Westworld (1973)

*. For Michael Crichton, next-generation amusement parks were an abiding source of fascination. One of his early novels, Drug of Choice (written under the pen name John Lange), is about people taking vacations that are really just drug-induced hallucinations. Probably his most famous creation was Jurassic Park, a novel that went on to spawn a blockbuster movie and an entire franchise of dinosaurs-on-the-loose movies. In-between he wrote Westworld, an original screenplay that he also directed. The idea here not being drugs or genetically restored dinosaurs but robots providing the thrills.
*. Of course all of these amusement-park rides go terribly wrong. It’s not quite clear what happens with the robots. One explanation is something like a computer virus, which none of the scientists sitting around the conference room seems able to understand. A “disease of machines”? What the heck is that? It doesn’t make any sense. Innocent days.
*. Speaking of the innocent days of computers, this was the first feature film to use digital image processing. It shows up in the thermal-imaging shots representing the Gunslinger’s point of view. Not very impressive, but you have to cut them slack for being pioneers. The process work has held up better than those cheesy screensavers that are on the control room monitors and which I suppose are meant to represent some kind of complicated work being done.
*. Among the general public at the time I think it was unclear just what computers did. They had lots of flashing lights and banks of reel-to-reel tapes spinning away like a laundromat, but who knew what kind of work all this was meant to represent? One imagines a vault of punchcards filed away somewhere containing the programs used to control the robots. Crude, but where there’s a desire for such an experience as Delos is offering, science will always find a way to make it happen.

*. That notion of desire is key. Westworld (and its neighbouring theme parks set in ancient Rome and Medieval times) are adult fantasies. You don’t take your kids with you on these getaways! As the trailer puts it, this is a place where “frustrations find release, [and] desire ends in satisfaction.” You go there to fuck and kill. It’s not a coincidence that The Stepford Wives is only a year away now too. Both films took their robots from the animatronic models at Disneyland, which is a family park. Crichton and Ira Levin obviously saw more mature possibilities in the technology.
*. And so we get some leering nods and winks as to what’s really going on here. Even the woman interviewed for the Delos promo spot at the beginning of the movie is obviously feeling hot and flustered just thinking about what life was like back in decadent Roman times. When they arrive, guests are told to “please feel free to indulge your every whim.” We might also think of the way sexual fantasies are peddled, to men and women, in Total Recall. Like it or not, libido drives a lot of what we think of as progress. Porn built the Internet, after all.
*. It’s no surprise that such a story has never gone out of style, turning up again as an HBO series in 2016. We’re used to the idea now of robots taking over. There’d been rumours of a remake earlier starring Arnold Schwarzenegger but it had never worked out. I’m guessing Arnold would have been the Gunslinger. Apparently he modeled his portrayal of the Terminator on Yul Brynner’s bad guy (John Carpenter was similarly influenced, basing Michael Myers in Halloween on the same relentless, stalking killer). Such casting would also make sense because Yul Brynner was the only big name in this movie, and got star billing. Richard Benjamin and James Brolin were both unknowns cast at the last minute.
*. I like the role reversal between Peter (Benjamin) and John (Brolin). Peter is the city slicker, a lawyer out of Chicago who has never picked up a gun. John exudes an almost smarmy confidence. But in the end this is Peter’s fantasy, even down to rescuing the princess out of the dungeon. He really has lived the vacation of his dreams. I like to think that’s something he understands at the end. This is Movieworld, after all. As Pauline Kael pointed out, these are “movie-fed fantasies” all the way through, with the Westworld environment being a pastiche of Western clichés only slightly tethered to historical accuracy.
*. As an aside, I wonder why the greeting voice refers to Western World. I feel like that should be an artefact left over from an earlier version of the script, which seems unlikely since I’m pretty sure Westworld was always going to be the name.

*. Another part of the abiding interest in the concept is the political and philosophical meaning. In the former case, the peasants (robots) are revolting! This is what the fall of empire looks like. Our pleasure palaces aren’t built to last.
*. In the latter case (the philosophical interpretation) we have a very early foreshadowing of the simulacrum. This is something I’ve written about before with regard to the Year of the Simulacrum (that would be 1998, and The Truman Show et al). As John says to Pete just before the snake attack, “this is as real as it gets.” And sure that’s ironic, but not as much as you might think. Just a few years later Brolin would be killing that snake and eating it after having escaped the simulacrum of Capricorn One. This is a theme that the movies just love, and that we love them for. Neal Gabler even wrote a book about it (Life: the Movie — How Entertainment Conquered Reality, also 1998).
*. Is it a subtle joke then that Benjamin wakes up along with all the rest of the park when they are activated? Note how his yawn echoes that of the guard at Medieval world. The point being that the guests are just as much automatons as the cyborgs, programmed for sex and violence and then needing to recover after a long night of fucking and fighting before getting up to do it all over again.
*. Well, yes, men did have moustaches like Benjamin’s back in the 1970s. I had a moustache too for a while. One of several regrets. Or too many to mention.
*. I think Crichton had it as a maxim to eschew dialogue at the end of a movie. When the shit hits the fan (the robots or dinosaurs running amok), then there’s no time for chat or exposition. In general, this is a pretty safe principle to adhere to. Crichton’s instincts were gold when it came to popular entertainment.

*. The greatest full-body burn in movie history? It’s certainly spectacular when the Gunslinger goes up like a human torch (not that even that is likely to slow him down much). The only competition I can think of is when the monster gets torched in The Thing from Another World, which I might give the prize to just because it was earlier and was performed with less safety protocols in place.
*. Brynner is cool and iconic, decked out in the same outfit he wore in The Magnificent Seven. And even behind those silver contact lenses I feel a sort of sympathy for his confusion at the end. After all, just like Frankenstein’s monster, he didn’t make himself. He’s akin to an early prototype of Roy Batty in Blade Runner, if less given to poetry. You sense a flicker of independent intelligence at work. Of course, in the HBO series this would be taken a lot further, but this movie was planting seeds.
*. I always marvel at the theatrical trailers from the 1970s where they show you all the highlights of the movie and reveal the entire plot. I wonder why they did that, and when it changed.
*. I think Kael got it right: “The idea is ingenious, and the film might have been marvelous: it isn’t, quite (it has the skimped TV-movie look of a too-tight budget), but it’s reasonably entertaining, and the leads (Richard Benjamin and Yul Brynner) are far superior to the actors in the usual sci-fi films.”
*. Bang-on, but it couldn’t really have been otherwise. This was Crichton’s debut directing a feature, after doing a made-for-TV movie the year before, and MGM really wanted it done on the cheap. So it’s no surprise the production is a bit of a let-down. But I think it succeeds as well as it could have, and the idea was so strong it went on to be a box office smash. Meanwhile, Crichton was so far ahead of his time he could go back to the the amusement park twenty years later with an even bigger hit, and forty years later the idea would still work. It’s good stuff.

22 thoughts on “Westworld (1973)

  1. fragglerocking

    Don’t think I’d watch it again now, but I did really like it when I watched it, I had a thing for Yul at the time. I managed one and 1/2 seasons of the TV series but got fed up with it, great production but too convoluted.

    1. Alex Good

      I’m just watching the first season of the series now. It does seem complicated, but I’m enjoying it. I’ve head the second season kind of sucked but then it got better.

  2. Tom Moody

    Good analysis. One quibble: Benjamin and Brolin weren’t unknowns at that point: both were familiar faces from TV: Brolin was sidekick to Robert Young in the long-running Marcus Welby, MD and Benjamin had starred with real-life partner Paula Prentiss in a quirky one-season comedy called He & She. Benjamin also starred in Diary of a Mad Housewife. Lesser-knowns, for certain, compared to Brynner’s screen presence.
    Your mention of punch cards reminded me that Frederick Pohl & C.M. Kornbluth’s sf novel Gladiator-at-Law (1955) had virtual gladiatorial contests (ultraviolent spectacles similar to the later TV series American Gladiators) and they actually do say in the book that they were programmed on punch cards.

    1. Alex Good

      Yeah, good point. I’d also forgotten Benjamin had actually been in Catch-22. But back then there was also a really big gap between television stars and movie stars, at least in terms of prestige. Brolin I think had only been in one movie as a lead.

    1. Alex Good

      Yeah, at least he’s in the first season. It’s actually a really strong cast throughout. The acting is top notch.
      This movie is worth watching if only for the human torch at the end. It’s impressive. Plus there’s something that’s stayed with me over the years of those brief scenes of the robots overthrowing the Roman empire. Seems more relevant than ever today.

    1. Alex Good

      Yes, this was early days for Crichton, but most of his interests are already in play. The production doesn’t fully realize the idea’s potential, but overall it’s not bad.

      1. Bookstooge

        I’ve always wondered if West World had an influence on the Ghost in the Shell franchise. Part of me really doubts it but that little bit just wonders. Cybersecurity can be played out so many ways.

        It also makes me laugh when someone talks about how superior “robot” (ie, any created tech) parts are to human flesh and bone. All it takes is one 0 or 1 to become corrupted and whammo, the whole shebang goes haywire and before you know it, your own robot hand is trying to strangle you 😀

      2. Alex Good Post author

        Well, human flesh is susceptible to corruption as well. Plus AIs can beat us at chess now.

        I don’t think there’s a close connection to Ghost in the Shell, though that’s an angle that gets developed more in the TV series (robots attaining a sort of human consciousness). I see it as more an early instance of the interest in creating alternate realities using technology. Westworld as The Matrix or the set of The Truman Show.

      3. Alex Good Post author

        I doubt it. I think that movie was a one-off. On the other hand, Hollywood has no ability to come up with original ideas anymore so they may try to cash in on the brand somehow.

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