Different Genre in Film
Film is a dynamic medium that uses a wide array of narrative styles and visual techniques to convey a story. This essay will delve into two styles of film known as the genre, the codes and conventions that make them into that genre, and the evolution over time of that style. By comparing two films from the Western genre and two films from the Science Fiction genre we will look at differences and similarities between the genre. This essay will argue that the relationship between the Western film genre and the Science Fiction genre is very close. By looking at the codes and conventions we know that the distinctive elements of both genres make them unique, but there are considerable other aspects to consider.
The first genre to look at in the essay is the Western. Genre comes from the French word type or kind (Neale 2000). Cinema began in 1895 but Westerns already existed in paintings, literature, theatre, and photography (Friedman et al. 2014). They are typically set in an emerging town, a developing area of America in the 19th century. They have wide expansive shots of landscapes, feature saloons and ranches. The characters are the cowboy with horse and gun, ruthless outlaw, sheriff, prostitutes, dancing girls, and the feminine lady. The hero defends justice, and the villain represents lawlessness. There is usually a struggle over land, resources, or revenge for a wrong done. This leads to showdowns, and duels on many occasions. Moral values are usually explored in the western. The challenge is between the right thing and violence, or the hero or the savage (Friedman et al. 2014). Themes of honour, and justice are what the protagonist lives by. They are often a loner and head back off into the west as the movie concludes.
When cinema first began it was silent. As technology improved, film accompanied by sound called talkies began in the 1930s, and iconic stars such as John Wayne made an appearance lasting as a western star for decades. In the next two decades westerns became numerous with many iconic directors and actors still remembered. One of the directors Sergio Leone, an Italian, began directing films generally called Spaghetti Westerns as a subgenre in 1960. This subgenre has Mexican actors and story lines, featuring morally ambiguous antiheros and a more gritty, dirty, dusty approach. But also in this period, films began to explore more complex themes. Neale (2000) talks about the director being an auteur, writing his own feeling into the movie by the way it is directed and the camera shots that are used. Contemporary films have continued to evolve with the film Unforgiven (1992), about revenge for a female mutilation, which perhaps would not have happened in movies before the 1980s. Django Unchained (2012), with American negro protagonist, and The Revenant (2015), set in the snow, about revenge for the death of a child. These are culturally appropriate and emotionally moving stories. The Western genre has evolved to reflect the attitudes of the decades.
The second genre to dissect is Science Fiction. It is typically set in the future or a dystopian environment with advanced technology highlighted. Time machines, robots, space craft and aliens of different shapes and sizes can be featured. Cornea (2007) says ‘These have drawn upon the latest speculations in science.’ Science fiction delves into the ethical implications and impacts of technology on society or the environment. The effects of over population and global warming or simply the implications of time travel. It serves as a social surveillance of issues that could be controversial. There are usually wide camera angles or panning camera shots to create the world in the storyline. Extreme close-ups for intricate looks at technology, or awe-inspiring futuristic scenes. Costumes can be futuristic or in the case of dystopian worlds ragged or torn. Special effects to create the otherworldly environments, creatures, or aliens, are usually required in a science fiction movie. However, within this genre there can be variation and blending of elements from another genre. It is not unique in that aspect.
Science fiction films have evolved due to technological advances both for effects and for the imagination. A Trip to the Moon (1902) was a silent science fiction film. Then in the classic era had sound accompanying it. In the 1950s because of smaller cameras films were able to be shot low-budget and sometimes had nuclear themes. The next decade saw the race for a country to be the first to the moon, therefore the emphasis was on space exploration. Then came the big block busters in the 1970s and 1980s, with the dominant one being Star Wars (1977). Some Cyberpunk threw out feelers for a couple of decades which led to the contemporary more complex story lines of the 2000s. The evolution of the Science Fiction genre mirrors technological advancement and delves into cultural and ethical concerns that may arise in the world or universe’s future.
True Grit (2010) directed by the Coen brothers is a western with a female protagonist similar to The Quick and the Dead (1995) that has Sharon Stone in the lead role. This is a different format to the usual western with the dominant male protagonist and all of the females are dainty ladies or prostitutes. Both of these movies are contemporary westerns and have changed with history giving females more authority. The 1973 Chino produced by Dino De Laurentis is from the Spaghetti Western era where the films became a little different. The film has been enhanced with plains of green grasses instead of dry dust, and the overarching theme is racism rather than revenge as in the other films. Chino (1973) seems to lack any depth in the story, features a morally ambiguous character, and the ending seems a total waste of time for everyone involved. The ending of True Grit had that similar ending with not a happy resolution and not a happy protagonist.
Children of Men (2006), directed by Cuaron, has a dystopian science fiction theme set in a very unhappy earth. There is an extreme close-up on fingers with wires attached that we believe is operating a game. Cornea (2007) says ‘These have drawn upon the latest speculations in science.’ Another extreme close-up of the side of the young man’s neck with a tattoo, and a scar on his check, but he is very refined, sitting at a scrumptious meal, but this is contrary to the rest of the film. Compared with Star Wars (Lucas 1977) of the Space Race era with the stunning visual effects, huge space craft, alien of many types, Children of Men is dirty and confined to many small filming areas. Star Wars has the damsel in distress while Children of Men has many strong females. It deals with the theme we may be poisoning our world while Star Wars pushes the boundary of imagination and technology with evil versus good to take over the universe. There are also science fiction films set in today’s world such as Arrival (2016) directed by Denis Villeneuve that just feature aliens and spaceships promoting the idea of working together for peace, a ‘non zero sum gain.’
The links between these two genres, western and science fiction, may not be immediately obvious, but the films have changed over the eras due to technology advances and changes in society—how women are viewed, or how native people are viewed. Historically, as technology advanced film making technics expanded giving greater options and allowing more people to be part of the process. This gave greater licence for the imagination in the case of science fiction or for atrocities to be showcased in the Western movies. The first films ever made were choreographed like a theatre performance with many actors crammed into a small space all facing towards the camera unless moving. Directors then learnt they could move the camera so more realistic films began, but they lacked colour and sound until the technology improved. Both of these genres have been in existence since film first began.
The similarities between the genre, as well as historically being around for the life of cinema, is that both styles explore frontiers, space, or country. The settings represent the unknown with the challenges of survival and exploration. There is vast imagery of space or land, the extreme wide shot taking it all in. Similarly, both genres delve into moral dilemmas of justice and lawlessness or artificial intelligence and consequences—no children being born in Children of Men. The hero’s journey that is usually part of any story is present in both of these genres—Mattie out to revenge her father in True Grit, or Luke Skywalker out to save Princess Leia in Star Wars. The difference between the two genres is the future setting of science fiction movies, or technology, and the past setting of the western, or set in the outback, although there have been movies combining both genres.
While westerns and science fiction films appear quite separate in terms of the setting, they share many of the same themes. Exploration of the frontiers, moral and ethical dilemmas, good versus evil, and stopping the greedy land or planet grabber from taking over. They share the storytelling hero’s journey approach, and social commentary such as working together for a ‘non zero sum gain’. They share wide long shots of beautiful expanses whether that is space or the country. There are many connections and parallels that exist between these two seemingly distinct genres. Therefore, the relationship between the Western film genre and the Science Fiction genre is extremely close.
Coen Brothers (dir.) 2010, True Grit.
Cornea, C, 2007, ‘Introduction: The Formation of the Genre’, Science fiction cinema: between fantasy and reality, [electronic resource], pp. 1–28, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, doi: 10.3366/edinburgh/9780748624652.003.0001.
Cuaron, A (dir.) 2006, Children of Men.
De Laurentis, D (pro.) 1973, Chino.
Eastwood, C (dir.) 1992, Unforgiven.
Friedman, L, Desser, D, Kozloff, S, Nochimson, M P, Prince, S 2014, The Western, An Introduction to Film Genres, Norton & Company, Inc., New York.
Inarritu, A. G (dir.) 2015, The Revenant.
Lucas, G (dir.) 1977, Star Wars.
Melies, G (dir.) 1902, A Trip to the Moon.
Moore, S (dir.) 1995, The Quick and the Dead.
Neale, S 2000, Definitions of Genre, Genre and Hollywood [electronic resource], pp. 7–26, Routledge, London.
OpenAI 2023, ChatGPT [Large language model], https://chat.openai.com
Tarantino, Q (dir.) 2012, Django Unchained.
Villeneuve, D (dir.) 2016, Arrival.