Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: The Lone Ranger cost a fucking silly amount of money for a genre that hasn't been popular in generations. Generally, Hollywood is too conservative to be that willfully daffy about throwing away cash, but it's happened before that a ironclad director/star combo has sweet-talked a studio into a titanically indefensible budget.

Forgive me for belaboring the point: but Wild Wild West might be the most appropriate title I've ever looked at in the Blockbuster History series. Like Gore Verbinski's The Lone Ranger, it updates an old TV property with probably less brand name recognition among the target audience than the studio thinks, bringing it screaming into the modern age of CGI blockbusters without fully managing to adequately synthesise the attitude of the time the original was made (utter innocence about good and bad guys with TLR; Space Age awe and a pawky sense of anti-institutional fun with WWW) and the attitude of the time of the feature film remake (moar a-splosions! moar action!). Both found a studio spending far, far too much money on the reliably under-performing Western genre (WWW was the most expensive film Warner Bros. had ever produced as of 1999) mostly because a slam-dunk director/actor teamup was involved (Verbinski and Johnny Depp, of the shocking smash hit Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl vs. Barry Sonnenfeld and Will Smith of the less shocking but no less smashing Men in Black). Both have a plot that hinges on the May, 1869 completion of the Transcontinental Railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah. Both have only one good performance, and it is the form of a perpetually under-appreciated character actor practically invisible beneath all the makeup he wears playing the secondary villain (Ted Levine here, as a murderous ex-Confederate army officer).

I'd hoped this meant that Wild Wild West, like The Lone Ranger, would also be an example of a film that stumbled upon absolutely toxic critical and commercial scorn without being nearly as bad as they're saying it is, but no, that's not the case at all. WWW is exactly the awful, excruciating experience that's every bit as monoumentally stupid and aggressively anti-fun as the film's rancid reputation would have it be, though I'll admit that anything which could provide such a ripe target for the excellent third-season South Park episode "Cat Orgy" isn't entirely without value.

To be fair, there's a lengthy stretch of the film where it seemed like it might even be pretty inoffensive, though actively good is never really on the table - definitely not actively good on the level of Men in Black, one of the best popcorn movies of the '90s. In the beginning, at least, WWW only really seems to suffer from having a too-juvenile sense of humor that isn't actually funny: look, it's Will Smith having sex in a cistern! Look, it's Kevin Kline dressed as a gigantic, unattractive woman! And the idea to hip-up the 1960s Wild Wild West TV show is handled in close to the worst possible way imaginable, largely owing to Smith being cast as U.S. Army Captain James West, the character originally played by Robert Conrad (who was approached to cameo in the film as President Ulysses S. Grant, and replied, after reading the script, with the closest thing to "fuck you and the horse you rode in on" that polite society can manage). Conrad, being on TV in the '60s, was white; Smith, of course, is an African-American. This doesn't in and of itself mean a damn thing. Even the fact that the screenplay (credited to six authors, which almost certainly means the real number is even bigger, and that undoubtedly explains much of the death-by-executive-notes feel to the finished product) elects to bury West in jokes and riffs on being a black Army officer in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. Civil War doesn't have to be problematic. No, the issue is that West isn't being written as a quiping black man with power and authority in the '60s, it's that he's being written as Will Smith, and West ends up feeling less like an African-American in the 1860s enjoying the first blush of something like freedom for men of his race, and more like an African-American from the 1990s transported to the 1860s and bringing along with him the attitudes of a time period entirely different from the one he's occupying, though never with any kind of culture-clash moment. This matters only because the film makes such a big deal out of it; you can't have your anachronisms and your historical specificity at the same time, not in a movie like this one, at least.

But I am merely describing a dull, somewhat annoying Wild Wild West, featuring Smith at his most indulgent and Sonnenfeld smothering all of the jokes, and Kline being a painfully one-dimensional cartoon as prickly inventor/U.S. Marshall Artemus Gordon, an odd couple assigned by President Grant (Kline also) to investigate the disappearance of several important scientists. There's some lovely Southwestern cinematography, courtesy of the inconceivably overqualified Michael Ballhaus (who had a really bad go at the turn of the century: his very next film was What Planet Are You From?), and a truly wonderful score by the even more overqualified Elmer Bernstein, who brought a perfect sense of classical Hollywood Western grandeur to the proceedings, roaring and rousing and exactly what the Ballhaus lensing of Monument Valley locations would seem to insist upon. Coupled with a great opening credits sequence, it's easy enough to see the film as a well-meant series of underwhelming mistakes, with just enough compensations on the level of genre - and who doesn't want a steampunk-tinged Western in their lives? - that it's not painful to watch it.

Then the actual plot begins, with West and Gordon tracing the missing scientists back to the thought-dead Confederate scientist, Dr. Arliss Loveless, who lost everything from the waist down during an experiment-gone-awry, and now tools about in a steam-powered wheelchair. And here, we start to tread into truly awful territory, midwived by Kenneth Branagh, whose performance of Loveless is, really, one for the ages. The Dark Ages.

It's not enough that he's a staggeringly awful parody of an antebellum Southerner (that's burned in to the character as conceived), but that he's such an over-the-top circus clown about it. There's no modulation, no sense of scale, nothing in Branagh's work that suggests he ever made a single choice, instead just adopting a rickety accent and barreling through with a single, high-intensity acting style that isn't even fun hammy acting like a cartoon bad guy; it's just loud and big and terrifying, and it is alone enough to sink Wild Wild West from being any kind of movie that takes itself seriously, even in the act of having fun. But he is assuredly not alone: from the moment Loveless appears in all his joy-shredding glory, the film takes on a new size that it cannot handle and doesn't want to, and absolutely everything that happens is stupid: stupid and petty, like the bickering between West and Gordon that never plays as "fun" always as "I hate you and wouldn't be sad if you died"; stupid and low, like the litany of Benny Hill-style sex jokes around the pretty Rita Escobar (Salma Hayek), looking for her father, himself in Loveless's clutches; stupid and grandiose, like the giant mechanical spider present in the movie solely because producer Jon Peters had a thing for giant mechanical spiders, and if that meant saddling Wild Wild West with one of the all-time dumbest-looking villainous lairs ever perpetrated in a Bondian action-adventure-comedy, well, Peters finally got his wish.

The whole thing makes so little sense, and is so tonally out-of-whack as a result (test audiences weren't sure if it was a comedy or not) that the film ends up being a chore far more than it's anything "fun" to sit through. It's emblematic of the worst impulses of blockbuster cinema at the end of the '90s, when CGI was starting to break big: be arch and ironic, be big and noisy, and scale is more important than sense. Wild Wild West is obnoxious as hell, thrown about at the whims of neither its characters nor its plot nor even its setpieces; it feels like a string of ideas, all of them bad and none of them compatible, strung on a line and brought to life with far more money than care and talent. It's not the very worst kind of movie that this line of filmmaking sensibility can produce, but by God, it is close.