One of the more infamous films of the late 90s, Wild Wild West was a remake of a classic Western TV series that debuted in 1965.  Starring Will Smith, Kevin Kline, Salma Hayek, and Kenneth Branagh, critics eviscerated the film, the main actor from the original series, audiences, and the film’s cast.  

With a 16% Critic score and 23% Audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, the film also won the Razzie Awards for Worst Picture, Worst Screen Couple (Will Smith & Kevin Kline), Worst Director, Worst Screenplay, and Worst Original Song.  

To celebrate the film’s 25th anniversary this year, I thought it would be fun to examine its positive aspects, which make it worth watching.

Check out the Original Theatrical Trailer below:

#1 – Production Design

The film’s overall look, from the Western towns to the steampunk aesthetic, is superbly executed. Production Designer Bo Welch had a monumental task on his hands: bringing a sci-fi spin to the Western genre. He succeeds here, with plenty of excellent visuals to distract from Wild Wild West’s lackluster script and performances. 

#2 – Costume Design

Will Smith as James West, Salma Hayek as Rita Escobar, and Kevin Kline as Artemus Gordon – (Photo by Murray Close/Warner Bros./Getty Images)

Costume Designer Deborah L. Scott’s long list of credits includes TitanicMinority Report, both Avatar films, and The Patriot. Here, her skills are on full display, as she creates looks that immerse the actors and audience in the world of the film even when things get ridiculous (Will Smith in drag).  Again, like the film’s production design, the costume design does assist in making the film a more tolerable viewing experience.

#3 – Musical Score

Composer Elmer Bernstein

Composer Elmer Bernstein is a Hollywood icon when it comes to film scores.  Creating music for movies since the 1950s, Bernstein composed scores for The Ten CommandmentsAirplane!, Ghostbusters, and National Lampoon’s Animal House.

Here, Bernstein works his magic with an epic Western-inspired score that is thrilling and fun to listen to without the distractions of the film itself. Bernstein is a master of his craft, and his music elevates a movie that often can’t stand on its own merits.

#4 – Cast

Kenneth Branagh as Dr. Arliss Loveless

Despite its multitude of problems, Wild Wild West has a solid cast.  What’s missing here is any chemistry between the actors; everyone appears to be there to say their lines and collect a paycheck, nothing more. This talented group of performers can’t seem to create a cohesive tone for the film.  I have heard in the past that Will Smith and Kevin Kline both wanted to play the straight man in the movie instead of the comic relief, which may explain why their scenes and acting are so uneven over the course of the film.  And while Kenneth Branagh is clearly having a blast as the scenery-chewing villain, his performance can’t elevate those of the two leads.

Fun fact: Will Smith turned down the role of Neo in The Matrix for his role in this film.

This might be due to inconsistent directing, studio interference, and script rewrites that resulted in the film’s tone, style, and acting being all over the place.  I’d love to find out what the day-to-day production was like on this film and see how the changes influenced the final cut.  Was there a solid summer blockbuster that was destroyed by too much interference by outsiders at some point?  

#5 – Visual Effects

Giant Mechanical Spider

The Golden Age of Visual Effects began in 1991 with Terminator 2: Judgment Day.  This monumental achievement in filmmaking allowed new levels of effects to be brought to screen from that moment onward, and one of the films that benefitted from this evolution was Wild Wild West.  1999 was a pretty stellar year for VFX, with The Matrix and The Mummy being the most notable and successful of the lot, but Wild Wild West’s visual effects are impressive and even look better than many VFX-heavy films from the past few years.

While plenty of practical sets and locations are used, many visual effects moments are enhanced or brought to life by CG, the biggest of which is Doctor Loveless’s giant mechanical spider that appears in the final act of the film.  

Fun fact: according to Kevin Smith, back in the 90s, an executive at Warner Bros. was obsessed with adding a giant mechanical spider into one of the studio’s films.  When Smith pitched his Superman movie idea, this executive wanted Superman to fight a giant mechanical spider in the film’s climax.  Of course, Smith’s Superman movie never happened, but one can’t help but wonder if that same executive finally fulfilled his mechanical spider dreams in Wild Wild West.

#6 – Great Learning Tool for Writers

Wild Wild West received the Razzie for Worst Screenplay, and with six credited writers, it’s not hard to see why. During the production process, a screenplay often passes through several writers. A quality script depends on those writers maintaining a consistent tone, pacing, character development, and story arcs throughout the revisions to avoid many of the issues in this particular film.

When you watch this movie, you’ll notice there are drastic shifts in tone from over-the-top silly to dark and dramatic.  These swings can happen from one scene to the next, causing tonal whiplash.  While there are movies that can pull this off, this one fails to do so throughout.  

This movie also had the issue of the two leads not wanting to be the comic relief, which would also cause any writer’s head to explode if changes were demanded daily to appease the actors.  Then, once the filming is done, it’s the editor’s job to cobble together a coherent story out of a tonally inconsistent mess of scenes.

Along with the tone issues, this summer popcorn flick also has plot holes, plot contrivances and conveniences, and other issues.

And don’t get me started on all the physics issues that would make Neil deGrasse Tyson go on a multi-part rant!

If you’re a screenwriter, I encourage you to study this film. No, I’m serious. Break down the film scene by scene and note what you would have done to improve the script and, therefore, the film. What scenes work? Which ones don’t? How could the tone of certain scenes be changed to fit better into the film?

Wild Wild West suffers from an identity crisis. It’s just not sure what type of film it wants to be. The TV series it’s based on was a Western drama with sci-fi elements, but the film adds camp, satire, slapstick, sexual humor, racial humor, and disabled humor, along with the Western genre and steampunk sci-fi elements.  The filmmakers cram so much into the film that it detracts from the actual story and characters and becomes a live-action cartoon (much like another Warner Bros. film, Batman & Robin).

In films like Thor: Ragnarök, we’ve seen how genres can be blended without sacrificing story and character.  This is also true of genre satires like Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein.  There are layers of genre woven into the story’s DNA, but it works and keeps the audience engaged and entertained.

Final Thoughts

Will Smith publicly apologized to Robert Conrad, who played James West in the 1960s TV series, and I’m sure most of the other cast members wish the film would be forgotten.  However, it’s a guilty pleasure of mine.  I love the soundtrack. I’ve seen it many times and I’ll definitely be watching it again after finishing this post.    

Films like Wild Wild West should be studied by aspiring screenwriters as much as films like The GodfatherThelma & Louise, and Die Hard.  You can learn a lot from a bad movie that can help you make better ones as you become a stronger screenwriter.

What did you think of Wild Wild West?  Have seen it more than once, or was once more than enough?  Leave a comment and let me know!

And here’s the music video for Will Smith’s song, Wild Wild West:

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *