Cowboys, aliens and the good, the bad and the ugly of the sci-fi western

With Cowboys & Aliens due out soon, Terence looks at the history of the sci-fi western, and picks out a few of the best and worst…

Please note: there a few spoilers in this article, but not major ones.

The upcoming Cowboys & Aliens from Iron Man director, Jon Favreau, and starring Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, may seem like another one of those Hollywood blockbuster ‘high concept’ movies (even if it is based on a successful graphic novel). However, the hybrid genre of the sci-fi western is nothing new. In the history of cinema, the six gun and the ray gun have shared the silver screen surprisingly often.

The sci-fi western, like any other film genre, has seen its share of the good, the bad and the ugly. While it’s too early to tell whether Cowboys & Aliens will be keeping company with Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef or Eli Wallach, it’s not too soon to round up some of the other sci-fi westerns and corral them into their respective categories.

The Good

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In Outland (1981), Sean Connery plays O’Niel, the marshal of a mining colony on one of Jupiter’s moons.In the classic western tradition of the lone lawman, O’Niel refuses to turn a blind eye to the illegal activities of the colony’s corrupt, drug smuggling general manager, Sheppard (Peter Boyle, in a very strong performance).

In a plotline similar to the 1953 western classic, High Noon, O’Niel must stand alone against a group of hired guns sent by Sheppard. The 19th century wind-up analog wall clock of High Noon counting down the hours till the outlaws arrive on the next train is replaced by a 21st century digital clock readout of Outland, counting down the hours till the outlaws arrive on the next interplanetary shuttle.

The High Noon plot (whether you recognize it or not) comes off as a tad clichéd in the midst of an otherwise exciting showdown in space. Much of the production design of the movie has more than a passing similarity to the original Alien (1979). The sets are claustrophobic and often dark and not at all like the wide open spaces that most westerns are known for.

The feel of the film is, at times, more Raymond Chandler than Zane Grey. Nonetheless, director Peter Hyams (2010, Capricorn One) sure knows how to direct some riveting chase scenes through the generically atypical and derivative settings. Outland is also one of Sean Connery’s finest performances.

The post-apocalyptic subgenre of sci-fi lends itself marvelously to the themes of the western. Anytime you’ve got a world where civilization has broken down and lawlessness reigns, then the lone hero and the code of the West come squarely into play.

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A good example of the post-apocalyptic sci-fi western is The Book Of Eli (2010). Denzel Washington plays Eli, an amazingly skilled swordsman (a nice departure from the usual western gun-slinging hero). Sword play within this genre brings to mind legendary Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa’s western samurai hybrid films, Yojimbo and Sanjuro.

The film follows Eli, the genre’s quintessential heroic loner, who roams the vast post-apocalyptic wasteland of what was once the USA. Eli finds that he must fight off outlaws and warlords to protect his most valuable possession, the one thing that he believes can restore morality and order to the world, the last known copy of the Bible.

Josh Whedon’s Serenity (2005) is also a really solid sci-fi western. Serenity, of course, is the feature film version of Whedon’s cult TV series, Firefly. In both Serenity and Firefly, Whedon has crafted the most sophisticated and subtle marriages of the two genres yet.

Michael Crichton’s Westworld (1973), though,is aforgotten classic. In a futuristic amusement park named Delos, there are three resort worlds, Romanworld, Medievalworld and Westworld. All are populated by androids that allow the park’s guests to indulge their wildest sex and violence fantasies without consequences. Well, that is, without consequences until the androids malfunction.

One particularly badass gun-slinging robot is played by Yul Brynner. Brynner wears almost the exact same wardrobe he wore in the classic western, The Magnificent Seven. Brynner’s android in black goes after guests Richard Benjamin and James Brolin with a vengeance. He forces Benjamin, in particular, into a nerve racking chase that leads through, and behind the scenes of, all three resort worlds. The events that follow could best be described as The Terminator meets Tombstone.

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Twenty years after Westworld, writer-director Michael Crichton would substitute android cowboys running amuck in a theme park for cloned dinosaurs rampaging around a theme park in a little novel and subsequent motion picture called Jurassic Park.

Westworld is a very effective low-key thriller. Much of the pace of the film is closer to that of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s sci-fi films Solaris or Stalker than to today’s Michael Bay action sci-fi Transformers-stylepacing.

As is the case with most 70s sci-fi, Westworld is also social commentary. In this film, the underlying message is that violence, in any form, is never without consequences. And, as far as the action-oriented sci-fi western goes, them’s fightin’ words, partner.

The Bad

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Wild Wild West (1999)had a whole posse of good things going for it. It was adapted from a fun and original 1960s western espionage TV series. It had some amazing actors in the persons of Will Smith, Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh, and its director had previously directed the fun and successful sci-fi comedy, Men In Black. On top of all of that, the film is filled with amazing early steampunk designs. Unfortunately, the story is the weakest link of the movie. That just leaves all the great elements stranded in the blazing deadly dry heat of predictability gulch.

In Back To The Future Part III (1990), Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd take the time-travelling Delorean back to 1885 and also, coincidentally, to the franchise’s lowest point, in this writer’s opinion. Marty McFly must stop the evil gun fighter, Bufford “Mad Dog” Tannen (an ancestor of Biff Tannen, the bully from the first two films), before he shoots and kills Doc Brown. (Yes, it’s another one of those time traveling paradox conundrums.) Marty and Doc Brown also have to figure out how to get a flux capacitor working in the technologically challenged late 19th century so they can return to 1985.

Among other things, Part III sees Marty meet his great-great grandparents. Interestingly, Marty’s ancestors look a lot like Marty and his mom. It seems that the McFly family tradition of inadvertent interfamilial sexual attraction goes back even further than the events depicted in the first film. Despite a few clever ideas here and there (Marty identifies himself as Clint Eastwood to the people of 1885), the western setting does little to offset what had, by this point in the franchise, become a very familiar story (many people, particularly writing this site, do have a lot of love for Back To The Future: Part III, I should point out. Here’s an example).

The genre’s worst of the bad is, interestingly, one of the first sci-fi western outings ever. The Phantom Empire is a fifteen chapter movie serial, first released in 1936. Country singer Gene “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” Autry plays himself as he discovers a technologically advanced underground civilization right beneath his ranch.

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The Phantom Empire seems to have it all. There are bad guys sneaking around looking for a radium mine, kids unravelling mysteries, elusive futuristic horse riders, zap guns and cheesy robots that look like hot water heaters wearing little metal Stetsons. All of those elements, to be sure, have an undeniable ironic geeky hipster appeal. In the end, though, The Phantom Empire is about as convoluted as it sounds.

The Ugly

All you need to know about Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966) is the title. Now you’ve got a pretty good idea of why that movie belongs in this category.

While the themes of the post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie do have the makings for a rip-roaring good sci-fi western, those elements alone do not necessarily make for a good movie. 

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For instance, Australian director George Miller pretty much defined the post-apocalyptic sci-fi western genre with Mad Max (1979) and The Road Warrior (1982). Both films star a much a younger and saner Mel Gibson as the lone lawman fighting to re-establish civilization in a world that has descended into chaos. (As a nice variation on the theme, motorcycles and cars replace horses and stagecoaches.) Sadly, Miller’s third and (for the moment) final film of the series, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985), takes the whole series straight from the good, right past the bad and squarely into the ugly.

Mad Max: Beyond Thundedome’s gladiatorial style fight scene turns up relatively early in the film. The battle that takes place in the titular Thunderdome is the best part of the movie. Actually, no, correction. The fight scene in the Thunderdome is the movie, (“Two men enter. One man leaves,” is still an oft quoted line.) The whole film really falls apart after the Thunderdome stuff.

One of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome’s major problems is the sudden shift in tone from the other two films of the series. In what were previously nihilistic, violent, and disturbing films, we’re now treated to family friendly scenes of cartoonish wacky mayhem. There’s a scene where one of the Mohawked, loin cloth-wearing bad guys flies out of a massive explosion. He emerges with a slightly blackened face and then lets out his best live-action comedy “Wwwwaaaahhhhh!” At what point did Herbie, The Love Bug join The Interceptors and the suped-up Mack trucks on the post-apocalyptic highways of Australia?

Oblivion (1994) purports to be a sci-fi western parody, but no one, not even star George Takei, seems to know what’s funny about it.

One of the worst post-apocalyptic movies ever, worst sci-fi westerns ever and just plain one of the worst movies ever is Kevin Costner’s The Postman (1998).

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Based on David Brin’s far superior 1985 novel, The Postman is yet another heroic loner story. Costner plays a tanned, Oakley sunglass-wearing post-apocalyptic wanderer with a knack for quoting Shakespeare. After jumping into a river to escape from a group of neo-fascist thugs, Costner hides in an abandoned US postal van. He then dons the uniform of a dead US postal carrier to stay warm.

As soon as Costner arrives at the next town wearing the postal uniform, everyone suddenly sees him as the single greatest hope for the restoration of law and order in the midst of a post-apocalyptic, warlord dominated America.

The Postman has got all the makings for a really good western, post-apocalyptic, sci-fi or otherwise. There are great panoramas of beautiful wide open spaces, a lawless frontier and a lone hero. The problem is that Costner, as both an actor and a director, takes his material way too seriously. Case in point is the scene where Costner gallops by on his horse, grabs a letter from a young boy at the side of the road and keeps galloping on, presumably off to go deliver the mail and, in the process, help restore America to its former greatness. By itself, that doesn’t necessarily make a bad scene.

However, the scene shot is in slow motion, scored with way too over the top patriotic music and repeated twice. After almost three hours of such pretentious over-dramatization, the viewer is left feeling like they’ve been repeatedly run over by an endless metaphorical herd of stampeding cattle.

Finally, the feature film adaptation of DC comics Jonah Hex (2010) is not, strictly speaking, sci-fi. Nor is it, strictly speaking, any good.

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And that’s your round-up the good, the bad and the ugly of the sci-fi western movies. Who knows what category Cowboys & Aliens will be herded into? One thing’s for darn sure, them trailers sure look mighty good. There ought to be gold in that there premise.

Cowboys & Aliens is out in the US this weekend, and in the UK on 17th August.

There’s more to see and read about Cowboys & Aliens here.

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