Of all the guilty pleasure movies to come out of the ‘90s, one stands alone as the least appreciated. Despite the star power of Will Smith at an early career peak, the film was a spectacular and expensive flop for Warner Bros. It’s a bizarre product; its gargantuan budget of well over $200 million would be huge for blockbusters coming out today. Critics hated it, and audiences at the time weren't thrilled either. Nevertheless, you should watch it before it leaves Peacock at the end of 2021.
It's impossible to defend Wild Wild West on plenty of counts. The race jokes and drag gags are dated and uncomfortable to watch, even for 1999. Smith and his co-star, a clean-shaven Kevin Kline, appear hopelessly mismatched to the point where you wonder if they met for the first time on the day of shooting. Let's not even get into what happens with Salma Hayek.
It's easy to see why so many turned their noses up at this late-decade effort from Barry Sonnenfeld, who previously directed Men in Black and shot gorgeous films like Raising Arizona. Here he was adapting Michael Garrison's beloved if trite television show with a built-in fanbase.
But for many kids in the ‘90s, like myself, the old TV show was just another TV show. We came out to see Wild Wild West for what the marketing sold well: A cool steampunk adventure combining the thrills of the Old West with the technological wizardry of modern effects. With giant iron spiders and gadgets galore, but plenty of low-fi gunslinging too, Wild Wild West succeeded at combining the nostalgia of the frontier with the endless possibilities of futurism. No wonder parents didn't understand.
Despite Smith and Kline's lack of chemistry, the two are electric when moving through the film on their own. Smith wears the cowboy outfit like he was born with the threads and commands his pistol like it's attached to his arm. Kline's cavalcade of gadgets, many of them improvised on the spot, aren't as smooth, but they're clever and surprising. On paper, these two complement each other perfectly.
The film's big villain, Dr. Arliss Loveless, is played by a delightfully cartoonish Kenneth Branagh, who at the time was still directing serious Shakespeare adaptations. In Wild Wild West, the Belfast director gets to live it up as a mad scientist intent on reigniting the Confederacy with a plan just deliriously unhinged enough to match the "anything goes" mentality of this amazing mess of a popcorn flick.
Wild Wild West is one charmingly gaudy set piece after another, so to call it flat is certainly off the mark. Smith and Kline get chased by sawblades magnetized to their oversized metal collars, pilot a plane prototype while getting shot at by a minigun, navigate a funhouse train under siege, attempt to save President Ulysses S. Grant from evil southerners, and yes, the giant, fire-breathing mechanical spider blows up a town straight out of High Noon. It actually works to the movie's favor that the effects tend to look outlandishly bad. Anything more polished might interfere with the film's nonsensical tone, one of its most lasting features.
At the time of its summer release, Roger Ebert famously called Wild Wild West a "comedy dead zone” and "all concept and no content." He was completely correct, at least about the second part. The blockbusters of this era were all over the place, but they uniquely capture the audacity of filmmakers still playing with the new toys of computer effects in a post-Jurassic Park world, where audiences demanded bigger and bigger swings.
While the results vary wildly, Wild Wild West doesn't get enough credit for how much pure joy it invents out of its old-fashioned premise and setting using CGI, even when the technology clearly hadn't caught up with what Sonnenfeld had in mind.
There's a reason people who see this movie today, many of them likely curious about those negative reviews, tend to come out declaring the film an absolute blast. They're not thinking about how Will Smith turned down The Matrix for this role (well, not all of them). They're thinking about how incredible it is to have an escapist sci-fi western with such confident energy and commitment to its own bit.
Wild Wild West leaves Peacock on January 1, 2022.