the weapons, by the way; if you can control matter in one way, why not a related one?). The passages in the mothership have ridges all the way around, which allow the aliens to move several at a time and probably come in quite handy during zero gravity—not that they ever experience that, because as I mentioned with their scout ships earlier, the aliens have likely mastered gravity control. I’m also intrigued by how the aliens are able to isolate, melt, and suck gold out of the earth without melting any other element nearby. Do gold atoms have a particular resonant frequency that the machines pick up? If I’m remembering high school science correctly, gold isn’t particularly magnetic, so I doubt it’s that….

And there’s one small moment of praiseworthy science. The aliens have a second pair of hands in their chests, you see. These hands are more dextrous than the claws at the ends of their normal arms, and seem almost to have great touch-sensitivity as well. Both those features would come in handy in any number of situations, so I can understand why these arms evolved. However, these hands also look quite fragile compared to the rest of the aliens’ bodies, so they’d need protection, which they also get. A piece of the aliens’ skin moves aside to expose the arm cavity. Whoever thought the aliens through enough to question the logistics of these hidden arms, go them!

Cowboys and Aliens uses a lot of standard SF tropes which aren’t exactly good science, but are science fiction anyway—but the writers (or director, or whoever) didn’t think them through. To be truly good sci-fi, the aliens would need reasons to look and act as they do, and their technology should be standardized from scene to scene, element to element. Writers should question every bit of their science. Why does the alien look that way? How does weather control work? What is the purpose of the robot’s plunger? The science and sci-fi tropes need to work together as well, in case the writers accidentally suggest that FTL drives can exist with 20th-century technology or that forcefields can exist without any kind of energy manipulation.

This lesson shouldn’t just be applied to Hollywood. It’s equally relevant for books, video games, and other sci-fi/fantasy media. Consistent science means better writing, tighter stories, unexpected outcomes, and fewer propagations of scientific myths. It’s not that hard, even: a judicious sentence or byplay would’ve improved the Cowboys and Aliens science immeasurably. Plus, consistent science is the first step to accurate science, and where would science fiction be without that?

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