InTrans / Nov 30, 2016

Wild Wild West review: A Steampunk Western

Go! Magazine

Villians of Wild Wild West aboard machine

We’re going to the Wild West!

This month we’ve been talking about Steampunk, which imagines how the world would be if our modern technology—like fossil fuels and electricity—never took off. In a Steampunk world, it’s all about the reign of steam power.

And that’s exactly what Warner Bro’s Wild Wild West (1999) is all about: Steampunk! Wild Wild West begins in the year 1869 and supposes that a power-hungry former Confederate soldier (Dr. Arliss Loveless) creates his own Steampunk Empire to prevail over the technology of the time (like the transcontinental railroad).

For Dr. Loveless, it’s all about steam power. He designs his very own Steampunk world—with some of the best metallurgists, chemists, and hydrologists in the country—in an attempt to capture President Grant and force him to surrender the country. It’s all up to Captain James West (Will Smith) and U.S. Marshal Artemus Gordon (Kevin Kline) to save the day.

West and Gordon are the heroes of the story and use contraptions of their own to take on Loveless and his steam-powered, Steampunk Empire. Gordon, an inventor, fashions a series of inventions—many involving transportation—that assist the heroes in their assignment: to save the president and restore peace.

The film features a list of inventions conceived by Gordon including what he calls a “bivalve interior combustion twice-exhausted bi-axle nitro cycle.” Then, toward the end of the movie, Gordon invents the “Air Gordon,” which turns his nitro cycle design into a full-fledged flying contraption! Gordon and West use the contraption to compete with Loveless’ steam-powered fleet.

Main characters flying the Air Gordon.
Flying the Air Gordon.
Screenshot from Wild Wild West, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Some transportation we see in Wild Wild West may strike you as familiar: a majority of the characters in the movie get around using horses, carriages, horse-drawn buggies, steam trains, and 19th century bicycles. Sometimes even West and Gordon stick to more conventional modes of transportation for the time. But Loveless, the evil inventor-villain, has a fleet of Steampunk transportation.

Loveless, a recovering soldier, has noticeably lost the lower half of his body in the Civil War— which ended in 1865 (or four years before the movie’s storyline begins). The first classic Steampunk invention we see is a wheelchair that Loveless fashioned to get around. The wheelchair is steam-powered and complete with a smokestack—the first invention we see that indicates a Steampunk narrative (one where steam power can prevail over modern technology).

Loveless in steam-powered wheelchair.
Loveless’ steam-powered wheelchair.
Screenshot from Wild Wild West,Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

In fact, using steam power to conquer modern technology is the foundation of Loveless’ plan, thus making Wild Wild West a classic Steampunk story! Loveless kidnaps the greatest scientists in the country to help him invent a fleet of Steampunk inventions and what they come up with doesn’t disappoint.

The pinnacle of Steampunk transportation in Wild Wild West is Loveless’ multi-purpose steam-power tank. This steam-powered contraption answers the question: What would steam-powered vessels look like in an alternate timeline? The tank first appears as a giant steamboat but doubles as a car, weapon, submarine, and railroad car.

Loveless’ steam-powered tank transforming into a rail car.
Loveless’ steam-powered tank transforming into a rail car.
Screenshot from Wild Wild West, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

But just because the tank is the most complex and multi-purpose Steampunk transportation in the movie doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best. The movie also features a steam-powered spider—an 80 ft. tall tarantula—that works like no transportation we’ve seen before! The contraption resembles a spider in both aesthetic and function—crawling across the desert on eight legs.

So what do you think, does Wild Wild West snap a Steampunk world into perspective? Steampunk can be hard to define, and even hard to imagine, but this sci-fi/Western twist does a pretty good job of visualizing a world where steam power has a chance. If you’re looking for classic Steampunk, look no further: check out Wild Wild West.

Director(s): Barry Sonnenfeld

Genre(s): Action, Comedy, Sci-Fi

Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 106 min

Related links

(Video) Steam city/tarantula:

(Video) Movie trailer:

By Hannah Postlethwait, Go! Staff Writer

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