Should I Watch..? 'Westworld'
What's the big deal?
Westworld is a sci-fi thriller film released in 1973 and was written and directed by author Michael Crichton in his big-screen debut. The film concerns a futuristic theme park populated by robots designed to indulge every possible desire of their guests in three distinct settings. The film stars James Brolin and Richard Benjamin as two visitors to Westworld, a perfect recreation of frontier life in the 1880s that becomes a dangerous arena when the robots begin to develop a number of deadly faults. The film also stars Yul Brynner, Norman Bartold and Dick Van Patten and is notable for featuring the first cinema appearance of digital image processing, a precursor to CG and other digital effects. Made on a budget of just $1.25 million, the film made a total of $10 million at the box office and was a critical hit when first released. Its popularity would lead to a sequel Futureworld and a short-lived TV series before finding a new audience with the HBO series of the same name in 2016.
What's it about?
In the then-future of 1983, the Delos Corporation have created the ideal holiday resort designed to cater to every possible whim. Three themed parks - Medievalworld, Romanworld and Westworld - are populated by androids indistinguishable for real people who allow visitors to indulge in whatever fantasy they wish, however carnal or violent. Carefully maintained by teams of technicians and scientists, Delos charges $1000 a day for visitors to engage with these unique worlds.
While Peter Martin nervously prepares for his first trip to Westworld, repeat visitor John Blane is all too happy to show him the ropes. Martin struggles to adapt at first but after a shootout with Westworld's resident gunslinger, he soon starts to find his feet. Unfortunately, they are unaware of a strange spate of malfunctions spreading across the resort - which could have dangerous implications for everyone...
Dick Van Patten
Release Date (UK)
14th March, 1974
Action, Sci-Fi, Thriller, Western
What's to like?
Once you've got the idea out of your head that Westworld is a thematic forerunner to the billion-dollar juggernaut that was Jurassic Park, the film has much to offer. At the crux of it all is Crichton's astonishingly rich and deep screenplay which poses more questions than it answers - the way all great sci-fi should. While the audience wrestles with themes of corporate greed, technology and artificial intelligence, they can enjoy Brynner's chilling performance as the Gunslinger, the remorseless killing machine even before the park begins to break down. You can see elements of the role passed down to other films like The Terminator which makes the movie more relevant and terrifying.
Brolin and Benjamin also, in their own way, also pose questions with their performance. As they laugh during bar-room brawls and prison break-outs, you begin to wonder what sort of people would enjoy coldly murdering people if they knew their victims were just robots. I'm not sure I would, given how realistic the setting is. I also enjoyed the brief appearances of Van Patten as the goofy banker suddenly finding himself sheriff in a utterly lawless town, providing the film with some much-needed humour. Perhaps the most impressive thing about the film is that despite having cowboys fleeing through medieval castles and Roman villas, it doesn't feel disorientating because you've bought into the concept fully. Although the film deals with high-concept ideas, it's easy to follow and understand - who isn't afraid of killer robots running amok?
- Brynner's Gunslinger was based on his character from The Magnificent Seven and even wears the same costume. In addition to inspiring Schwarzenegger's portrayal of a killer robot in The Terminator, director John Carpenter has also admitted that he inspired the serial killer Michael Myers in Halloween.
- The digitised images that make up the Gunslinger's view of the world took eight hours of work for just ten seconds of footage in the film.
- The film's western sets were actually used in Blazing Saddles while the Roman villa seen is actually part of Harold Lloyd's estate known as Greenacres.
What's not to like?
Obviously, the film's look has suffered somewhat in the intervening years but perhaps not as much as you'd expect - the scenes when scientists are "operating" on Brynner's character, his face hanging on with just a few wires and exposing the circuitry beneath, is fascinating to watch because you know it's a practical effect and not CG. This is another justification for the sets looking cheesy - the theme-park is designed to recreate cliched visions of the past so naturally, the sets are going to look and feel artificial.
The only other thing I wasn't sure about was the synth-heavy interruptions of the typically Western soundtrack - I understand why such reminders of the sci-fi element were required to help break the illusion for our benefit but it felt slightly unnecessary, as though it were afraid we wouldn't understand what was happening. The end also feels at odds with what went before, becoming a silent film devoid of almost any dialogue whatsoever for the last half hour or so. But generally speaking, I was very impressed. It even throws in a surprise or two such as Star Trek legend Majel Barrett's appearance as a bordello owner and a plot twist I admit I didn't see coming.
Should I watch it?
It may look somewhat dated from a technical viewpoint but Westworld remains an essential entry into the annals of cinematic sci-fi. Showcasing Crichton's talents as a writer as well as Brynner's ability to play an unsympathetic villain, the film is a powerful entity that defies its limited budget and delivers a tale that still feels relevant. Of course it lacks the depth and characterisation of the HBO series but on its own terms, Westworld is a truly great sci-fi film that provokes as much as it entertains.
Great For: evil theme park owners, fans of classic sci-fi, anybody who hates Disney's It's A Small World After All at any of their parks, revisiting
Not So Great For: luddites, the unimaginative, anyone who has already seen Jurassic Park
What else should I watch?
Surprisingly, there aren't that many films featuring killer robot cowboys but there are certainly some which tinker with the traditional Hollywood format. The superb Back To The Future Part III has more than an element of sci-fi to it with Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd travelling back in time to the Old West and somewhat less enjoyably, Cowboys & Aliens sees Daniel Craig swap Bond's tuxedo for a Stetson as he fends off alien forces in New Mexico in 1873. I can't bring myself to mention Wild Wild West other than to say that if you enjoyed that film, you and I can no longer be friends.
Other than his now-legendary tale of eccentric billionaires opening up a dinosaur-themed amusement park, Crichton's career in screenplays was surprisingly limited given his prolific output. Perhaps his best known movie other than Jurassic Park was the slightly silly Twister which is about a desperate group of storm chasers fleeing for their lives and not about the popular party game. Other efforts include Coma and The First Great Train Robbery but generally speaking, Crichton seemed to focus more of his novels than the silver screen.
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© 2018 Benjamin Cox