Space Westerns are inherently odd ducks with the heads of ferrets wearing cowboy hats. They came about because of commercial incentives; Westerns were the dominant genre in Hollywood for years, and it made sense for filmmakers to steal from them to hedge their bets as they blasted off to different solar systems where no trope had gone before. But as far as internal logic goes, taking the attitudes, aesthetics, and conflicts of the U.S. in the 1800s and transporting them hundreds or thousands of years in the future and then adding hyperwarpdrivespeed, alien ears, and intergalactic space wizardry is an exercise in nonsense. As seriously as some filmmakers might take this oddball mutant genre, there’s also a sense that we might as well be watching underwater caveman adventures or some other unlikely mash-up.
No one captures the essential silliness of the space western quite like that genius of essential silliness, Cory McAbee. An independent filmmaker, singer, and all around performing weirdo, McAbee debuted his hour-long space western musical sketch comedy Stingray Sam in 2009, to critical confusion and commercial indifference. The world wasn’t ready for a searing critique of the prison system disguised as a space opera about male pregnancy and an addiction to olives, and/or a space opera about male pregnancy and an addiction to olives disguised as a searing critique of the prison system. Also there are secret handshakes and catchy tunes. Maybe the world still isn’t ready for that. Maybe it will never be! Alas!
Anyway… The “movie” is actually organized as six ten-minute serialized episodes, sponsored by Liberty Chew chewing tobacco (“Liberate yourself with Liberty Chew tobacco and join the tobacco chewing liberation!”) The plot, if you can call it that (you can’t) starts with Stingray (McAbee himself) performing as a lounge singer on the decaying, Atlantic City-like entertainment planet of Mars, backed by two of the most thoroughly bored go-go dancers in all of explored space. He’s kidnapped by his old friend, the olive-quaffing Quasar Kid (Crugie), for a mission to rescue a little girl (played by McAbee’s daughter, Willa Vy McAbee) in return for having both of their criminal records expunged. You see, they come from the planet Durango, where the central rocket ship manufacturing industry was outsourced, destroying the economy, so that everyone turned to crime, then incarcerated, at which point they were employed as slave labor to build rocket ships.
Things get even more improbable from there, as Stingray and the Kid learn that the girl they are to rescue is the daughter (and thus a gender outlaw) of a famous carpenter who comes from a world of male-only cloning ruled by Fredward (Joshua Taylor), a spoiled jerk. They can only rescue the girl by crashing Fredward’s swank party, performing a rap song, and transferring Stingray’s consciousness into a tiny robot. Along the way there are numerous genre-jumping musical numbers, including an endless industrial funk anthem about the naming conventions of male/male parents reproducing through gene splicing (“Frederick and Edward had a son named Fredward!/Max and Clark had a son named Mark!”) and an impossibly catchy garage rock yodel about giving birth to a stingray to save the world’s oceans (“I went to the doccttooooooor/and he gave me a sonogram./Not the kind of thing that you do to a man!/I said ‘Doctor! What does that picture say?’/He said, ‘Boooooooy, you’re gonna have a stingray!'”)
Monty Python’s anarchic absurdity is certainly an influence, not least in the collage animation segments. But McAbee’s tone is much more open-hearted than the black comic nihilism of Holy Grail or Life of Brian. The segments in which he acts with his toddler daughter, in particular, are flat-out adorable, and even the bits about economic collapse and capitalist exploitation have an air of childlike doofiness.
After the Quasar Kid looks around Stingray’s empty, run-down bar and calls it a dump, Sam protests. “This is not a dump, this is a nightclub, and I’m its lounge singer. That may not mean a lot to you but it means a lot to me and a lot of people who come here to see a lounge singer and that’s me!” Sam just wants to entertain people, even if there aren’t any people there—and McAbee’s movie feels like that as well. Yes, virtually no one’s watching—but he’s going to give any people who are watching all his love in any way he can, up to and including his ukulele lullabies and gags about inefficient bureaucracy. He’s got so much love it can’t fit on Mars, and has to wash over into another, different planet, which is also named “Mars.”
McAbee’s a mercurial performer, to say the least, and he didn’t have to staple his woozy narrative to the space western genre: before he embarked on Stingray Sam, he was trying to make a movie about Midwestern werewolf hunters. The space western works especially well for his purposes, though, because it’s so nonsensically expansive. The characters in Stingray Sam jet from planet to planet with a resolute swagger, like they’ve stuffed tiny robots down their pants. A genre about riding out on the range and right into a Sarlacc pit—that spirit just fits perfectly under McAbee’s ten-gallon hat stuffed with psychotropic chemicals.
Stingray Sam works so well as a space western, in fact, that while watching it you start to feel like all those better-known space westerns are just trying, with more or less success, to imitate McAbee’s Platonic ideal of quasar cowpoke lounge weirdness. Wouldn’t Star Wars be better if you took out the connecting melodrama and the furrowed brows, and just left in the cantina song, Jabba chuckling, and Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher trading more than slightly stoned quips? (McAbee could easily totally have written the line, “Laugh it up, fuzzball!”) Aren’t the best parts of the original, space westerny Star Trek the William Shatner ham and the tribbles?
A universe with cowboys wandering between planets without their cattle is a gigantic universe, full of ridiculous possibility, which is giggling at you with all its black holes and constellations aquiver. The space western sometimes tries for grit, and sometimes tries for pathos, and sometimes tries for menace. But I think it’s truest form is found in that jolly cowboy singer yodeling on a rocket ship, en route to somewhere far, far away where he can give birth to a stingray.
Noah Berlatsky is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics (Rutgers University Press).