Westerns and science fiction are two of the most popular movie genres to ever grace the silver screen, occupying a place of honour in the world of cinema, and it appears that people’s longtime fascination with them has also transferred onto their lovechild: the space western. Over the years, we’ve seen many movies pertaining to this subcategory, such as the Star Trek franchise, Guardians of the Galaxy and more recently The Mandalorian, skyrocket (pun intended) at the box office and spark the imagination of millions of viewers from all across the world.
In recent decades, westerns, which dominated cinema in the 50s and 60s, have gone almost extinct and sci-fi movies don’t perform as well as they once did either, which begs the question: what is it about space westerns that makes them so incredibly entertaining and has people enthralled? Well, if you’re in the mood for some intergalactic adventures populated by space cowboys, get ready for a deep dive into this intriguing subgenre.
What are space westerns?
As the name suggests, space westerns somehow manage to bring the world of westerns and that of sci-fi together and create captivating plots and storylines from this unusual conjunction. Their success is rather surprising considering they combine two different realms that don’t seem to have much in common. One is rooted in tradition and the old ways of life while the other one deals with imaginative and innovative concepts inspired by scientific advances that take place in the future.
What most people get wrong about space westerns is the fact that they’re not one and the same thing with sci-fi westerns, although many use these terms interchangeably. Space westerns are sci-fi movies that take themes and tropes specific to westerns and integrate them into a story that takes place in an outer space setting.
By comparison, sci-fi westerns, are western movies infused with sci-fi elements whose action is set on Earth. So, although both subgenres share similarities, they are fundamentally different and can’t be placed under the same umbrella.
The final frontier in film sub-genres
The rising popularity of the space western genre can be attributed to several factors. For starters, they provide a contrast that is both alluring and intriguing, paring elements and conventions reminding of classic westerns with the visual effects and the unlimited imagination and innovation of sci-fi movies, thus offering a pure and unadulterated source of escapism.
Secondly, even though westerns and sci-fi movies seem to be at opposite ends on the cinematography spectrum, there is some common ground which might not be as obvious at first glance but allows these genres to come together as a whole. Just like the Wild West, the universe is vast, unexplored and filled with all sorts of dangers that give rise to extraordinary adventures. And just like western lands were being colonized back in the day, space cowboys are colonizing barren and hostile galaxies.
Also, moviegoers these days don’t resonate with some of the cliches presented in classic westerns anymore because we live in different times. Space westerns have found a way to bring the genre into the present time by keeping western-specific elements that audiences love and placing them in a context that is fresh and inventive.
That makes space westerns quite unique in the cinematography landscape, although it has to be said there is a certain category of critics who think space westerns are an insult to their parent genres and are not worth the time or the attention of any self-respecting cinephile.
Best space westerns to watch right now
If you want to get acquainted with this unusual but captivating subgenre and don’t know where to begin your quest, these are the movies you should include on your to-watch list.
The OG of space westerns – although the term wasn’t as popular when the original trilogy was launched back in the 70s – Star Wars is THE movie to watch if you have a soft spot for all things sci-fi and you want to immerse yourself in the most iconic space saga of all times. Star Wars films comprise three sets of trilogies collectively referred to as the Skywalker Saga, so you’ve got approximately 25 hours of viewing time to enjoy.
Guardians of the Galaxy
A space western that is closer to our modern times, Guardians of the Galaxy offers a fresh take on the genre with plenty of action and a good dose of comedy to lighten things up. The storyline follows a group of misfit space adventurers who through a set of circumstances become unexpected heroes trying to save the universe from a cosmic threat.
The popularity of space westerns has also penetrated the anime world, giving rise to a variety of series experimenting with the genre. Out of all the space western animations out there, Cowboy Bebop has to be the most popular and captivating one, attracting favourable reviews from both viewers and critics. The movie focuses on the adventures of cowboy bounty hunters in a post-apocalyptic world where the solar system has been colonized and people have left the Earth.
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds
Just like Star Wars, Star Trak is another classic of the genre that every movie enthusiast should watch. But if you haven’t seen any of the Star Trek movies or TV series and you want to pick just one, we suggest you start with Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. The series focuses on the exploration of new worlds and the many thrilling discoveries and adventures stemming from it.
The Mandalorian is part of the Star Wars universe, you can think of it as an entirely separate series since it depicts a very distinct storyline centred around the lone bounty hunter known as the Mandalorian who finds himself in all sorts of tumultuous situations as he travels across the galaxy.
So, if you ever find yourself in need of a cinematic escape, don’t hesitate to give space westerns a try and watch one of these gripping movies.