Splicing together film genres can be a wonderful thing. It can bring together elements of different movie styles in a way that each one is complimented, and something completely unique is created. However, just like splicing actual DNA one needs to take care…lest unforeseen problems overshadow the result of the experiment. In short, just because a director wants to fuse genres together doesn’t mean he should ignore the rules of the individual genres and “wing it”.

Our story begins with Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) waking up in the middle of nowhere. He has no clue how he got there, his abdomen is wounded, and he’s wearing some sort of new-fangled bracelet. Hoping for help, he makes his way into the closest town – a less-than-thriving metropolitan called Absolution. Once there, he sparks the attention of a comely lass named Ella (Olivia Wilde). Why she’s interested in him is a mystery – including to Lonergan.

While in town, Lonergan gets mixed up in a fracas with a reckless brat named Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano). His involvement manages to get Percy arrested, which doesn’t sit so well with Percy’s father Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). Woodrow comes into town to have his son released, and while there takes an interest in Lonergan and the reward being offered for his capture.

As Dolarhyde is demanding his son’s release, and Lonergan’s collar, strange bright lights appear on the horizon. As they approach the town, all hell breaks loose. Seems as though the wild west of the 1800’s was of some interest to aliens. What they are, and why they’re here is one mystery that panics the townspeople – why they seem to be capturing citizens and abducting them, panics them even further. By the next morning, Lonergan and Dolarhyde find themselves on the same side – looking to find out where the aliens are coming from…finding out what they want, and denying it from them.

COWBOYS & ALIENS is an unforeseen mess. Its opening thirty minutes – detailed in most of the film’s trailers – are wonderful. Dropping Lonergan into a Bourne-esque “Amnesiac Badass” situation is played well by Craig. The once-and-future Bond can single-handedly dismantle a band of hooligans with the best of them. Likewise, the introduction of Woodrow Dolarhyde and his vigilante intrusion into the arrest of Lonegan is well-played by Ford. In the early going, both men seem to have a clear read on the sort of film they are in, and deliver precisely what moviegoers like me expected from them.

However, after that initial alien attack on the town, the film loses its way. The film has no interest in following the path of a classic western, nor a run-and-gun modern western. That’s forgivable, but when it turns its back on the tropes of science fiction too, it basically shrugs its shoulders at the audience and asks us to “just go with it”. We can’t. We won’t. We don’t want to. At this point the narrative has jumped ship, and the posse is looking to beat the aliens just to beat them. There’s lip service paid to various members of the team wanting to get friends and family back, but we aren’t given any chance to see the personal connections, nor the voids looking to be filled.

In much the same way, the reason for the aliens being here is a flimsy one. It’s under-explained and wildly unoriginal. So to summarize, we have cheaply motivated villains, and two-dimensional heroes. However, all is not lost. This is the summertime, remember? Such details of the truly great films can be forgiven so long as there is spectacle and fun. However if it’s forgiveness that COWBOYS & ALIENS is after, then it has many more rosaries to recite. There is no set piece in the final three-quarters of this film that will stick with us and be spoken of with joy in summers to come. There’s no badass gun play…no extraterrestrial terror. There’s just wanderings, and ponderings, and the occasional skirmish.

Perhaps the film would have stood a fighting chance had it focused on Lonergan’s evolution a little bit more. We’re only given the faintest of brushstrokes towards who he was and what he had done. This is a man with a $10,000 bounty on his head – not exactly pocket change. And yet, along with this dastardly villain that he was supposed to have been, he was also deeply in love with a women whose absence haunts him. The script never pays any of that more than lip service: Basically it ends after noting that the town is named Absolution. We’re left as blurry as Lonergan’s hazy memory, even after his recollection is cleared in a cheap and preposterous manner.

Note to the five (!) screenwriters credited on this project: Audiences like distinct characters. We like flaws, ambitions, evolutions, and bravado. We hold on to these things, and speak of them warmly as years pass. We might not be able to name you every sidekick or every patriarch, but heavies like Tony Stark, Peter Venkman, Hans Lander, Maximus Decimus Meridius will stay with us for ages.

There’s stories to be told about “Space Cowboys”, and evidence out that confirms a small but devoted hunger for them. But to pull a quote from my favorite bowling film; “This isn’t ‘Nam, there are rules”. If directors and screenwiters choose to ignore the rules, then odds are their film will suffer a similar fate in the eyes of filmgoers.

Matineescore: ★ 1/2 out of ★ ★ ★ ★
What did you think? Please leave comments with your thoughts and reactions on COWBOYS & ALIENS.