It’s been about six months, which must mean it’s time for Marvel to crash the box-office party again. The powerhouse studio is taking its biggest quote unquote “risk” with “Guardians of the Galaxy,” a property that was barely known in the mainstream until they cast Vin Diesel as a talking tree. But curiosity over brand loyalty and the new Hollywood business model aside, I’ve found myself more excited and eager for “Guardians” than “Captain America 2: The Released-in-Early-Spring-Because-The-Money-Was-Just-Sitting-There Soldier” or “Thor 2: Still Thor.” Why? Was it the tongue-in-cheek advertising campaign, which promises that mayyyybe this Marvel entry will have a little more self-aware silliness? Was it the actually quite savvy choice of James Gunn, cult genre favorite, as director for a massive blockbuster?
I have realized that no, this goes back deeper: to my personal love for Ethan Edwards and Wyatt Earp and Harmonica. Yes, it always comes back to Westerns, and I’m getting an unmistakable Space Western vibe from Chris Pratt’s cosmic gunslinger and his band of alien outlaws. They don’t call it “the final frontier” for nothing – the Space Western is a proud, under-appreciated tradition that “Guardians” might just help revive (“Cowboys and Aliens” certainly did us no favors). Sometimes sci-fi and Westerns go so well together you don’t even notice – so this week, to put “Guardians” in the proper context, we’re considering three films that laid the cinematic space railroad for this runaway box office train.
I know that was a labored metaphor, just shut up and move on.
Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Carrie Henn, Paul Reiser, Lance Henrikson, Bill Paxton
Available to rent or buy on Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix
Confused? “Aliens” is a sci-fi/action hybrid you say? Well what do you call it when a homesteader settlement on the edge of civilization is massacred by an unknown Other, leaving an outmatched troop of rescuers to navigate unfamiliar and dangerous territory? Because I call that a Western. Just replace those problematic Native American portrayals with uncontroversial, terrifying aliens, the cavalry with space marines, and John Wayne with Sigourney Weaver, and we’re set. We really shouldn’t have been so surprised when the narrative of “Avatar” boiled down to “Dances With Wolves” with blue people – it’s obvious that James Cameron has had at least one eye on the frontier since the start.
“Space Jam” (1996)
Cast: Bugs Bunny, Michael Jordan, Wayne Knight, Bill Murray, Patrick Ewing, Muggsy Bogues, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Danny DeVito
Available to rent or purchase from Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix
I’ve often wondered what inspired Warner Brothers to send Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny to space together, or why NBA stars like Charles Barkley and Larry Bird agreed to it, but whatever the stroke of inspiration, it was one of genius. Almost 20 years later, “Space Jam” has become a cult classic, especially beloved of ‘90s kids and accessible to all ages and generations. The Looney Tunes find themselves besieged by a group of criminal aliens, the Nerdlucks (whose mafioso boss is delightfully voiced by Danny DeVito). To win their freedom from these outlanders, Bugs and friends challenge the short, not-so-bright aliens to a game of basketball. Unfortunately for them—and for the NBA—the Nerdlucks steal the talent (and the physique) of the game’s top stars, so that the Looney Tunes, in desperation, turn to lone hero Michael Jordan, then plying his trade in baseball. Jordan is funny and charismatic, at ease with his cartoon co-stars, while the Looney Tunes bring a star-studded cast featuring all the classic favorites. If all that’s not enough, even Bill Murray shows up. It’s a sports movie and cartoon in one (Editor’s note: with just a splash of “Magnificent Seven!”), the theme song will forever echo in your head, and a trip to outer space never looked so appealing.
Cast: Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Summer Glau, Alan Tudyk, Adam Baldwin, Morena Baccarin, Jewel Staite, Sean Maher
Available streaming on Netflix, or to rent or purchase on Amazon Instant or iTunes
It’s fairly impossible to discuss this genre anymore without bringing up Joss Whedon’s ill-fated TV show “Firefly.” Thanks to its second life on Netflix, “Firefly” and its cinematic follow-up/wrap-up “Serenity” probably has the biggest Space Western-fanboy following this side of “Star Wars” – but don’t let the rabid Comic-Con-goers cloud what actually makes the series great. It’s not Summer Glau beating up everyone, nor even Whedon’s trademark quippy dialogue: it’s the delicate mash-up of genre and tone, with the outer reaches of the galaxy, like the Old West before it, portrayed in equal measure as a place of swashbuckling adventure and brutal violence, of morality tested in a world where morality might mean nothing at all.