Things I Learned From Movie X: Wild Wild West
By Edwin Davies
February 3, 2011

Performance art is so weird.

The year was 1998, and Will Smith was the hottest star on Earth. He'd gone from strength to strength; he had a successful rap career, starred in a popular sitcom, and headlined back-to-back hits. It was around this time that a pair of writer-director brothers came to him with a script for a little film they had been working on. It was an action film that blended aspects of Hong Kong cinema, anime and metaphysics into a heady blend that they called Tommy Anderson and his Adventures in the Hyper-Net, later renamed The Matrix. Smith turned them down, instead opting to star in a steampunk influenced remake of a 1960s TV show in which Kenneth Branagh would play a torso.

In hindsight, Smith's decision to make Wild Wild West, a film remembered with a deserved and healthy amount of scorn and derision, rather than to star in one of the most beloved and influential action films of the last 20 years, seems like a poor one. Then again, in reverse-hindsight (more commonly known as foresight) it means that he didn't star in the Matrix sequels, so maybe he knew what the hell he was doing. After all, whilst he foresaw that the legacy of The Matrix would only be muddied and sullied by subsequent films, he knew that Wild Wild West would remain untouched and timeless, ready for eager students to take lessons from it. Lessons like...

It is entirely possible to survive a fall from a great height...

Jim West (Smith) is a U.S. Army...something (I'm not really sure what he is, I guess a cop or something? A ranger? Did they have Army Rangers in 1869? Do Army Rangers track down criminals? So many questions...) hot on the trail of General "Bloodbath" McGrath (Ted Levine), a Confederate General that West is intent on seeing brought to justice for his part in a massacre during the Civil War. In the course of his investigation, he meets and is partnered with Artemus Gordon (Kevin Kline), an eccentric U.S. Marshal with a penchant for invention. Together, they discover that McGrath is actually working for Dr. Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh), a psychotic inventor who plans to use a giant robotic spider to break up the Union. I would just like to point out at this point, as someone with a degree in History, that this did not really happen. I know that we can learn a lot of things from movies, but please don't think that this is one of them.

Anyway, at one point in the film, West climbs up the body of the giant spider, only to get shot by one of Arliss' cronies and fall to the ground. The bullet doesn't hurt him because, unbeknownst to him, Gordon had secretly installed a chain mail mesh on the inner lining of his coat, creating a proto-bulletproof vest. Why West didn't notice that his coat weighed 20 pounds more than it had the day before is a question for another day, but I can only assume that Jim West, as well as being a desperado and a rough rider, has the strength of a team of oxen. Maybe that wasn't explained in the film because it would be hard to work into a song. However, he also survives an 80 foot fall, despite landing on his back, which really should have shattered his spine. I realize that suspension of belief is an important part of film-making, but a dose of realism here wouldn't have hurt, if only because it could have set up an action climax in which Smith and Branagh fought in dueling wheelchairs, and who wouldn't want to watch that?

...except when it isn't

Speaking of climaxes; at the end of the film, Smith gets involved in a five-way fist fight with a group of Arliss' freaks, each of whom has been enhanced in some way by Arliss' technology (though the guy who just had a railroad spike through his head, rather than knives for hands or metal skin, probably got the short end of the stick in that regard). During the fight, the ultimate threat hanging over everyone is the possibility that they might fall from the spider to the ground below.

Why is that a threat?

We already saw that Jim West survived a fall from an even greater height (the fight takes place in a lower part of the spider) that he wasn't even prepared for. His clothes weren't even particularly dirty afterwards. Surely he could just roll off the spider whenever things got too heated, then climb back up and repeat the process until he defeated them all. It's not like that would be any dumber than having him get into a fist fight with Kenneth Branagh, after his wheelchair sprouts legs for the occasion.

If we band together, we can eradicate PB in our lifetime

For years now a disease has been running rampant throughout the fictional community. They have tried their best to keep it secret, afeared of what may happen if the world at large becomes aware of it, and every time I have tried talking to a character in a film about it, all I have received in return is stony silence and a swift ejection from the theater. (Et tu, MacGruber?) But the time has come where it can no longer be ignored, and we must stand with our made-up brethren as they come to terms with the condition that has ravaged so many. I speak, of course, of Plot Blindness.

For those who don't know (and how could you, given the pernicious efforts of the fictionati to keep it under wraps?) Plot Blindness operates in much the same way as Snow or Night Blindness, except rather than being caused by over-exposure to ultraviolet light, it is caused by exposure to a plot device so vast, the characters have no recourse other than to become blind to it. I first became aware of this condition whilst watching Peter Weir's The Way Back, which features a scene in which the characters wake up next to the Great Wall of China and their reactions suggest that they had somehow accidentally stumbled upon the one man-made structure that is visible from space. But there is an historical precedent that can be found in Wild Wild West.

About two-thirds of the way into the movie, President Ulysses S. Grant (Kline) is at a ceremony to commemorate the joining of the two halves of the Trans-Continental Railroad. The ceremony is meant to end when Grant strikes a metal stake into the tracks, but every time it is placed in the hole it falls over. As it becomes apparent that the stake is being knocked out of position by vibrations, Grant turns around, the camera pulls back, and everyone at the event is shocked to see the foot of the giant robotic spider, crashing into frame.

Now, let's go over that scene again. Grant has his back to the spider, with the crowd facing him, which means that they are facing the spider. That means that literally a hundred people are staring right at the 80-foot tall, robotic spider spewing ash and destruction into the air which is walking across a completely flat plain on a blindingly sunny day. And the crowd did not notice its presence until it was, at most, several hundred yards away. I live about a mile away from the local hospital, and I know that I live near it because, even though it a mile away, I can fucking see it. (Also, when I first moved in I would often be keep awake of an evening by the cackling and wailing of the inmates, but just like traffic and birdsong you learn to tune that out after a while.) It's not even a walking robotic hospital, but a regular, stationary building that is fairly tall and decidedly visible. Clearly, those people could not have missed the spider unless they were afflicted by a mass outbreak of Plot Blindness. It's tragic, really.

So, if you want to help combat Plot Blindness, please donate to your local PB hotline. Together, we can beat it! Then, we can finally turn our attention to vanquishing Plot Deafness, in which characters are unable to hear approaching plot devices, such as the scene in Terminator: Salvation, in which a robot the size of a church creeps up on a bunch of humans and murders them.

Hmm, maybe we need to focus our efforts on curing Robot Blindness.