Films set in the wild west and in outer space follow classically American cinematic traditions. Just as manifest destiny led the earliest American settlers out west, that same spirit shot us up into the stars.
Science fiction stories, especially Star Trek, share many of the values set forth in classic Westerns like Unforgiven and High Noon. A thirst for exploration, a return to basic human values and community, effective teamwork and conflicts with alternate populations characterize both genres. What happens when western and space media intersect? Let’s refresh ourselves on some of the best future-forward westerns developed across a variety of mediums.
‘Firefly’ and ‘Serenity’
You can’t have a list of space westerns without the space western. Joss Whedon’s cult-classic, Firefly, is now an immortal piece of pop-culture even if you’ve never seen it. For the uninitiated, yes, the show is as good as everyone says it is. While the story of a bunch of intergalactic smugglers has been told again, and again, Firefly just does it in a way that feels good. If you haven’t seen it already I don’t want to be the millionth person to tell you to watch it. I will however say that the latter episodes are much better than the first three. So how’s that for a hot take?
‘Guardians of the Galaxy’
Outlaws and new frontiers. That’s the simple definition of a space western, and James Gunn’s Marvel masterpiece Guardians of the Galaxy has both in spades. Surprising almost everyone upon its release, Guardians of the Galaxy introduced possibly the most entertaining group of space outlaws in the sci-fi canon (sorry, not sorry Star Wars).
While its ties to the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe prevented a truly stand-alone adventure, Guardians had the benefit of taking place far away from Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, and as such, Star-Lord, Gamora, Rocket, Drax, and Groot were quickly able to establish themselves as a wildly colorful bunch of misfits.
It’s hard sometimes to define what qualifies as a western. While the junkyard future of the Alien franchise lends itself to that rugged frontier atmosphere necessary for a space western, Alien qualifies because it’s essentially a story of a lone gunman in a dangerous land. Sometimes, all a space western requires is a badass standing alone against the enemy. There is no badass tougher than Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, and there is no enemy more terrifying than a Xenomorph.
Cowboy Bebop is almost a space philosophy. The groundbreaking Japanese anime did something previously unimaginable and attempted to mar Eastern philosophy with western sci-fi. The result is almost a zen mediation on the nature of existential space travel. That it features kung-fu, space dogfights, and shootouts certainly doesn’t hurt.
While the Mad Max franchise doesn’t take place in outer space, it does take place in a post-apocalyptic future where the sea is salt, and the whole world is the new wild west. Mad Max: Fury Road is particularly energizing as perhaps the best of the four film series, but they all embody the same themes of survival in the wasteland. Whether you embrace the anarchy of The Road Warrior or the heist film that is Fury Road, you can’t go wrong revisiting George Miller’s fantastic set of gasoline westerns.
Tales from the Borderlands
The most cinematic of the Borderlands games, Tales from the Borderlands is the narrative collaboration between game developers Gearbox and Telltale Games, about a black market deal gone south. Featuring alternating protagonists in the space megacroporation stooge Rhys, and the conwoman Fiona, Tales from the Borderlands forgoes the first-person shooting of the series in favor of a strictly narrative approach. By far the most narrative ambitious game in the series, Tales from the Borderlands is also one of the best games I’ve ever played.
Wild Wild West
I don’t care what anybody says: Wild Wild West is fantastic. They also had a Burger King promotion with kickass toys. If you don’t like Wild Wild West get out of here, it features Will Smith fighting a giant steampunk spider.