Cowboys & Aliens review

Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig
Indy and Bond

On Sunday, 31 July 2011, Janice and I met Josh C., Thomas K.Y., and Thomas’ girlfriend Kai Yin at the Showcase Cinemas at Legacy Place in Dedham, Massachusetts, for Cowboys & Aliens. Jon Favreau’s western/science fiction mashup was fun, if not especially original.

Loosely based on an independent comic book, Cowboys & Aliens follows amnesiac Jake Lonergan as he finds himself caught between a small-town sheriff, an angry cattle baron, and his former band of bandits. Complicating matters is a mysterious woman who seems to know more about a manacle on his wrist than he does, a gold mine, hostile Indians, and unearthly kidnappers!

James Bond’s Daniel Craig is the laconic Lonergan, and he is supported by an all-star cast, including Keith Carradine as Sheriff Taggart, Harrison Ford as cattle baron Col. Woodrow Dolarhyde, and Tron Legacy‘s Olivia Wilde as the alluring Ella Swenson. Highlander and Superman: the Animated Series‘ Clancy Brown is preacher Meacham, Moon and Iron Man 2‘s Sam Rockwell is barkeep Doc, and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee‘s Adam Beach is Native American scout Nat.

These actors elevate the film from a mere shoot-’em-up to a full-blown popcorn flick (if not at the box office, where Cowboys & Aliens tied with the unnecessary Smurfs movie). I enjoyed seeing Indiana Jones face off with James Bond and the cast and crew’s obvious enjoyment in riding horseback and blowing up alien invaders.

Just as Thor substituted Norse deities for Stargate‘s Egyptian ones, so too does Cowboys & Aliens tap into District 9‘s aliens and body horror, Unforgiven‘s gritty West, and Stargate‘s sense of adventure. Like this past spring’s Rango, which combined computer-animated talking animals with western tropes, Cowboys & Aliens is an alternate-history romp that manages to avoid the steampunk excesses of Wild, Wild West or Jonah Hex, even as it draws on the same clichés.

I’d give Cowboys & Aliens, which is rated PG-13 for violence, three out of five stars, a “B+,” or 7.5 out of 10. After his successes with Iron Man, Favreau continues to inspire confidence with his choice of workmanlike direction rather than the quirky stylings of Burton, Tarantino, del Toro, or Rodriguez. That said, the extended trailer for the sword-and-sorcery Conan the Barbarian was the only preview that was memorable.

Cowboys & Aliens reminded me of my favorite sessions of Boot Hill, Tim M.B.‘s GURPS “Arth,” Castle Falkenstein, Deadlands (arguably the best fit), and my own GURPS Steampunk/D20 Etherscope: “Gaslight Grimoire.” Back in grad school, I also ran a scenario for GURPS 3e Supers: “Visor and the Seer” using GURPS Old West involving time travel.

Coming soon: More Comic-Con roundups, games, and travel!

Free RPG Day and space opera support


Just over a week ago, Janice and I drove to the Compleat Strategist in Boston and Pandemonium Books & Games in Cambridge, Mass., for Free RPG Day. The proprietors of the shops were happy to see us, although they were probably disappointed that we didn’t stay for any of their game demonstrations.

The Strat has a good selection of tabletop role-playing games and board games, while Pandemonium has used books and wargames. I wish that they and comic book shops would carry and run more of my kind of games rather than host so many collectible card tournaments, but that’s what brings younger folks in.

Of the free products I picked up, I liked the nicely retro Dungeon Crawl Classics preview, the “We Be Goblins” fantasy scenario for Pathfinder, and the Stellar Horizons space opera sample the best. Since I’ve been running my “Vortex” campaign again, I’ve been looking for science fiction support for Game Masters.

As much as I like Traveller, I’ve often found that science fiction classic a bit dry for my tastes, which veer from pulpy planetary romance to transhumanist speculation. (See recent updates for examples.) At least numerous supplements are available for Traveller.

What do I look for in a science fiction game? Simple character generation with varied development options; streamlined and cinematic combat; and rules for gadgets, vehicles, planets, and aliens. A single rulebook is nice, although it doesn’t have to be thick enough to stop a bullet, like Star Hero or Starblazer Adventures.

An implied setting is helpful, especially if a game is based on a book or movie series, but it’s not as important because I tend to run homebrew campaigns such as “Vortex.” (I have been hunting for good 2-D, hex-based maps of all the real stars within 50 to 100 parsecs of Earth that are likely to have inhabitable planets, however.)

As readers may recall, before my current Boston-area groups chose Fantastic Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment (FATE) Third Edition for “Vortex‘s” latest iteration, we also considered rule sets including Basic Action Super Heroes! (BASH) Sci Fi Edition, D20 Star Wars: Saga Edition, and Generic Universal Role-Playing System (GURPS) 4th Ed.: Space. Any one of these systems was a fair contender.

Even after coming to a consensus for FATE 3e Starblazer Adventures, I’ve incorporated other FATE sourcebooks, including Mindjammer for psionics, Diaspora for some skills, Limitless Horizons for occupations, Strands of Fate for some gear, and soon, Bulldogs (formerly D20) for aliens. I also routinely consult my GURPS, D20, Serenity, and other references when trying to stay ahead of two Player Character parties.

Following my recent interest in retro-clone games, I’ve picked up several for space opera, including X-Plorers, Forgotten Futures (more retro than clone), and Humanspace Empires. Although neither is a true retro-clone, I’m a big fan of Star Frontiers Remastered, and Galaxy Command is based on D20 Future. Stars Without Number is one of my go-to references, partly because it’s so helpful for sandbox campaigns.

The rise of Internet self-publishing, open game licensing, and niche games has been a boon to role-players. I confess to having “gamer attention deficit disorder” — looking at lots of systems for ideas. While I wish that more systems were as polished as Star Wars or Traveller, I still appreciate the effort that went into Ad Astra, Astral Empires, Dead Stars, Frontier Zone, Fspace, Galactic, Space Rage, Star Mogul, and Terminal Space.

In addition to FATE, I’ve been favorably impressed by rules-light (and often pulpy) science fiction games such as Danger Patrol, Lady Blackbird, Rogue Space, and Vanguard. By contrast, noteworthy longer and more polished indie games include Icar, Imperium Chronicles, Star Quest, Stellar Winds, Terran Trade Authority, and Valence. I’d put StarCluster 3 in this category, and its random-generation tables are as useful as those in Stars Without Number.

I’m looking forward to still more space opera games, such as Thousand Suns Revised, Ashen Stars, Cthonian Stars/Void, and Infinite Futures (for Pathfinder). Beyond nostalgia and wanting cheaper and easier games to run and play, I have a wealth of options for speculative fiction!

Some favorite space operas

Starships named Enterprise
Starships Enterprise

[Note: Reposted with some revisions from the “Vanished Lands” Yahoo/eGroups site.]

Fellow role-players and genre entertainment fans, to follow up on a conversation from this past Monday’s FATE 3e Starblazer Adventures: Vortex” game, here’s an admittedly subjective list of the best space opera movies and TV shows by decade:

>>1900s to 1930s movies: A Trip to the Moon, Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials

>>1940s and 1950s: Forbidden Planet (movie), Tom Corbett, Space Cadet (TV)


-Movies: 2001: A Space Odyssey

-Television: Doctor Who (to present), Space: 1999, Star Trek


-Movies: Alien, Star Wars [Episode IV:] A New Hope

-Television: Battlestar Galactica, Blake’s 7, Macross/Robotech, Space Battleship Yamato/Star Blazers


-Movies: Aliens, Dune, Heavy Metal, Outland, Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan, Star Wars [Episode V]: The Empire Strikes Back

-TV: Star Trek: the Next Generation


-Movies: The Fifth Element, Stargate, Starship Troopers

-TV: Babylon 5, Space: Above and Beyond, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine


Movies: Moon

TV: Farscape, Firefly/Serenity, Stargate SG1

>>Do you have any favorites or recommendations? Here are some good online resources:

This list is by no means comprehensive, and it overlaps slightly with related subgenres of speculative fiction, including alien invasion/horror (The Day the Earth Stood Still), comedic/spoof (Galaxy Quest), cyberpunk/dystopian (Blade Runner), kaiju (Gamera), planetary romance (Warlord of Mars), postapocalyptic (The Road Warrior), police procedural (Alien Nation), and time/dimensional travel (Twelve Monkeys). Space opera is distinguished by relatively easy interstellar travel, familiar interactions between humans and aliens, and mostly heroic characters and plots.

What prompted this? Although we’ve previously discussed our favorite science fiction in various media, in “VortexTeam 1, Jason and I were tossing around allusions, and Josh noted that he recognized only a few of them. I’m sure that Beruk knows more pop-culture references than much of Team 2. Everybody should be familiar with most of the items listed above!

I haven’t even touched on the best space opera books, comics/graphic novels, and games, which are worthy of another discussion! As Brian and Jason noted, the big ideas of science fiction are generally presented with more variety and strength in literature, while fantasy and horror seem more accessible to movie audiences. What do you think?

One advantage of a “sandbox,” homebrew game is that we can incorporate our favorite influences into a shared setting. “Vortex” has 22nd century humans and some established history, but they’re just starting points. I’ve enjoyed seeing the crew of the Blackbird dealing with human-alien relations and the crew of the Appomattox run its cons and get entangled in local affairs. Now that both starships are heading into deep space, the sky’s the limit!

Sucker Punch review

Zach Snyder's crossgenre movie
Sucker Punch

After doing some spring cleaning of our bookshelves and having a good brunch at Zaftig’s Delicatessen in Natick, Mass., Janice and I met Thomas K.Y. and his friend to screen Sucker Punch. Despite mixed reviews, we enjoyed the crossgenre action movie.

Director Zach Snyder has faithfully adapted other people’s works, such as 300, Watchmen, and Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, but Sucker Punch is his first original work. He’ll also be directing next year’s Superman: The Man of Steel cinematic reboot. The script/dialogue and plot could have used more polishing, but the acting and cinematography were solid.

Emily Browning plays a young woman who’s institutionalized after a family tragedy. In a 1950s American gothic asylum, she befriends characters depicted by the attractive Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, and Jamie Chung. Carla Gugino, as a Polish psychiatrist, teaches the girls to dance and escape their unpleasant reality into shared dreams.

They’re menaced by orderly Oscar Isaac, who appears in the alternate universe as a pimp, and Jon Hamm as a lobotomist/”high roller.” From the first-level dreamscape of the burlesque show, the girls descend into a world where their obstacles are represented by giant samurai, World War I zombies, orcs, robots, and a dragon. Scott Glenn appears as an old man who guides them on their missions to find clues to escaping their multilayered prison.

Snyder isn’t bashful about alluding to his inspirations, which include Heavy Metal, Brazil, and Kill Bill, all of which I also like. In fact, I enjoyed Sucker Punch more than similar movies such as What Dreams May Come and Inception. The skimpy costumes notwithstanding, the movie isn’t as exploitative as I had feared, and the fight scenes are well-choreographed, if sometimes hard to follow.

I was also favorably impressed with Sucker Punch‘s soundtrack, which includes Browning covering the Eurythmics, as well as Bjork, some metallic tracks, and “Love is the Drug” sung by Gugino and Isaac over the credits.

Overall, I’d give Sucker Punch a 7 or 8 out of 10, a solid “B,” or three or four stars out of five. The film is rated PG-13 for violence, sexuality, and language. Fans of high fantasy, dieselpunk, or psychological thrillers who keep their expectations in check should enjoy the visuals even if they recognize most of the story.