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Wild Wild West
Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld

Wild Wild West
Principal Cast
Will Smith
James T. West
Kevin Kline
Artemus Gordon
Kenneth Branagh
Dr Arliss Loveless
Salma Hayek
Rita Escobar
M. Emmet Walsh
Ted Levine
Frederique Van Der Wal
Musetta Vander
Sofia Eng
Ian Abercrombie
British Dignitary
Kris Anderson
Christian Aubert
French Dignitary
Ratings are based on a four star system.
One star means that the commercials are more entertaining than the viewing.
Two stars watch if you have nothing better to do.
Three stars is good solid entertainment.
Four stars means you never dreamed viewing could be this good.
Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rick Norwood

Wild Wild West (**), directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, written by Brent Maddock & S.S. Wilson and Jeffrey Price & Peter S. Seaman, has excellent actors, good dialogue, and spectacular special effects. And so, as I watched it, I found myself wondering, "Why am I not enjoying this more?"

Star Trek was the very first television series to move to the big screen, and it is still the most successful transition, possibly because the series started out more intelligent than your average TV show. There was something there to carry on with, other than the names of the characters and a few basic situations.

Since that time, almost every television series that is even dimly remembered, right on down to McHale's Navy, has been made into a film, and almost all of them turn out to be very, very bad. The reason these films are made is that the audience for television is so much larger than the audience for films that if you can drag even a few of them out of their armchairs, you make money.

The Wild Wild West was a mildly interesting science fiction western which was on television for four seasons beginning in 1968, followed by two made-for-TV movies. Gene L. Coon wrote some of the more imaginative episodes.

Wild Wild West (the movie title wisely drops the "the") is a big budget special effects extravaganza with name stars. Its biggest draw is the giant mechanical spider seen in the previews, which was created by Industrial Light and Magic. The film is fast and flashy and forgettable.

First, what's good about it. Will Smith makes an excellent Jim West, slapping leather and riding off into the sunset with the best of them. The movie, set shortly after the Civil War, is hip enough to not ignore the fact that Smith is Black. Rather, it has a gag in which Smith puts someone off their guard by acting like Stepin Fetchit and then punches them out. Cool. Kevin Kline, who plays Artemus Gordon, is a fine actor who delivers a funny performance. In addition to playing Artemus Gordon impersonating Ulysses S. Grant, he also plays Ulysses S. Grant, and does it so well that I didn't tumble to the double impersonation until the credits. In the original series, Gordon was just a sidekick. Here, the rivalry between West and Gordon adds to the plot. Kenneth Branagh, another fine actor, is a bit too over-the-top as Dr Loveless. Since the preview doesn't give away how Branagh, who is not vertically challenged, plays a character who is a dwarf, I won't either. Nifty gimmick.

There are several appealing nods to the actual history of the time, such as the sheep grazing on the White House lawn. The city where Dr Loveless houses his giant spider has a wonderful Victorian air.

The writers have written good movies. Brent Maddock & Steve Wilson wrote the excellent Tremors (***), plus a lot of earthbound SF films that don't quite make the A-list. Jeffrey Price & Peter S. Seaman, who came in later to add to the script, did the screenplay for Who Framed Roger Rabbit (****) and a proposed film version of the TV special How the Grinch Stole Christmas (****). (Edward Solomon, who wrote Men in Black (****), did not work on Wild Wild West. When the preview says, "From the creators of Men in Black" you have to remember what Hollywood thinks of writers.)

The plot couldn't be more simple. Dr Loveless wants to conquer the United States -- so he can give it back to Europe! West and Gordon want to stop him. Of course, West could easily have shot him dead the first time he saw him, but then there wouldn't have been any movie.

So, why isn't the film as much fun as it should have been?

There are two things wrong with it. I'll mention the less serious problem first, since it is common to almost all filmed science fiction. Science fiction writers go to a lot of trouble to get scientific verisimilitude in their stories. Even if they are going to ignore science, as is the case with faster-than-light travel, they at least make a nod in science's general direction, tossing off some technobabble.

Film writers, on the other hand, assume that since it is science fiction, anything can happen, even if it ignores both scientific fact and common sense. It is their way of congratulating themselves on how superior they are to the idiots who watch their films.

Unfortunately for them, people are not as dumb as they think. For example, everybody knows that a spinning buzz-saw blade will fall to the ground rather quickly, not chase men through a cornfield. Everybody knows that magnets are not strong enough to drag a man along the ground to a metal object many yards away. Everybody knows that an airplane needs more wingspan than Artemus Gordon's silly looking flying bicycle has. If the writers are going to alter the laws of nature on a whim, to get our heroes into a fix and then get them out again, what is the point?

I was willing to grant the impossible giant spider because it looked so good. But when a script piles one impossibility on top of another for its whole length, it loses the audience, no matter how willing their suspension of disbelief.

An even bigger problem is the emotional void at the heart of the film. Dr Loveless murdered Jim West's entire family, but this happens off stage, and West never seems mad at Loveless. They trade insults, but just for laughs. The girl, who is supposedly in the story to find a scientist relative kidnapped by Loveless, seems more interested in letting the movie audience catch glimpses of her bare backside. The ultimate rescue of the kidnapped scientists also happens off stage. In fact, anything that might give any emotional depth to the movie happens off stage.

The previous film directed by Sonnenfeld, Men in Black, had the same jokey, irreverent tone, but you could see that Tommy Lee Jones was feeling some real pain behind his stony mask. Nobody here is feeling any pain. The only character you care about is Ulysses S. Grant, who is portrayed with respect. Americans like to respect their presidents. (Too bad presidents so often make that impossible.)

So, if you go to see Wild Wild West you can expect to have a mildly amusing time. If you miss it, no big deal.

Copyright © 1999 by Rick Norwood

Rick Norwood is a mathematician and writer whose small press publishing house, Manuscript Press, has published books by Hal Clement, R.A. Lafferty, and Hal Foster. He is also the editor of Comics Revue Monthly, which publishes such classic comic strips as Flash Gordon, Sky Masters, Modesty Blaise, Tarzan, Odd Bodkins, Casey Ruggles, The Phantom, Gasoline Alley, Krazy Kat, Alley Oop, Little Orphan Annie, Barnaby, Buz Sawyer, and Steve Canyon.

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