Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Review: Westworld (1973)

Westworld (1973)

Rated PG

Score: 3 out of 5

Westworld, a sci-fi/horror/Western hybrid that marked the directorial debut of science fiction writer Michael Crichton, is the sort of movie that's more about the ideas than the story they're underpinning. The lead human characters are basically ciphers with the bare minimum of development (they're friends from Chicago, one of them is a lawyer who's getting past a divorce, and... that's it), written such that viewers can easily slot themselves into their shoes as they explore this high-tech fantasy land. Some bits look downright strange to modern eyes -- the scene where the robots' programmers struggle to comprehend what we now know as a computer virus had me snickering at how dated this film was to the early '70s. The era in which this film was made can be seen elsewhere, too, most notably in the (by modern standards) slow pacing, which doesn't really turn into a horror film until the third act when the robots finally go haywire, as well as the fact that there are no major female characters who aren't androids (we do see human women in the intro and a couple of other scenes, but overall, the violence and sex of this resort is very much portrayed as a male fantasy). However, the overall competence of this film in its slow burn towards its harrowing conclusion, along with a great performance by Yul Brynner as an android gunslinger turned evil, more than redeems it from its rustier qualities. It's a classic more on reputation than anything, but Westworld still makes for one hell of a trip.

Set in the near future (let's say the far-off year of 2000), the film takes place at Delos, a high-tech theme park resort in the desert that is, to put it bluntly, what the Disney Imagineers might come up with if they had an unlimited budget and an unlimited supply of cocaine. Here, guests spend $1,000 a day (and you thought Orlando cost an arm and a leg) to visit one of the park's three themed worlds, West World (based on the Wild West), Roman World (guess), and Medieval World (again, guess). There, they can get into fights and duels with gunslingers, knights, and gladiators, then get laid and enjoy big feasts in saloons, castles, and classical estates. How is this legal? Well, all the park's "cast members" are robots, which are carefully controlled from underground and repaired every night so that they can get shot and stabbed all over again the next day. Unfortunately, there have been a growing number of glitches lately, with robots disobeying their programming and even harming guests (something that they are designed not to do), and they've been getting worse in the last few weeks. Some sort of "infectious machine disease" (because the word "virus" still referred strictly to human illnesses) seems to be spreading through the robots, and before long, it may put both the guests and the controllers at risk.

You may notice that not once did I mention the lead characters, John and Peter, in my plot description. There's a good reason for that: this movie isn't about them, and though we see most of it through their eyes, they're otherwise peripheral to the main story. Much like Jurassic Park, this is a classic Michael Crichton story of science run amok at a futuristic resort, this one inspired less by genetic engineering and more by the revolutionary animatronics that populated places like the brand-new Disney World park. As such, it's more interested in world-building than story, going in depth on the behind-the-scenes details of how the park operates, with the technicians and managers collectively getting almost as much screen time as John and Peter -- and then showing in detail just how the park falls apart. This film's interest in the park's inner workings means that it takes its sweet time getting to "the goods" -- for two-thirds of the movie, the park is functioning relatively normally, with guests indulging in all the vices it has to offer while the engineers keep it running, the hints that something is wrong only starting to creep in during the second half-hour. As such, despite its short, ninety-minute length, it's a pretty slow movie, one where the killer-robot action is the climax that's built up to rather than the meat of the film.

The slow pace made me wish that some more time -- a lot more time, in fact -- was spent on developing the characters, both the guests on the ground and the people behind the scenes. James Brolin and Richard Benjamin are both good as John and Peter, but they weren't exactly difficult roles to play, as while both of them (especially Peter) are given the barest semblance of development, they're otherwise blank slates for ninety percent of the film. Only at the end does Peter get anything resembling a real arc, and while the note the film ended on was definitely chilling, it felt like it was too little, too late. The characters on the management side are even more thinly-written, with nobody half as memorable as John Hammond or Ian Malcolm; when they're killed off by the robots, I couldn't bring myself to find a pang of emotion for any of them. The lone standout in the cast was Yul Brynner, of The Magnificent Seven fame, as the Gunslinger, a robot outlaw built to get into gunfights. He's the Terminator as played by Clint Eastwood, a laconic murderer who's programmed to shoot people and won't let anything get in his way. His steely-eyed performance as he pursues John and David around the park (with the implication that he wants revenge for their past humiliation of him) was the highlight of this film, serving as the monster it needed to inject some life into it. The visual effects used to render his digitized view of the world likewise still hold up, as dated as they look nowadays; the blurry, fragmented vision produced by his eye circuits does wonders at selling his inhumanity.

The Bottom Line:

Watching it today, Westworld feels more like a first draft of Jurassic Park than a fully-developed film in its own right. However, that's not to say it's a bad movie at all, as it's one that still realizes its ideas and builds its world well enough to make it worth a watch. I'm definitely interested in seeing what HBO does with their upcoming series-length remake of this.

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