When we think of westerns, images of cowboy hats, stagecoaches and John Wayne usually come to mind. I say usually because while those may be the most common icons associated with the genre they’re not the only ones.
This weekend, Cowboys & Aliens adds spaceships, extraterrestrials and laser guns to the existing formula. To research the movie’s western half, director Jon Favreau watched classic movies like Stagecoach and Destry Rides Again. Then he spent time with Alien, Predator, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind to find the sci-fi feel he was after.
“If you do it right,” he said of the film, “it honours both, and it becomes interesting and clever and a reinvention of two things that people understand.”
So call it a spacetern or neo-western if you like, but it isn’t the first movie to mix and match sci-fi with horse opera.
Michael Crichton wrote and directed Westworld after a trip to Disneyland. The Pirates of the Caribbean ride inspired him to imagine an amusement park where vacationers pay $1,000 a day to interact with robots programmed to replicate life in different periods of history. When a computer malfunction sends Yul Brynner’s black-hatted cyborg gunslinger (the actor wears the same costume he wore in The Magnificent Seven) on an animatronic rampage through the western theme park the old west becomes a place of high tech terror.
Sci-fi westerns aren’t always set on Earth, however.
The animated feature Bravestarr: The Legend sets the action on the planet of New Texas, located 1,956 light-years from Earth. Bashing together the best bits of Star Wars and traditional oater plots, the movie features cool western space toys like rocket scooters with fairings shaped like horses’ heads and a villain named Tex Hex. When Hex invades New Texas the town must get a new lawman. Enter Galactic Marshall Bravestarr. “We needed a hundred lawmen to tame New Texas,” reads the film’s tagline. “We got one. You know something? He was enough.”
Outland, the 1981 Sean Connery space thriller isn’t exactly a sci-fi western, but it is based on one of the most famous cowboy movies of all time, High Noon. A critic for the Boston Globe wrote, “Outland marks the return of the classic western hero in a space helmet,” and noted that its themes of loyalty and betrayal echoed High Noon.