I had it in my head that I first saw Westworld on Moviedrome during the late ’80s. Alex Cox would no doubt have preceded it with a few gnarled sentences of commentary. But since Moviedrome didn’t show the film until 1997, and Cox had long since departed by that point (it was never the same with Mark Cousins squeaking his way through the introductions), I must have taken it in under different circumstances a good decade-to-fifteen years earlier. Whenever it was I first happened across the picture, I don’t think my opinion has changed much in the intervening years: great concept, so-so execution. Michael Crichton clearly thought he’d come up with the goods, as he proceeded to recycle his plot for Jurassic Park (right down to the over-extended build-up).
There’s no doubting Westworld’s influence, far beyond that of its author’s subsequent work. From Michael Myers in Halloween to Arnie in The Terminator, the unstoppable killing machine has become a movie staple. It even seems surprising that James Cameron didn’t have a Schwarzenegger-type in mind given the similarity between his impassive, expressionless robot and Yul Brunner’s Cowboy. And, like Brunner, Arnie was cast against type. Brunner’s is an icy, creepy riff on his appearance in The Magnificent Seven. Early in the proceedings, the Cowboy is programmed for taunts and mocking smile. But once it goes haywire it is virtually a T-800 prototype, right down to a dissolving face that leaves its inner workings exposed. In addition, perhaps the ultimate compliment for a movie, it was appropriated for a band’s name.
Crichton was inspired by something as simple as Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride; such a non-cerebral spur may be why Westworld invites a number of possible readings. One the one hand there is a warning of consumerism gone out of control, a not uncommon theme in ’70s science fiction and horror. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead showed the true face of mall culture. Crichton presents a vision of what happens when the things we make for pleasure begin to rule us. Alternatively, it’s a deeply conservative parable; a Biblical judgement is reserved for those of us who think we can indulge in immoral behaviour (prostitution, thievery, murder) without guilt or consequence. Then again, maybe it’s a vision of our desensitisation to reality (ever encroaching in an age where our every moment is instantly rehearsed on the nearest video screen). When John (James Brolin) is gunned down, Peter (Richard Benjamin) is initially unsure this isn’t all a trick; another part of the show. When our lines of reality blur that much can there be any way back?
And there’s also Crichton as the predictive writer; the spreading system corruption within the robot populace might be labelled good old-fashioned entropy, or it might be viewed as the now commonplace computer virus (one of the scientists makes the analogy to an infectious disease afflicting the automatons). And what is Westworld, if not a virtual reality programme? It just needs that next step of non-physical travel (this is something that will feature in a number of his pictures/adaptions of his work; the manipulation of reality, including Disclosure, Rising Sun and Looker). I think I’d pick as most persuasive the idea that systems will always breakdown. If only because Crichton returns to this theme in the aforementioned Jurassic Park. In both, man’s “creations” overcome imposed limitations and wreak havoc. In Jurassic Park, the natural order has been suppressed and reasserts itself. In Westworld, humans have wilfully enabled technology to unchain itself from their control; a scientist informs us that, in some cases, computer components were designed by other computers (“We don’t know how they work”).
Ultimately, this isn’t Crichton’s attempt at a cautionary tale (those tend to be his most misjudged expeditions; see Rising Sun and Disclosure). He’s just after making an exciting science fiction movie. In that respect, his motives may be fairly pure, which make considering possible interpretations more fun; this is far from his later habit of bending the unsuspecting viewer’s ear with the unreconstituted ramblings of a middle-aged white American male.
Westworld came to life on a relative shoestring, which explains why it looks much like a TV movie, complete with a stock western backlot set and scattered Doric columns and busts (depending on the zone you’re visiting). Crichton’s direction is of the basic point-and-shoot variety too. He’s not one for building up tension, and his grip on forward momentum is only as strong as the content of his screenplay. The pursuit of the last twenty minutes works reasonably well because it is scripted that way. This also means the set-up drags somewhat; there’s a little too much “good-time boys” yee-haw indulgence, and the lack of budget entails a shortage of spectacle; it’s not really selling the experience to us as vicarious tourists.
Indeed, Crichton is rather shy about the areas that might have enlivened the introductory passages. One could imagine Paul Verhoeven let loose on Romeworld, a zone replete with a “sensual lack of morality”. This is the world we see the least of but, when the park breaks down, its Romeworld’s toga clad corpses that are strewn everywhere. Yet there’s no sign of lethal force having occurred mid-orgy. Elsewhere, a dirty old medieval holidaymaker wants to have his wicked way with a perky sexbot totty (“What’s your name, child?”). But divorcee Peter has a rather subdued time with his saloon tart. The tone is so unlibidinous that Mrs Gene Roddenberry (Majel Barrett) plays the brothel madam. She’d pass for Mr Gene Roddenberry quite easily.
We should perhaps respect Crichton for going as far as he does, dragging his park’s raison d’etre down to the basest human impulses. And for suggesting we’d all be having it away with jumped-up household appliances if we could. Of course, he doesn’t delve into the nitty-gritty of who scrubs the sexbots clean of all those messy human bodily fluids (which raises a question I’ll come back to shortly). Instead, he lavishes time on the repair of a bloodied actionbot. He might have gone much further in exploring the implication that our ascent from the inclination to rape-and-pillage is purely illusory; it is only “civilised” society that prevents us from indulging our darkest desires. And, given the chance in a virtual setting, we will embrace them.
But Crichton has a relatively benign vision of those taking part. The violence they inflict is never unsettling (such is Hollywood) and is not expressly punished. One might argue that the dirty old man is felled for his perceived predation, and that Peter survives because he is shown to have a conscience towards the machines everyone else demeans. But he’s the one who shoots down the Gunslinger; not once, but twice. In glorious squibtastic Peckinpah slow motion. And I’m dubious that Crichton was so considered; it seems more likely that Peter was chosen to survive because he is the least likely to. I don’t think, in general terms, Crichton is depicting his guests as any more licentious or excessive than the average tourist. Or, no guiltier and more deserving of massacre at any rate.
When the robot rebellion begins, after Crichton has needled us for a good fifty minutes that things are slowly but surely going wrong, the picture may be more effective for its lack of auteurism. When said unfortunate medieval holidaymaker, duelling for fun with the black knight, is run through, Crichton doesn’t bother with close-ups or fast cutting. It happens in long shot, and the effect is more disturbing for the matter-of-factness with which it is presented. There is a striking shot during the opening scenes of landscape reflected in a pilot’s sunglasses, but the fanciest Crichton gets technically is the point-of-view of the Gunslinger. This is the movies’ earliest use of digital image processing, employed to pixelate the robot’s vision. It’s rudimentary, to the extent that you wonder how these robots can see a damn thing, but instantly recognisable and thus clearly enormously influential (that word again).
On the subject of futurism, one aspect that stands the test of time is Fred Karlin’s eerie score. It has just the right tone of dissonant, detached menace; there’s a highly evocative quality to early synth music, and you can hear the through line to John Carpenter’s minimalist beats. It also provides the pulse of scenes you would only see in a mainstream movie during the ’70s; the methodical, almost meditative process of gathering shattered automatons, transporting them to the workshops and then setting to work on repairing them.
The cast is fairly unprestigious, such that I was more intrigued to see Jared Martin (The Fantastic Journey, Dallas, the ’80s TV War of the Worlds) pop us as one of the technical crew than the main players. Richard Benjamin, as mentioned, is the most unlikely of heroes (he’d go on to a more comfortable second career as a director of middling comedies). James Brolin was no star when the film was made but you naturally assume that, with his model good looks and easy confidence, he will save the day. So, when Brunner shoots him down at the hour mark (I always remember it as sooner), it’s quite a shock.
I can’t speak for the reaction on Westworld’s initial release, and of course I knew who Brolin was by the time I first saw the movie, but it puts me in mind of the rug-pulling of Janet Leigh’s exit from Psycho or, more pertinently, John Boorman’s Deliverance the year before. There, the obvious man’s man Burt Reynolds is waylaid while Jon Voight rises to the challenge of backwoods mastery. Is Crichton saying anything with this, other than presenting a clever shock? Brolin becomes rather petulant when the park doesn’t do exactly what he wants (“Doesn’t anything work around here?”) but a robot snake has just bitten him. I’m not sure we can infer much from the everyman’s success, other than recognising Peter’s essential niceness. When a technician tells him he hasn’t got a chance, and he replies “Yes I do”, there seems to be little reason for his newfound confidence. He shows no great skills, other than a capacity for pegging it.
There are a few nit-picks regarding the logic of this environment. Crichton obviously gave a fair bit of thought to how his fantasy world should operate, such that the weapons have sensors so humans can’t shoot other humans. But why are the robots even armed with live rounds? What do they have to hit in the normal course of duties? And, even assuming the precautions taken are foolproof, a cursory glance at an evening’s entertainment suggests ambulances will be out in force. Punching an android will likely break your hand, and being thrown off first floors in bar fights-for-fun may break your back. Most of all, there’s the silliest of android mishaps. So goofy you wonder if Crichton dodged all critical faculties for a moment; Peter gives water to a poor robot strumpet that has been chained up in the castle dungeon. And she promptly short circuits. Let’s hope it doesn’t rain too hard and sticky fluids don’t get expelled into any robot orifices.
Westworld was a success, but it took MGM three full years to churn out an enfeebled sequel (without its creator’s involvement). A doomed TV series followed in 1980, and whispers of a remake have been circling over the past decade. With Arnie’s name attached, which looked like a lazy repetition of past glories (Terminator in a ten-gallon hat). That now seems to have been nixed, partly because Arnie’s comeback has fizzled but mainly because JJ Abrams is turning Westworld into an HBO series. HBO, a world where all the lurid, twisted potential of Crichton’s premise can finally be explored…