Twenty years before Michael Crichton conquered the world with a little novel about dinosaurs running amok in a futuristic theme park, he had a stab at a similar idea, writing and directing his debut feature, Westworld.
In the near future, holidaymakers travel en-masse to a futuristic theme park known as Delos, where tourists can live out their fantasies in one of three areas – West World, Medieval World or Roman World. A sophisticated collection of androids is on hand to service the whims of the guests, be it adventure seeking, relaxation or more unsocial fantasies of sex and violence. At the expense of the park’s robotic population, the guests can do as they please.
Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin) visits Delos with his friend John Blane (James Brolin), both keen on living out their adolescent cowboy dreams in West World. As they arrive and start to settle in, behind the scenes the park administrators begin to notice minor breakdowns in the robots. As the malfunctions increase, spreading from robot to robot and area to area like a virus, the safety features of the park go offline. The androids shake off their programming and Peter and John find themselves in a genuine wild west, where anything goes.
As Peter and John come to realise they are in mortal danger, they find themselves pursued by a relentless, unstoppable West World outlaw known only as The Gunslinger (Yul Brynner).
Part Western, part science fiction, part disaster movie, Crichton’s cross-genre meld is a rollicking tale of a robot uprising. Much like Jurassic Park’s chaos theory-espousing mathematician, Ian Malcolm, and his irrefutable belief that ‘life will find a way’, Westworld’s dark conviction is that sooner or later technology will break down and expose humankind’s reliance on it.
Exploring classic sci-fi themes such as fear of technology and humanity’s desire to play God, Westworld doesn’t ask you to ponder too hard on the bigger questions. It just takes you along for the ride as everything goes pear-shaped.
Crichton steers the ship deftly through all the Western clichés. Barroom punch-ups and quick draw showdowns have been seen many times before, but that’s exactly what a couple of big city tourists would be wanting to do in a no-holds-barred theme park. The action is fun, with a stylish, restrained use of slow motion in some key scenes.
The performances are key to selling Westworld’s universe and making the audience ‘buy’ this near-future technology. Richard Benjamin and James Brolin’s relationship bedrocks the film, Benjamin playing it like a big kid – all eager questions and brimming enthusiasm – while Brolin, a previous visitor, humours his buddy with all the answers. But the picture hinges on Brynner’s masterful turn as The Gunslinger, conjuring up a cold, taciturn, invincible killer. Pre-dating The Terminator by eleven years, Arnie’s iconic performance certainly owes a debt to Brynner’s deadly, black clad cowpoke.
Westworld’s influence has seeped into popular culture. In addition to The Terminator, Star Trek: The Next Generation’s holodeck mishaps could be argued to have their roots in Delos’ A.I. revolt, and John Carpenter has famously ‘fessed up to partly basing Halloween’s Michael Myers/The Shape on The Gunslinger. The Truman Show also gives a tip of the hat with its staging, actors frozen in place until their cue, much like the robots of Delos starting over every day at sunrise. The most high-profile of all, however, is the direct homage paid to Westworld in The Simpsons classic sixth season episode ‘Itchy and Scratchy Land’.
Westworld is also notable for being one of the first movies to significantly feature computer-generated imagery, in the form of The Gunslinger’s point-of-view pixelated android vision.
A success on release, Westworld spawned a less popular sequel in 1976, Futureworld, and a five-episode television series, the pilot episode of which can be found on the current Blu-ray release. A remake has long been mooted and with an HBO series due for release in 2015, there has perhaps never been a better time to revisit the original.