Westworld: A look back at the Michael Crichton movie
Matthew Turner | On 11, Sep 2016
In 1973, Michael Crichton created Westworld, a sci-fi movie about a robotic theme park gone wrong. Now, with the HBO TV series based on the movie on our screens, here’s the low-down on Crichton’s original 1973 film:
So what’s Westworld about?
Written and directed by Michael Crichton, the 1973 movie is inspired by his trip to Disneyland, where he was impressed with the animatronic characters on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. His park is set 10 years in the future, at a luxury adult entertainment resort run by a company called Delos (the logo for which bears an amusing resemblance to the logo for Chrome).
The resort is split into three zones – West World, which recreates the Wild West, Medieval World (Medieval England) and Roman World (the city of Pompeii in Roman times) – and each setting is populated with lifelike androids (actually robots), programmed to behave in character for their environment. For a mere $1,000 dollars a day, guests can indulge in a series of lifelike adventures with the robots, including sexual encounters and fights to the death, whether that’s gunfights in West World or sword fights in Medieval World.
The story centres on two of the park’s customers – confident repeat visitor John (James Brolin, looking a lot like Christian Bale) and his best friend, nervous first-timer Peter (Richard Benjamin). They take full advantage of the facilities and getting into repeated gunfights with an android-in-black (Yul Brynner), known as Gunslinger. However, when some of the robots become infected by what one of Delos’ scientists likens to “an infectious disease” (an early reference to computer viruses), events rapidly spiral out of control as they break their programming and begin killing the guests.
Meanwhile, unaware of the unfolding situation, an oblivious John and Peter come face to face with an infected Gunslinger…
Some of that sounds rather familiar…
In addition to getting its own Simpson’s parody episode (1994’s brilliant Itchy and Scratchy Land), the film has been extremely influential on a number of famous sci-fi properties. Most notably, Crichton re-tooled the idea of an out-of-control theme park for Jurassic Park, while Arnold Schwarzenegger’s unstoppable killer robot in The Terminator (1984) was directly based on Gunslinger, with the actor reputedly using the character as the basis for his performance. John Carpenter also reveals on the DVD commentary for Halloween (1978) that he took the concept of a relentless, indestructible killer (including Gunslinger’s distinctive walk) and applied it to Michael Myers, so you could argue that Westworld directly contributed to the invention of the slasher film.
On top of that, the sinister, profit-driven corporation Delos is a precursor to the likes of Terminator’s Cyberdene Systems and Blade Runner’s Tyrell, although, to be fair to Delos, they’re not completely evil and they do, at least, try to shut the park down once everything goes haywire. It’s an admittedly tenuous link, but it’s arguably even possible to see Westworld as being extremely prescient in its idea of characters within a world that you can interact with, at least in terms of today’s Grand Theft Auto-style video games.
How does it hold up?
It holds up surprisingly well, thanks to its economical use of special effects – as a result, the iconic shot of Brynner’s Gunslinger having his face plate removed to reveal circuitry underneath still has the power to chill.
Westworld was the first feature film to use computer digitised images (as opposed to computer graphics), for the shots that represent Gunslinger’s pixellated point-of-view. Each 10 seconds of footage apparently took eight hours to produce, but it was well worth it, as the effect adds an extra dimension to the chase scenes and heightens the suspense of a key moment towards the end.
So is it any good?
Clocking in at an extremely reasonable 88 minutes, Westworld is definitely worth your time.
Brolin and Benjamin are well cast and have a strong rapport, which generates humour in the first half of the film and pays off handsomely in a number of ways in the second half – one of the most unsettling moments involves Brolin’s previously unflappable John suddenly panicking after getting bitten by a robot snake and yelling, in an oddly high-pitched voice, “The hell, god dammit, that’s not supposed to happen!”
There was an amusing example of art imitating life during the shoot, when Brolin got bitten by the lower jaws of a real (de-venomed) rattler during this scene. With that in mind, it’s tempting to think that Brolin’s high-pitched panic is real and that Crichton left it in.
And, of course, Brynner makes a terrific villain, heightened by the inspired decision to dress him in exactly the same clothes that he wears as gunfighter Chris Adams in 1960’s The Magnificent Seven.
Crichton’s direction is assured throughout, spending valuable time establishing the setting, before eventually unleashing the action, but also adding an effective layer of authenticity, as evidenced in the documentary-like way he shoots the boardroom discussion scenes. Finally, the whole thing builds to a satisfyingly exciting climax. Indeed, if there’s an issue with the film, it’s only that the sex and violence both seem rather restricted by the film’s rating, which has a particularly noticeable impact on the scenes where the robots attack.
Why hasn’t there been another TV version before now?
Actually, the film spawned a sequel (1976’s Futureworld), which did lead to a spin-off TV series in 1980 called Beyond Westworld. It only ran for three episodes (five were produced, in total) before being cancelled. However, the plots of both Futureworld and Beyond Westworld (neither of which involved Crichton) bear little relation to the events of Westworld, instead focussing on a plot by Delos to replace world leaders with clones – the series saw the lead characters tracking down a different clone every week, a bit like David Vincent looking for aliens in The Invaders.
So what’s going on with this new series?
Aside from a couple of impressive-looking teaser trailers, HBO have been playing everything fairly close to the chest when it comes to the new series, but it’s possible to extrapolate a few intriguing details from the character information and the trailer. The key area of interest is that the plot appears to centre on Evan Rachel Woods’ character, a robot in Westworld who becomes self-aware and realises, Truman Show-style, that her whole life is a lie. However, it’s worth noting that the show does have the potential to recreate the movie explicitly, since it has three characters clearly based on the film’s main trio: Jimmi Simpson as a reluctant first-time visitor, Ben Barnes as his repeat-visitor best friend and Ed Harris in the Yul Brynner role as Gunslinger.
Other key additions include Anthony Hopkins and Jeffrey Wright as Westworld’s creative director and chief scientist, respectively (the 1973 movie is missing a central creative genius figure akin to Jurassic Park’s Hammond), as well as a number of other Wild West characters (including Thandie Newton’s madam, James Marsden’s new-in-town gunfighter and Clifton Collins Jr’s outlaw, suggesting that the show might be intending to play some fun games with traditional Western stories, in addition to the central sci-fi plot.
At any rate, with Jonathan (younger brother of Christopher) Nolan as the show’s co-creator (with Lisa Joy) and the likes of J.J. Abrams on board as executive producers, it’s certain that the show has plenty of twists up its sleeve, with a reputed five seasons worth of plot already sketched out.
Already seen the TV show?
Read our reviews of each episode here.