There was a time when the western was the king of Hollywood, the dominant genre on the big screen and with a substantial presence on the small. Cut to present day and westerns are seemingly an endangered species with comic book properties flourishing in its stead. However the new HBO series Westworld, based on Michael Crichton’s 1973 film of the same name, has proved to be an enormous hit and like its name suggests the show is, at least in part, a western. Westworld takes place in a western-themed amusement park/real life video game filled with robots who believe their lives and the park are real while the guests are free to interact with them however they desire. So does the hype and success of Westworld mark the return of the western genre to its former glory? Let’s investigate.
HBO’s biggest property of the moment is of course Game of Thrones which has redefined the fantasy genre, bringing it into the mainstream in a way we hadn’t seen since Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. But with all this newfangled interest and fandom due to Game of Thrones, has the fantasy genre had upsurge in recent years? The answer is no; historical action epics have increased with shows like Vikings and Outlander but fantasy is still in a withered state on both the big and small screen with literature being its only permanent home. Since Game of Thrones the most memorable fantasy film was Seventh Son which was memorable for all the wrong reasons including the fact I had to watch it with subtitles just to understand what Jeff Bridges was saying. Westworld could very well follow in Game of Thrones’ footsteps in that regard, redefining the genre on television but not leading to any real upsurge of it.
I guess I have overestimated the decline of the Western in recent years with there being several notable examples of the genre but in my opinion they’re not true westerns despite the time period and setting. In recent years Westerns have become nothing more than proxies to tell a story, or even explore another genre, in a unique, interesting and engaging way. Despite all of its classic affiliations the recent remake of The Magnificent Seven is less of a western and more of a modern high octane action flick and is so much more an action movie than a western that you can hardly call it a genre hybrid. Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight is a murder mystery (and Tarantino is essentially his own genre by now), the masterful Bone Tomahawk reflects more of an Eli Roth gory horror and The Ridiculous Six… well the less said about that the better. Westworld itself can certainly be seen as more science fiction that western with its exploration of AI reminiscent of shows like Channel 4’s Humans or Alex Garland’s Ex Machina but the western genre is so intrinsic to the show both thematically and narrative wise that it can never distance itself from the genre.
I think that westerns are now the perfect place to explore present day, or universal, themes but in a way that keeps them very much of in the western genre. Humanity’s obsessions with multiple types of violence, greed and discrimination have already and can again make for the perfect subject matter for the western with Westworld doing just that and I believe that other properties can follow suit creating pieces of entertainment mixed with social commentary in the old west setting.
The return of the western may already be upon us without us realising under the guise of the neo-western. Films such as No Country for Old Men and more recently Hell or High Water have the themes and setting of the classic westerns just not the time period but this isn’t the first time westerns have evolved into something else. When creating the original Star Trek series, Gene Roddenberry was greatly inspired by the western genre eventually leading to the casting of western veteran DeForest Kelly as Dr Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy. Westerns didn’t disappear they simply evolved into other genre shows and films with the universal themes never leaving the public consciousness that they stem from in the first place. Whether HBO’s brilliant Westworld heralds the return of the classic western into the genre that dominates the entertainment landscape we can only answer “time will tell” but in way they already do because westerns have never left us, they have simply transformed.
Do you think Westworld marks the return of the western genre? Let me know in the comments and geek out with me about television on Twitter @kylebrrtt.