The film: Westworld (1973)
The Principals: Yul Brynner (Gunslinger), Richard Benjamin (Peter Martin), James Brolin (John Blane), Dick Van Patten (Banker), Majel Barrett (Miss Carrie). Written and Directed by Michael Crichton
The Premise: Delos is the vacation of the future, today! Delos is a new, state-of-the-art theme park where – for a thousand dollars a day – you can experience life as someone else in one of three separate areas, each made up to replicate a specific time period. You wanna be a cowboy? The sheriff of a town? A bank robber? West World is your poison! Or do you prefer the chivalry and regality of the sword and the crown? Get thee away to Medieval World! Do you like movies about gladiators? Then oil up and pick out your best toga for Roman World!
For friends Peter Martin and John “I actually do have time to bleed and will prove it in the third act” Blane the choice is simple – to spend a few days as a couple of rough-n-tumblers in West World. Since it’s his first time, Peter doesn’t immediately take to the way things are done in West World. The accommodations are too authentic (i.e. rough and not very comfortable), the whiskey is a little strong, his interactions with the “working girls” are a little awkward, and the idea of participating in an authentic show down or bar fight is a little unsettling. Luckily, all of the non-customers are androids – programmed to do whatever the paying folk desire. John helps his friend get acclimated, and by the third day Peter has already won a showdown with the local gunslinger, had his way with one of Nurse Chapel’s night ladies, gotten into a bar fight, managed to get himself thrown in jail for killing the same gunslinger a second time, and become an outlaw after a successful jailbreak. You can’t do any of that in Frontierland! Anymore!
Unfortunately, things aren’t looking too good behind the scenes. The head engineers running Delos are starting to notice some odd aberrations in their androids that go beyond the questionably standard “I’m having sex with a fake person! Wheee!!” More and more units are starting to act against programming, causing some alarming and dangerous conditions – conditions that would be hilarious if sped-up and the song “Yakety Sax” were played over them. While troubleshooting the problem, the technicians come up with several theories, get called stupid, then come up with several more – one of which is that there is an electronic virus spreading to each of the automatons. But their postulations come too late, as the infection becomes widespread and the mechanical population becomes deadly to everyone donning the latest in flesh fashions. With Roman World and Medieval World quickly becoming blood baths (without the blood… or the baths), Peter finds himself with an artificially-ventilated best friend and on the run from the same gunslinger he’s already killed twice.
Is It Good? It’s incredibly good. I’m actually surprised at how good it is, as I seem to remember quite a bit of negative feedback several years ago targeting Crichton specifically over his screenplay and directing skills. Oddly enough, during my research for this movie I couldn’t find any evidence to support that recollection. In fact, Westworld actually won a few science fiction awards, as well as acclaim from several magazines and critics. It has even made a few official top film lists. So, what the hell am I remembering? The only obvious explanation is that at some point during that period of my life I must have accidentally crossed over for a brief moment into a parallel universe full of zeppelins and more advanced technology, where Westworld was reviled and Eric Stoltz starred in a critically-panned film called Back to the Future. Where was I?
Taking a look at the elements that make Westworld such a good film, one of the things that immediately stands out to me is Yul Brynner’s performance as The Gunslinger. I remember seeing this with my dad when I was a kid when it was featured on one of those “Saturday Afternoon Matinee” shows they show on TV. I don’t recall much about seeing the film back then, save for one powerful image – a silvery-eyed Yul Brynner relentlessly chasing Richard Benjamin down a dark, concrete corridor. I remember that scene scaring the eight-year-old me quite a bit. And even after revisiting it now, Brynner strikes quite an imposing figure. After watching Westworld in preparation for this article, I found myself very uncomfortable and borderline scared the moment he showed up on screen. Brynner does a fantastic job of portraying such programmed menace, that when his android goes off the rails at the end you find yourself questioning whether or not you can trust your own PS3 to not kill you in your sleep. Brynner brings the tension every second he’s in the film, and I find myself enjoying it like I do every time the cars pause before that first drop on the Griffon roller coaster at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg.
One of the other things that I really love about Westworld, especially after getting the chance to revisit it, is the pure, unadulterated seventies sci-fi on display. This film came out right during that era in the late sixties/early seventies when dystopian societies and social commentaries were all the rage. And this movie is no exception. Crichton once stated in an interview that his idea for Westworld came from observing The Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland and wondering what it would be like if they went berserk and started attacking everyone. From that, you can clearly see the message of how our reliance and celebration of advances in technology can get away from us and go completely wrong, especially when our understanding of it fails to keep up with our desire and drive to master it. Crichton would later revisit almost this exact same theme with Jurassic Park.
But what really wows me about this movie is something I mentioned earlier – Westworld’s ability to foresee the future. As I mentioned in the synopsis, there’s a scene where the head technicians are in a meeting trying to figure out what’s causing the malfunctions in the androids. One of the suggestions thrown out onto the table was a computer virus. Keep in mind – this movie came out in 1973. Computer viruses didn’t really start becoming an issue until the mid-1980s when modems and online bulletin board use came into being. They didn’t become widespread and widely known until the mid-90s. That means Crichton was addressing the issue of computer infection twenty years before we started clicking on shady porn sites and giving our PCs the herpes. Now, to be fair, the initial concept actually goes way back to John von Neumann’s lectures on the subject on 1949. It would be Veith Risak’s article published in 1972 on computer viruses that would bring the idea into a wider consciousness. But Crichton’s ability to use this available research on the subject allowed him to make a profound and socially conscious film – two decades before it was relevant.
At the end of the day, what you have here is a fine specimen of seventies sci-fi. Westworld is a great film offering a nice balance of fun and terror while delivering a solid story with a strong message that’s decades ahead of its time.
Besides, any movie that features Dick Van Patten getting laid and becoming sheriff of a town is definitely alright in my book.
Is It Worth a Look? Without a doubt. The premise alone is enough to entertain those content to just relax on the couch with a bag of popcorn without even having to dig into the social commentary. But Westworld offers so much more. You wanna see the movie that inspired films like The Terminator, or gave John Carpenter the idea for The Shape in Halloween? This film delivers. In fact, Westworld offers a nice variety of content for any type of viewer. You’d be doing yourself a disservice to not give it a watch.
Random Anecdotes: This year actually marks the fortieth anniversary of Westworld, as well as the first usage of digital effects in film – specifically, the use of a process called “pixelization” – in order to capture the point of view of Brynner’s Gunslinger. This process would eventually evolve to be used for something greater – blurring out naughty bits and f-bombs.
Yul Brynner’s appearance as The Gunslinger was based on what his character looked like in the film The Magnificent Seven. This is not to be confused with The Magnificent Sven, who looks nothing like Yul Brynner.
Cinematic Soulmates: Futureworld, Jurassic Park, Logan’s Run, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, Halloween, Halloween III, The Terminator, Bladerunner