They go together like peanut butter and chocolate. They are venerated genres that have, individually, produced dozens of beloved classics. So why don't more filmmakers try melding Western stories with science fiction settings? Why not imagine how tales of the Old West will fly in the future?
It turns out that it's a lot trickier than it looks. Take a look at Jonah Hex, which crashed and burned over the weekend. Truth be told, it's not a very good movie (see Brad Trechak's SciFi Squad review or mine at Cinematical). But it was trying something a little different, adding supernatural elements to a Western, and the mix didn't work at all. So someone who wants to mix a Western with science fiction has to be a master chef, balancing the ingredients just right to avoid having the thing blow up in his face. Here are the Top Ten Most Notable Sci-Fi Westerns -- not necessarily the best, but the biggest successes and/or flops.
1. Firefly / Serenity
Surely the series, created by Joss Whedon, is the most obvious attempt to merge the two genres into something new. All the stereotypical characters are present -- the gunfighter, the trusty lieutenant, the doctor, the school marm, the prostitute, the priest, the bartender -- freshened up for the future and placed in a post Confederate War era (basically, just like Jonah Hex and innumerable TV shows and movies). Spaceships and horses want to run free in the new frontier. Serenity gave precedence to the sci-fi aspects of the concept, but the Western elements were still proudly on display.
2. Star Trek
Original series creator Gene Roddenberry pitched it as "Wagon Train to the Stars," and he had in mind different settings (planets) each week, introducing limitless possibilities for stories, or at least a great deal of variety to keep things new and exciting for viewers, who wouldn't know quite what to expect from week to week. Pulling off great feats of imagination every week over the course of a long television year wasn't entirely realistic, perhaps, but the original series had a very decent batting average. As Captain Kirk intoned, space really is "the final frontier."
Junky science fiction it may be, but Peter Hyams' High Noon in Space is far more entertaining than it should be, due in large measure to Sean Connery's outsize presence as a Marshall on a distant moon. Connery lends the part much more outraged juice than his restrained predecessor, Gary Cooper.
I have a soft spot for this movie because the lead character, played by Richard Benjamin, is named Peter Martin. Even without that personal connection, however, the movie stands up pretty well. Written and directed by Michael Crichton, the premise starts with wish fulfillment -- what if there were amusement parks designed to satisfy adults and their adult desires -- and then converts it into a moral warning: be careful what you wish for. Yul Brynner plays a deadly robotic gunslinger.
5. Back to the Future Part III
A goofy, mad energy permeates the concluding installment of the trilogy, as though director Robert Zemeckis and his cast and crew were completely exhausted from making two movies back to back and decided to throw caution to the wind. Some parts of the movie feel creaky, as though they're reenacting serial Westerns, while other sections feel vibrantly alive. No matter: the runaway train chase is properly thrilling, and the movie (and the trilogy) ends on notes of hard-earned grace.
6. Battle Beyond the Stars
Scripter John Sayles freely borrowed from Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai and John Sturges' remake The Magnificent Seven for this rousing, low-budget effort, produced by Roger Corman. This time it's peaceful colonialists who must be protected, rather than Japanese or Mexican peasant farmers.
7. The Valley of Gwangi
This is borderline sci-fi, I know, since it's set in Mexico somewhere around 1900, but with the bizarre sight of cowboys and dinosaurs, courtesy of the great Ray Harryhausen, it feels like science fiction, at least in the possibilities of prehistoric creatures surviving into the modern world. I would like to believe Michael Crichton saw this at some point, long before he sat down to write Jurassic Park.
8. Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann
From the wild and wonderful world of early 80s low budget madness roared off-road racer Lyle Swann (Fred Ward). William Dear (Harry and the Hendersons) directed and co-wrote with Michael Nesmith, which may help explain the off-kilter antics of an accidental time-traveler. Lyle, transported a century back in time, finds the past so much like the present that he doesn't even realize that he's traveled in time. (You'd think he notice with everybody dressed different, but Lyle doesn't take much account of that kind of thing.) Now that's what you call a concept picture.
9. Moon Zero Two
Reaching back to 1969, we find Roy Ward Baker's "Western in space," a rather baffling British flick that has dated badly. Was it ever really in style? Probably not, but the groovy soundtrack and cheeky performances make it a mind-boggling experience.
10. Wild Wild West
Remember, I didn't say all ten movies would be good. Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, this soggy, misbegotten would-be blockbuster threw millions of dollars in special and mechanical effects on screen in hopes that it would cover up the lack of a sensible story or believable actions for the updated James West (Will Smith) and Artemus Gordon (Kevin Kline). It did not, despite the sci-fi trappings of futuristic machines trampling through the Old West.