Thursday 27 August 2009

Westworld (1973)

Director: Michael Crichton
Stars: Yul Brynner and Richard Benjamin

Back in 1973, Michael Crichton, already a well established writer, directed his first feature
film. He was already a name on film, as he'd directed a TV movie called Pursuit a year earlier and Robert Wise had turned his highly successful novel The Andromeda Strain into a movie the year before that. Wherever you count the point at which he really arrived, he'd become a major name in Hollywood that stayed major for the next few decades. Next time you watch Jurassic Park, watch this film first because it's where it came from.

Intriguingly we're told about Delos, the vacation of the future today, through advertising and orientation videos. It's all deliciously seventies and it's nicely done. Delos is a high tech theme park with three separate worlds to choose from. There's MedievalWorld, with its castles and banquets; RomanWorld, full of lust and debauchery; and WesternWorld, a wild west town from the 1880s, all places that you'd expect to see a TM after their names. It all seems very familiar, from the colour coded trams to the calm voice over the PA system. Adding a final line of 'Nothing can go wrong,' to the spiel is just asking for trouble in a notably theatrical way, but that's what Crichton did.

Even if we haven't seen Westworld before, we know what it's about. Like many Crichton stories, it's about technology giving us something very cool and then going horribly wrong. This is a perfect example of that, with our three worlds full of clever technology. They're all populated by robots that are only distinguishable from humans through their hands, which the techs haven't quite perfected yet. The guns in WesternWorld have sensors in them so they don't fire at anything warm blooded, like people. And of course all this great tech starts to fail with deadly consequences.

John Blane and Peter Martin are going to WesternWorld. Blane has been there before and knows precisely what to expect though his friend has a little trouble getting used to the concept. Martin is surprised that the room in the so-called Grand Hotel isn't more comfortable, he orders a vodka martini with a twist at the saloon and he really isn't too ready for Yul Brynner, the ultimate gunfighter in black (based on his character in The Magnificent Seven), who walks in to the bar and insults him. Only after he bucks up his courage and kills him in a gunfight does he really start getting the point. By the next day he's happy about his tin bath and he's hell bent for leather, just like everyone else.

Luckily by the time that the robots start going haywire and refusing to spend their operative lives losing every single time, he's ready for almost anything, even being chased by a gunfighter who won't give up all the way to RomanWorld. There's a pseudo-scientific explanation, as there tends to be with Crichton stories. Apparently the robots initially met their design specs of 0.3 failures per 24 hour period, mostly peripheral failures, but now those failures are rising fast, changing from peripheral failures to central failures and spreading across the three worlds. One of the techs likens it to a disease and points out that they really don't understand what these creatures they've created really are because some of the robots are programmed by robots.

Westworld succeeds in a very seventies way, being a vision of the future that still rings true as a basic extrapolation. It's the same logic that Jurassic Park was built out of, incidentally another Michael Crichton novel. The Japanese would love to make a real Westworld full of real robots, and once they do, Disney would buy them to populate their theme parks. The biggest omission here is the lack of a gift shop. The underlying fears being manipulated are universal ones and there's simply no way that Yul Brynner's gunfighter didn't influence the concept of both the predator and the terminator in the films of those names. 'It's what he does, it's all he does,' and he does it by following your heat signatures.

There are holes everywhere, of course, this hardly being serious science fiction. Why so few guests, for a start? This is a business, after all. We have an explanation for how guests can't kill other guests by accident, but what about stray bullets? Even if we're ignoring Asimov's laws of robotics why give the robots real guns? What if someone hurts themself leaping over the bar to get out of the way of a gunfight or have a heart attack during a sword fight? Nobody mentioned accident waivers here.

What about the extrapolations of not ever being sure who's a guest and who's a robot? If you can't tell the difference, how do you know you're not about to knock up a real guest living out her fantasy of being a saloon girl? If you're adopting the morality of a different time for the duration of your vacation, how does the real world trump that? Who settles the paternity suits? Can guests indulge in rape because it was OK in the time? After all, how would they know that the reactions weren't all programming? How would they handle STDs transmitted via robot?

What about the privacy concerns given that the techs monitor the whole thing via closed circuit hookups but the resort provides sex robots in all three worlds? There's nothing here that really speaks to the legal side of things, or politics or ethics or morals. It's really a thriller run off a scifi concept and it refuses on the grounds of simplicity to go down any one of a hundred roads that it opens up. Even keeping it just a thriller, what about adding a conspiracy theory aspect? Instead of having the robots programmed by robots, how about having a human being with undetermined motivations mess with the programming for his own ends?

This really fails as a science fiction story for anyone who's read or seen anything of note, though geeks will enjoy the first 2D CGI, but it succeeds as a thriller and as a cinematic reference point. It's a very seventies film and it feels it, even without the potential for the fashions of the day to make it obvious. It's certainly iconic and it's going to be remembered for a long time to come for Yul Brynner's gunfighter and what he led to. What else the film led to was a sequel, 1976's Futureworld, and a short lived TV series in 1980 called Beyond Westworld, of which only three out of five episodes were broadcast, due to poor ratings. Surprisingly it was a CBS show but maybe CBS were the Fox of their day.

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