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Back to the Feature: Westworld (1973)


          Anyone who’s read a Michael Crichton book knows he has a gift for creating compelling thrillers out of bizarre ideas. He does this aptly through the likes of The Andromeda Strain, Congo, Sphere, and perhaps most famously Jurassic Park. The idea of a malfunctioning amusement park as a cautionary tale on advanced science in the hands of big business seems to be a favourite of his. While many would be quick to praise Jurassic Park as a clever concept and original idea, it was in large part a retread of a film Crichton wrote and directed back in 1973: Westworld.
          Yeah, two decades before Steven Spielberg brought his dinosaurs wreaking havoc to the big screen, Crichton himself turned robots in an artificial environment against humankind in this really interesting movie.
          Set in some unspecified future, a major amusement park called Delos has recreated three themed historical “worlds”: Roman World, Medieval World, and West World where adults can vacation and partake in a fantasy. Each world is heavily technologically controlled and consists of a number of realistic robot characters to interact with, one of whom the Gunslinger, is designed to look like famed Magnificent Seven actor Yul Brynner. While Richard Benjamin and James Brolin hang around the park and have fun, an unexpected malfunction begins to have drastic repercussions.
          For someone who’s background is as an author, Crichton makes for a surprisingly decent director. He seems to have an idea how to direct westerns, recreating the look of one rather well. But at the same time he creates a completely new world that’s very appealing. The themed worlds just like Jurassic Park have a curiosity to them that captures the imagination and draws you in. Even if there are some strange and even uncomfortable implications. Most of the robots are indistinguishable from humans, capable of interaction and even sexual intercourse (oh god it’s that weird episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation again!). At times it feels reminiscent of some of the great speculative science fiction works of Asimov or Philip K. Dick in how despite everything seeming almost utopian there’s something unnerving about this whole environment.
          In Westworld there definitely is. Once again, like Jurassic Park, the technicians are very confident in how they’ve created this world with all the robots being engineered by computers, and of course there winds up being a glitch. Even in the early 70’s this film is cautioning against technology that doesn’t have a human component. Crichton characterizes the computerized control of the park less as a more efficient system but more as humans not wanting the responsibility themselves. And it is a very resonant theme. It’s not hard to imagine that an environment ruled by technology can crash under just one computer virus. It’s important for people to have a hand in it. While I do think Crichton perfected this idea better in Jurassic Park where genetic engineering is far more fantastic and easily dangerous a power than computerized robots which were then still a staple of science-fiction -the homicidal robot had just five years prior been immortalized in the form of HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey (another film that better cautioned the dangers of man-made technology) -there’s something eerie about how its characterized in Westworld with a control room that’s all white and featureless in stark contrast to the artificial environments (a good visual metaphor for how detached the people running the park are from the park itself). The visuals do play a large part, particularly the special effects. The scenes where technicians are tinkering inside the heads of robots with the faces removed from the rest of the head full of blinking lights and wires look believable even today.
          However for all the visuals and provocative ideas of this film, it really isn’t all that entertaining for a lot of its runtime. It’s a film that needed a T-Rex attack somewhere in the middle, dividing its time between the control centre where interesting stuff sometimes goes down and we’re privy to important exposition, with the two main characters in West World. Unfortunately neither of them are very interesting. Benjamin’s Peter Martin is recovering from a messy divorce with Brolin’s John Blane and apart from the script unintentionally presenting them as a couple on honeymoon, there’s not much to them. They’re really supposed to be stand-ins for the audience who are meant to think ‘wouldn’t it be cool if I could get in a fight with a gunslinger, or have a showdown, or partake in any of these great action scenes’. But the problem is these are the kind of scenes you can see in any western, where there are plenty of other more interesting characters to project yourselves onto. Again, I think this is where Jurassic Park has the advantage -there aren’t many other movies with dinosaurs, and none where they look as good and as real as Jurassic Park, so there’s no other frame of reference and thus its much easier for an audience to project themselves into the scenario. Also the characters are a lot more engaging. Because the robots in West World, and indeed Roman and Medieval World look and act like real people, these scenes are nothing you haven’t seen in another period piece before, apart from the temperature signature guns and occasional anachronistic dialogue.
          That is until the last act, and boy does it step up its game! SPOILER warning: when a patron in the park is killed by one of the robots, we see the the people in charge try to restart the program. Next thing you know, Martin and Blane awaken after some time has passed and the audience doesn’t quite know the extent things have gotten to, really increasing the suspense. It’s like the opening of 28 Days Later. Soon enough the Gunslinger appears and begins hunting them killing Blane. As he’s fleeing, Martin discovers all the dead patrons and malfunctioning robots. It gets especially eerie when he seems to escape climbing down a manhole into the control area and finds the whole place deserted, the control room itself automatically locked from the outside. The long blank hallways really give off a creepy vibe made more so when we see on one of the monitors the Gunslinger discovering the manhole and climbing down himself. Yul Brynner really deserves credit as his blank gaze and ruthlessness makes him a very threatening figure. He never runs, merely walks calmly down these empty halls with only the sounds his boots make on the floor to alert Martin. At one point Martin gains the upper hand by throwing a kind of acid in his face which makes him even more frightening as he can still function but now with the evidence of his artificiality on full display -it’s some really good make-up. Add to that a thrilling scene in Medieval World where Martin tries to use the robots’ heat vision to his advantage, a climax that feels oddly similar to The Terminator, and an implication that he’s the only real person to survive this whole ordeal, and you’ve got a thriller movie that ends on the most chilling note. There’s even a dark irony in how the last line flashes back to how wonderful the park’s advertised to be.
          So while Westworld shares a lot of themes with Jurassic Park, it addresses some of its own interesting ideas as well. It also sets up a fascinating environment that though not terribly exciting for a good portion of the runtime is all worth it for the final act. It’s here that Yul Brynner and even Richard Benjamin shines, as well as Chrichton’s writing. And as I said for a man whose medium is books, he does a fine job as director. I hear a series based on the film will be premièring on HBO sometime this year and I’m very curious as to how they’ll do it. Hopefully this version of Westworld will have half the mystery and terror at least, if not the tediousness, of the original attraction.

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