By 1973, the concept of a robot was nothing new. Many of them came looking like Frisbees stacked on each other, or as big tin men, or simply as piercing red eyes drilled into spaceship control panels. Whatever the form, the robot was a symbol of the future. Westworld, Michael Crichton’s first feature as director, propels us all into the future by designing an amusement park that utilises robots to supplement the past.
Each of the three park zones is modelled after a period of human history that promised peace and tranquility but delivered brutal barbarism. There’s the Roman world, the medieval world and of course Westworld, which looks suspiciously like any other Old West set you’d find in a Hollywood backlot in the 1950s. The entire park employs life-like androids as operational plants, helping to create a convincing experience for whoever is rich enough to pay the $1,000-per-day ticket price. The only way to distinguish an android from a paying human customer is by observing the palms of their hands, which their makers “have not yet mastered”. You can also tell by their glowing silver eyes, but the movie makes no mention of that.
The idea here is simple: Take a trip to the park for the perfect time-travelling getaway, unless of course your perfect getaway involves the beach or the Amazon, in which case you’re buggered. The execution, however, is a bit more complicated, as the park requires constant surveillance by a team of engineers and scientists, and every night repair crews emerge from the shadows dressed in black to haul away damaged robots and fix whatever needs fixing. You’d think that if this future has the technology to create machines as real as human beings, it’d have no need for such primordial mop-up crews.
No matter. Westworld is less about the details and more about concept. Crichton does little to supply any real sense of danger. Instead, the world he creates is bound by rules that are designed to prevent human casualties, but like the worlds the park is modelled after, once rules are broken the sanctity of life is no longer ensured. True enough, before long people start dying, the crowd turns chaotic and the park is forced to shut down. All this happens fairly quickly, which opens up gaps in the plot to make way for Yul Brynner’s Terminator-esque pursuit of the hero Peter Martin, played by Richard Benjamin. What gaps? — you say. As soon as the park malfunctions and the scientists are conveniently trapped inside their control room without oxygen, there are several scenes of park robots chasing and maniacally slaughtering poor paying customers. Yet when Peter and Brynner slice through the scenery there are no longer any live robots or human survivors shuffling about. It’s as if the entire park population wipes itself out in a matter of minutes and no one thinks to head for the hills. I’d believe it if Peter was the only survivor if he knew how to make weapons or, y’know, had obtained at least a blue belt in Taekwondo, but he’s an average joe caught in a not-so-average-joe predicament, against a one-man homicidal cowboy. I doubt he’d be the last man standing.
Crichton often wrote about corruption in the system and man’s misplaced faith in technology. He had a gift for turning ambition against itself. After Westworld he wrote and directed Coma (1978), a movie in which an honest doctor uncovers a nasty truth about comatose patients being used by the hospital in underground experiments. It had the same personality as Westworld — paranoia, fear, a sense of the system imploding in a seemingly innocuous guise. He later employed the Malfunctioning Theme Park concept to power Jurassic Park (1993), a movie that in the hands of Spielberg made him a household name throughout the ’90s. Tough luck finding a kid who grew up with Jurassic Park even hearing of Westworld.
Of course now Westworld has been adapted into a television series by HBO, which means it will reach a new generation of audience and probably feature a naked woman. I have yet to begin the series, which is receiving gold stars and numerous accolades. I suspect that while the action will be pumped with anabolic steroids and the visual effects will receive a hefty makeover and the cast will be politically obliging and everything else that needs to fall into place will do so, what will ultimately drive this new series is Crichton’s original concept of danger lurking in present sight. It was taut enough for a 110-minute film; I’m interested to see how the idea develops into a season-long arc.
If by 1973 robots had already had their day in the sun, then in 2016 they must be showing signs of rust and in need of WD40. I shall look forward to basking in this upgraded edition of Crichton’s classic, but I sure as heck will not be spending $1,000 just to be killed by an android suffering an existential crisis and an extreme case of sunburn.