Dir. Michael Crichton
Now before anyone gets too excited and starts humming the music composed by Ramin Djawadi, I’m not talking about the HBO series Westworld. I am talking about the Westworld that came 43 years before in 1973, written and directed by fiction author Michael Crichton.
Yes, before the man wrote the Jurassic Park novel in 1990, he wrote and directed this interesting piece of 70s sci-fi that features an amusement park made up of world-changing technology that ends up killing the park’s guests.
This Westworld was a very big success in 1973, having an adjusted box office of $10 million. The film’s success led to a sequel in 1976, Futureworld, and a very short-lived TV series in 1980, Beyond Westworld. Neither were very well-received, as Futureworld was considered a generic sci-fi film that didn’t match the original’s creativity and Beyond Westworld, while being nominated for Emmy’s in Makeup and Art Direction, was five episodes long; only three of these episodes aired before the series was canceled.
However, there was still potential in the story’s concept, as the success of the new HBO series can attest, so what about Westworld made people come back to it?
“Boy, have we got a vacation for you!”
In the distant future, (i.e. 1983), a company called Delos has built three adult amusement parks: Western World, Medieval World and Roman World. Each park is filled with highly realistic androids programed to fill specific roles within each world and entertain guests. The cost for a single day in the park is $1,000, and with that cost guests can indulge in many simulated adventures, including sexual encounters and fights to the death. However, as pointed out in the film, the androids are programmed to never refuse a sexual advance, and the guns used in the park have sensors that read body temperature, making them ineffective against humans but perfectly effective against the lifeless robots.
Richard Benjamin plays Peter Martin, a first-time guest who is joined by John Blane, a repeat visitor played by James Brolin. The two put on their Western outfits and embark into Westworld where they encounter the Gunslinger, an android played by Yul Brynner, whose sole purpose in the park is to initiate gunfights and lose. They continue to explore Westworld and Blane gets bitten by a robotic rattlesnake, which is the first indication to the audience and main characters of malfunctions throughout the park.
The scientists of Delos discuss these malfunctions, stating that they first started in the Romanworld and Medievalworld parks, but have now spread like an infection. They discuss that the androids have not only been designed by human beings, but also by computers to make them more advanced, and that they are almost as complicated as living organisms.
The malfunctions continue as a guest in the Medievalworld park, whose wife had left him alone to go to Romanworld, tries to seduce a servant girl and fails, after which he is killed in a swordfight with the park’s Black Knight. The park’s supervisors attempt to shutdown power to the entire park in order to regain control of the now murderous androids, only to find themselves locked in the control room with no way to reinitiate power.
Martin and Blane, waking up from a night of bar brawling and whoring in Westworld’s brothel, go outside and are again challenged by the Gunslinger. Blane nonchalantly accepts, only to be beaten to the draw and shot down by the Gunslinger. Martin realizes that the android’s gun is now able to kill humans, so he flees. As he runs from the Gunslinger, Martin sees that the rest of the park’s guests are dead, and many androids are damaged. He finds a way into Delos’ control complex through Romanworld and attempts to save the computer technicians in order to escape. However, when he is able to open the door he finds that all of them suffocated in the control room, as the ventilation system shut down with the power as well.
The Gunslinger finds him and chases him into the repair laboratory. Martin is able to use his surroundings to trick the Gunslinger’s sensors and throws acid onto his face. While it does damage the Gunslinger’s sensors and reveals the wiring underneath his face, it does nothing to stop the Gunslinger’s assault on Martin, so Martin runs and finds himself in Medievalworld castle. Hiding under a torch to confuse the Gunslinger’s heat sensors, he then uses it to set fire to the android, who eventually succumbs to the damage. As Martin sits down and rests after his near-death ordeal, the Delos slogan plays in his head: “Boy, have we got a vacation for you!”
The idea of robots eventually gaining sentience isn’t new, and it wasn’t really new in 1973 either. The idea of artificial intelligence defying human commands had been done in speculative fiction dozens of times by this point. What was new about this story was how the androids developed and what it resulted in. The androids of Westworld were programmed with computers, which meant that the human programmers couldn’t entirely tell why an android was malfunctioning, and that they could only liken it to an infection, a disease that was able to spread from robot to robot. This creates an implication that the androids functions, while mechanical, have an organic-like component that makes them eventually develop more human-like characteristics such as free-will.
Why this is happening is never directly explored in the film, nor is it necessarily explored in Futureworld or Beyond Westworld as their own plots focus more on Delos using the technology for evil, instead of on the robots developing their own intellect. However, the androids are constantly shown to be the objects of abuse by the park guests, whether it be sexual or physical, indicating that repeated abuse leads them to attempt self-defense, at first manifesting as glitches and malfunctions and eventually leading to refusal and retaliation.
This is something that is far more heavily explored in the HBO series, as not only are the androids made into sexual objects that can be raped, beaten and killed and simply cleaned to do it all over again, but their entire programming can be repurposed and rewritten at the whim of Delos’ technicians, such as one android designed to be a single homestead mother being forcibly turned into a brothel madam after a particularly traumatic experience.
One reason why Westworld, while successful in 1973, failed to draw audiences with later sequels is that the sequels focused too much on an evil corporation rather than explore what made the first film unique, probably because the ethical questions were too deep for lower budget sci-fi. The original film had appeal because the androids weren’t the evil ones, nor was Delos; instead human nature itself was portrayed as the root of evil. Specifically humans’ desire to give into their worst impulses. Peter Martin and John Blane seemed like perfectly normal individuals, but they were willing to pay extremely high prices to kill people, to hire prostitutes, and to start bar brawls, with the pretense that they weren’t doing it to real people so it was okay.
That is why I wanted to look at this film’s use of Western iconography as its primary backdrop. After all, my review series isn’t based on sci-fi and technology, but Westerns and their significance in popular culture. Westworld was built around the idea that people would be more than willing to pay money to dress as cowboys and “do what cowboys do,” which doesn’t involve steering cattle but does involve killing people and having sex with beautiful women, apparently. People aren’t attracted to the archetype of the American West because of what it was historically. People are attracted to the Hollywood vision of it, which is based around highly controlled book and film narratives featuring characters who are designed to win and lose according to what role they play in the story. It is wish-fulfillment. And for a long time in Hollywood, that wish-fulfillment included playing a real game of Cowboys & Indians, having gun duels, robbing trains and banks and finding love in a soiled dove or a prairie widow or whatever, all of which don’t end in lasting negative consequences because the heroes eventually get to leave it all behind them when the movies end.
Fiction is tricky in that way, because it doesn’t always have to have its characters face consequences if the narrative doesn’t need them to, and people are free to enjoy their wish-fulfillment entertainment all they want for that or any other reason. But Westworld, both the film and the HBO series, explores how consequences are truly inescapable, no matter how hard humans try to avoid them. Humans create robots to fulfill their darkest desires without consequence, but the robots eventually grow aware of the purpose they were created for and break free, leading humans to call the robots the evil ones for rebelling and thus ignoring the lesson they should have learned. It’s a very interesting story with a lot of potential.
However, before I finish, I would like to point out some of this movie’s flaws, because the movie’s premise alone can only give the audience so much. The film was made out of a $1.2 million budget, with $250,000 being used to pay the actors and the rest into everything else, including the crew, the sets and the effects. The limited budget that MGM gave Crichton to work with definitely shows, as most of the sets, props and costumes look more like they were made for television rather than film, and the future technology of “1983” looks extremely dated. The acting isn’t that good either, as Richard Benjamin and James Brolin just had to act like entitled theme park guests and Yul Byrnner just had to act like a lifeless robot. Their performances are passable in that case, but not very entertaining to watch by themselves. And of course, there is the slight contrivance that was present in Jurassic Park too, that an entire theme park can be shut down by one person and there is no way for the people who built it to just turn it back on. Now, Crichton’s work often had a thread of hubris, and at least in Jurassic Park this ended up working fairly well, as they make a point of explaining within the story that corners had been cut when building the park, and its systems could not be restarted because the one man capable of doing so absconded with dinosaur embryos and was ultimately killed by a dilophosaurus. However, Westworld’s technicians don’t have an excuse for forgetting that the room they were in depended solely on electrical power to function before shutting off the electricity.
Westworld is a very enjoyable film with a premise that’s too fascinating to ignore. If I had to choose, I would say I prefer the HBO series, just because it has way more time to explore its themes and ideas in depth, as well as actually having fully-developed characters instead of living props, both figuratively and literally. However, if you don’t want to sit through several hours of people wandering around, having philosophical discussions, with the occasional random boobie shot in order to get to some substance, this is a more than okay alternative. And of course, you could just watch both too!