You need to watch the most underrated sci-fi western on Netflix ASAP
“The wrongs will be righted! The past made present! The United — divided!”
The year 1999 was a simpler time. It’s the year that brought us the word “blog,” the Star Wars prequel comeback, and Y2K panic. It’s even been heralded as the best year in cinema history, thanks to cinematic powerhouses like Fight Club and American Beauty.
But underneath the history-making blockbusters laid one strange sci-fi adventure that both exhibited the futuristic visions of the sci-fi age and the aged-like-milk attitudes of the last gasps of the 20th century. Here’s why it’s the perfect viewing choice now that it’s streaming on Netflix.
Wild Wild West is a 1999 sci-fi action comedy directed by Men in Black’s Barry Sonnenfeld. It stars three-time Tony award-winning actor Kevin Kline as U.S. Marshal Artemus Gordon and 11-time Kid’s Choice award-winning actor Will Smith as Army Captain Jim West. The two find themselves both on the trail of legless Confederate general Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh), who is kidnapping scientists and working on a mysterious invention known as the Tarantula.
From a plot standpoint, Wild Wild West is a surprisingly decent steampunk western. Thanks to Industrial Light & Magic, the special effects of multiple steam-powered vehicles and westerns would fit in a decade later, and the fun devices and inventions of Artemus are just as delightful as the futuristic writings of classic sci-fi novels. Seeing the Tarantula crawl across the Utah desert, it’s hard not to think about H.G. Wells.
However, the comedy side of this action-comedy is slightly less forward-thinking. The fact this 19th-century adventure stars a Black man is not ignored, but there’s a difference between “acknowledging a fresh trauma of systemic racism” and “staging an elaborate escape scene after the protagonist is set to be lynched.” It’s the difference between acknowledging a touchy subject and ridiculing it. In Wild Wild West, slavery doesn’t exist as a blotch on American history but a hilarious set-piece.
But don’t dismiss this movie just because of its era-appropriate attitudes. If anything, those make this film more worth watching — acknowledging the sins of the past is just what this movie fails to do, and writing off this movie because of its 22-year-old attitudes would be doing the same thing. There are jokes that rely entirely on the inherent hilarity of a man in a dress, but that’s simply what was considered funny at the time. Those moments may not be funny now, but it’s refreshing and almost endearing to see how far humor has progressed.
That’s the dilemma of Wild Wild West. The aesthetics are classic steampunk, the humor is 1999, and the special effects are 2010-level. But there are some parts of the turn-of-the-millennia blockbuster model that does age well. The one-off Western adventure is almost unheard of in this age of IP and franchises, and there’s even that Will Smith classic — the original song based on the movie over the end credits.
In a way, Wild Wild West is funnier because of its shortcomings. The fact that a character wanting to return land to Native Americans is portrayed as a heartless villain? So funny. Kevin Kline playing President Ulysses S. Grant for no particular reason? Why not. Will Smith disguising himself as a belly dancer? Not great in retrospect, but it’s almost funny in how confident a choice it is.
If you’re looking for the good, the bad, and the ugly of late 90s blockbusters, look no further than this overlooked gem. Even with its slightly off-color moments, it’s indicative of just where we were then — and how far we’ve come.
Wild Wild West is now streaming on Netflix.