The Trespassing Cyborg: Technology, Nature, and the Nation in Wild Wild West

Abstract: Drawing on the studies by Leo Marx and Henry Nash Smith, this paper analyzes the 1999 Western comedy Wild Wild West as negotiating the boundaries of nature and technology. Set in 1869 and taking place mostly in the American West, the film depicts a clash of civilization/technology and wilderness/nature and, with its resolution of the conflict, attests to the ideal of the ‘American Garden.’ Furthermore, Wild Wild West is infused with ideas related to westward expansion and Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis. By partially revising and thereby affirming and refitting the frontier myth for the twenty-first century, the film can be interpreted to reimagine the American nation. In terms of terrorist threats and the fear of weapons technology possibly falling into ‘wrong’ hands, the beginning of this century presents the United States with hazards very similar to the ones which Jim West and Artemus Gordon, the film’s protagonists, have to face as they set out to defend the nation.

Full of impressive machines and little gadgets put to use in the vastness of the American West, Wild Wild West can easily be perceived as a film negotiating the borders of technology and nature. Set in the Reconstruction era, the 1999 Western comedy displays the United States recovering from the Civil War—but also as a “nation on the move” (Wesley xii) celebrating mobility and subscribing to a general belief in progress and development. Technological advances and inventions play an important role, and the railroad becomes the motor unfolding the story as it transports Jim West (Will Smith) and Artemus Gordon (Kevin Kline) to their sites of investigation. Starting in Washington, DC, they continually advance westward until they confront Dr. Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh) at Promontory Point for the final battle. Therefore, the westward expansion, and subsequently the frontier myth, provide a basis for my analysis.

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