To celebrate the premiere of HBO’s Westworld, we here at Fandom took a look back at our favorite science fiction westerns throughout the years. There’s a wide range of mediums represented, from anime to primetime television to film. Science fiction and westerns are two genres that seem difficult to mix, but these creators did it with panache.
HBO’s new series is based on a 1973 film written and directed by Michael Crichton, also titled Westworld. In the film, tourists looking for an unusual vacation can visit one of three amusement parks – West World, Future World, or Medieval World. The film focuses on West World, populated by androids who are like humans in almost every way. They are programmed to believe they are part of the world. When things start to break down and the androids realize that they exist only to please bored tourists, they run amok and start killing guests left and right.
Yul Brynner is particularly terrifying as “The Gunslinger”, an unnamed and brutal cowboy who goes rogue. He has almost no dialogue but still manages to be terrifying, conveying worlds of information with facial expressions. The special effects look a little hokey now but were cutting-edge back in ’73. Westworld was a commercial and critical success, spawning a sequel, FutureWorld, and a short-lived television series. On Oct. 2, viewers will get the chance to visit West World again, this time on the small screen. [Danielle Ryan]
High Noon is such a classic in the Western genre. It stands to reason that the simple story of a sheriff standing alone against a gang of criminals would find itself adapted into other genres. That’s exactly what Outland is: a remake of High Noon set in a mining colony on Io.
Marshall William T. O’Niel (Sean Connery) is feeling isolated in his new position, but when miners begin to die mysteriously, he discovers a corrupt drug ring that controls the entire operation. When he begins standing up to the crooked boss (Peter Boyle), a squad of hitmen are summoned to take him out. It’s then that O’Niel begins looking for help from his fellow miners, and sees how powerful fear can be.
Outland is a two-fisted treasure. Connery is in peak rough-guy form as O’Niel. He trades his suave James Bond swagger for a working class roughness that works like gangbusters. Plus, the sci-fi setting really feels like it takes place in the same universe as Alien. It wouldn’t be too difficult to connect the two. Regardless, Outland proves that a good story can be told in new ways. In this case, it’s transplanting a Western into space. [Drew Dietsch]
Anime is a medium with its fair share of science fiction Westerns. Few among them is as fantastic as Cowboy Bebop, however. The series features a ragtag crew of bounty hunters as they try to navigate the perils of space. The stars are their Wild West as they travel around the galaxy trying to make a living for themselves. The lovable crew features an ex-law enforcement official who also happens to be a cyborg, a mysterious space cowboy, a wanted woman, a 13-year-old genius, and a Welsh Corgi.
Over the show’s 26 episodes (and a movie), the crew get into a number of mishaps but usually seem to escape real danger. The dynamic between the members of the crew is the show’s strongest point, as each has a special relationship with the other crew members. The show’s creators weren’t afraid to pull on the audience’s heartstrings, either, and there’s more than one Cowboy Bebop episode that requires a box of tissues nearby (the finale is brutal). Featuring a great acid-jazz opening theme and a cast of diverse and fun characters, Cowboy Bebop is one hell of a sci-fi Western. See you later, space cowboy. [Danielle Ryan]
Firefly has almost every element of a classic Western film wrapped up in one season of television. There’s the clear allegory for the American Civil War, outlaws who are just trying to make a buck, gunslingers, a doctor, a preacher, and a beautiful prostitute. Sure, the crew of Serenity don’t talk like traditional cowboys, but they’re cowboys all the same. They even rustle and transport cattle at one point.
Joss Whedon’s show wasn’t an immediate hit and got cancelled after only one season. That hasn’t stopped people from falling in love with the series on home video, however, and some fans are still clamoring for the show to return. In 2005, Whedon and co. released a movie, Serenity, that wrapped up the series’ loose ends.
Firefly embraces its dual nature, reveling in both science fiction and Western concepts. The characters fit certain Western stereotypes but are well-developed and unique enough to stand out. Each episode featured a different adventure that the crew went on as they tried to make a living and dodge the Alliance. One episode that really let loose with the Western theme was “Heart of Gold”, in which the crew visits a brothel on one of the outland planets. In Firefly, the planets outside of the Alliance’s jurisdiction are the Wild West. It’s a fun show with a number of talented actors, and will likely go down in pop culture history as one of the greatest stories about cowboys in space to ever grace a television screen. [
It’s a fun show with a number of talented actors, and will likely go down in pop culture history as one of the greatest stories about cowboys in space to ever grace a television screen. [Danielle Ryan]
Life’s not easy when you’re the most wanted man on the planet. Vash the Stampede, “The Human Typhoon” knows this better than anyone. He is wandering the planet with the highest bounty ever on his head. But he can’t be all bad with a motto like “Love and Peace!”
Despite being a wanted man, Vash is our noble hero in Trigun. Created by Yasuhiro Nightow, Trigun takes place on the remote planet Gunsmoke. There, the population is spread out amongst many big and small towns. There’s a smattering of futuristic tech but for the most part, it’s straight out of the Old West. We see throughout the story the reason for human colonization on this remote planet, why technology is at a stopping point despite it being the future and the reason for Vash’s motivation to protect everyone he meets (despite his predilection for the destruction of property).
Trigun has all the best features of a Western: a barren and dusty landscape, a conflicted yet noble hero, villains who seek to do wrong to the townsfolk, and anti-heroes who walk the line between both. Both the anime and manga are highly recommended but know that the anime does deviate from the original storyline in some significant ways. [Bob Aquavia]
Post-apocalyptic worlds are ideal for Western-type stories; the desolate worlds filled with small settlements and gangs of outlaws and the primitive sort of justice. It checks all the boxes without the potentially touchy subject matter involved in using the American West. But most post-apocalyptic Westerns rely too much on rote imitation of their traditional cousins. Steel Dawn is Shane with kung fu; Omega Doom is A Fistful of Dollars with boring robots. The one major exception to this rule is the Mad Max series.
There’s nothing inherently original about Mad Max. Max himself is a pretty standard “Man With No Name” archetype. This aspect of Max’s character is even lampshaded in Beyond Thunderdome. Max is a largely selfish loner who wanders around the lawless Australian outback stumbling into trouble. There are outlaw gangs, homesteaders looking for paradise, war-like tribes, and all the aspects familiar to traditional Westerns.
What separates the Mad Max movies from other post-apocalyptic Westerns is the way they’re told. Writer/director George Miller deliberately avoids traditional screenwriting cliches in telling his stories. Characters have weird names or characteristics with no explanation given. Potential romantic pairings are ignored, obvious plot trajectories avoided. These the rare films that surprise even the most jaded of movie lovers.
Combine the nearly symphonic direction with a series of films that are heartbreaking tragedy and chaotic fun in equal measure, and you have a recipe for one of cinema’s best and most varied film series. Each Mad Max movie is familiar and unique in its own way. Mad Max is a testament to how a creative mind can always make the familiar new and interesting. [Ryan Covey]
Think you know Westerns? Check out these less-than-conventional takes on the Western genre.