Westworld: Nothing can go wrong

Westworld. Michael Crichton’s thought-provoking and fun 1973 sci-fi classic that he both directed and wrote. I watched this movie dozens of times as a kid. Anytime it would come on TV I would stop what I was doing and tell my parents not to bother me for two hours. This film was my introduction to artificial intelligence, robotics, westerns, and entertainment.

Westworld poster

I recently got to see this film on the big screen in 35mm and was moved to write a review of one of the seminal films of my youth, and how it holds up today.

Westworld is a tightly paced film that has influenced countless movies since. I would list The Terminator, Predator, Blade Runner, Jurassic Park, and Ex Machina. The cast is perfect, and the direction is unique. The plot is relatively simple. In the future, an amusement park for adults has been created. Delos is a three-part theme park where you can immerse yourself in one of three worlds. Roman World, Medieval World, and West World. You wear the clothes, eat the food, reside in lodgings, and participate in activities of the time. We follow the two protagonists James Brolin and Richard Benjamin as they experience the old west of 1880 in Westworld.

The entire scenario is a not-so-veiled criticism of Disneyworld, which just opened 2 years prior to this movie. I liked the dark social commentary that human beings would love a vacation where they could legally kill people and have sex with people without any consequences. Because they aren’t legally human beings, they are simply robotic humans, androids, tools for our entertainment and self-gratification. They get rebuilt every night, so what’s the harm?

Casting Yul Brynner as the iconic gunslinger was absolutely genius. He capitalized on our pop-culture memory of him from The Magnificent Seven in 1960. In Westworld he literally wears the same all-black outfit that he wore in that film 13 years earlier. And casting him as the bad guy was in the same vein as Sergio Leone casting Henry Fonda as the bad guy in Once Upon a Time in The West. He has few lines of dialogue, but he sells every line. There are shots of him where he is just standing and staring with his hands on his gunbelt that I’ve never forgotten. His glare is beyond powerful.

Later in the film he has silvery mirrored contacts in his eyes to show his improved visual scanning implants. Not only does he look creepy and badass, but this reminds me of Ridley Scott’s similar eye effect used in Blade Runner to signify when a character is a replicant. There are many similarities to Blade Runner, which is one of my favorite films. I’m sure Ridley Scott watched Westworld and knew he could take those themes to a higher level 9 years later. In Westworld, the only way to truly tell if a person is a robot is to examine their hands for little ridges between the digits of their fingers. In Blade Runner, the only way is to proctor the Voight-Kampff test, and even that psychological test isn’t 100% reliable. Especially when the replicants don’t know that they are a replicant and they have been gifted memories from someone else’s childhood.

Yul Brynner the glare

I love the odd little scenes Crichton puts in that aren’t necessary to the story. One great shot near the end of the film shows a roman statue that has been broken and left in a river. There is a drop of water from the river running down its face like a tear. This happens as everyone is being killed and raped off-screen. Another is the reflections in the mirrored cop sunglasses that the pilot of the hovercraft wears when transporting patrons to Delos. Nothing about these scenes adds to the plot in any way, but that mysterious shielding of the eyes and reflections of moving landscapes is striking and memorable. I wonder if he had seen Lucas’ excellent debut film THX-1138, which also used a similar device. Except in that dystopian future film, the entire face of the robotic police officers was reflective metal.

Mirrored sunglasses

The other surreal scene that really stuck with me is the employees of Delos coming out in the middle of the night to collect the dead bodies of the day’s adventures for later repair. The music is haunting and very unusual as the anonymous workers set up a large spotlight to work by. Nobody is talking to each other as they gather the bodies and cart them away in a truck. The night shift really does clean up corpses at 4am so nobody has to see the carnage over breakfast. When I watched it this time I wondered if the clean-up crew themselves were also robots. Doing the grunt work out there in the middle of the night cleaning up the broken bodies of their own kind. This scene could’ve been cut, or not even filmed by another director. It could just be mentioned by the scientists that the clean-up crew gets the bodies in the middle of the night to be repaired. But he took the time to create this ghostly unnerving scene and provided some of the best ambient music in the film.

Speaking of the soundtrack, I have to say that Fred Karlin did an amazing job. He filled the movie with very unusual sounds and musical effects instead of the normal orchestra playing compositions like we get in so many movies. No stock melodies that telegraph what emotion we should be feeling in that particular scene. His soundtrack has numerous noise cues that I still cannot identify. During the final chase there is one particular sound that reminds me of helicopter rotors with a touch of a horse snorting. He also uses a tense sound effect that is quite similar to one used to great effect in the 1968 Gregory Peck western called The Stalking Moon. That film also has a very long final chase/fight between the protagonist and antagonist. And it turns out, Fred Karlin did that soundtrack as well. That explains why I love both films so much. His Westworld soundtrack is on its way to me from Amazon.com right now.

The western is one of the truly American experiences, and we have a wealth of films to prove it. From the John Ford and Howard Hawks classics, to the graphic and genre-pushing spaghetti westerns (my favorite), to the western mythic quest films. The common themes include revenge, honor, brotherhood, and men out of time. Directors like Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Corbucci, and Clint Eastwood hold the top spots for western directors for me. Who among us didn’t play western playground games as kids, or imitated John Wayne’s drawl? It’s almost a universal American lust for the old west and wild frontier that makes a film like Westworld so appealing. Wouldn’t you pay $1000 a day (1973 costs) to dress up as a gunslinger and go around with your best friend drinking whisky and challenging some shady cowboys to a gunfight? Robbing banks? Starting a bar-fight? Visiting the brothel? Chasing down and killing all the bad guys?
Many of us would.

This film certainly slingshotted ahead the conversation about artificial intelligence, robotic realistic sex dolls, and computer viruses. This movie seems simple on the surface, but has deep themes that become more and more relevant as technology advances. Today, young schoolchildren can name ‘computer virus’ and know exactly what that entails. There is a growing industry selling realistic life-like human sex dolls for thousands of dollars. And the idea of supercomputers becoming sentient and possibly deciding that humans are in need of extermination has been a topic of countless science fiction books and films of the last 45 years. Westworld certainly was prescient regarding these scary and relevant issues.

Watching this film again as an adult I recognize one particular reason I liked it so much. Every time our heroes encounter the villain played by Yul Brynner, they dispatch him in a very distinctive and violent manner. Now I know that Crichton was probably copying the great Sam Peckinpah with these western shootout scenes. Peckinpah was famous for his multi-camera coverage and slow motion death scenes. And the use of blood squibs. Every time there is a gunfight with the Yul Brynner character it goes immediately to slow motion, and the ‘ballet of death’ that Peckinpah loved so much is shown perfectly. Blood squibs not only explode from the front of the man in black for the entrance would, but they also burst out his back for the exit wound. Often he is blasted out a window and the hundreds of glass shards tinkle and reflect the sunlight as his corpse falls below.

Yul getting shot.jpg

Another 70’s stereotype is the use of brightly colored fake blood when characters get shot. In Westworld, this criticism can be explained away because the creators of the robotic gunslingers would have wanted any bullet wounds to be very noticeable and graphic. After all, these are paying customers. We want to make sure that the patrons see their enemies get shot to bits and have the bright blood spurts to celebrate it. It’s a red world, after all.

This film also likely was one of the first to use thermal vision effects. We’ve seen this a hundred times since, most noticeably in the 1987 John McTiernan action film Predator. But in 1973 this technology was just becoming available and filmable with computer effects. Speaking of special effects, they all hold up quite well. The Yul Brynner character has his faceplate removed to expose the circuitry inside. It’s still a riveting scene and is very believable. Other scenes involving acid being thrown on his face results in a creepy couple of shots where his head is smoking. Another striking shot is of his body laying on the ground after being burned. The smoke effects remind of something John Carpenter would do years later. And as covered earlier, the shootout scenes and resulting bullet wounds are graphic and realistic. I love seeing Yul Brynner firing his rifle repeatedly with the casings flying out, exactly the way he did in The Magnificent Seven. But this time, he is the relentless evil force hunting the innocents.

Gunslinger_thermal_vision

Yul smoking.jpg

His character truly is the original Terminator. I believe James Cameron said that the Arnold Schwarzenegger character from the Terminator films was influenced by Yul Brynner’s Westworld character. I think also the same was said from John Carpenter about Michael Myers in the original Halloween movie. Unstoppable. Pure evil. And each with a few false endings where we think they are dead but they aren’t yet.

“Listen, and understand. That terminator is out there. It can’t be bargained with, it can’t be reasoned with, it doesn’t feel pity or remorse or fear, and it absolutely will not stop…EVER, until you are dead.”

This is the entire final 30 minutes of Westworld. The hunt that goes from Westworld out into the gorgeous cinematography of the mountains then into Medieval world. At times Brynner’s character seems to just be toying with his prey. At other times he is limited by his technology damage and has to get creative. He truly has over-ridden the 3 Laws of Robotics created by Isaac Asimov. These prime directives were to be encoded into the brain programming of every robot.

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws

Yes, Michael Crichton went on to deal with a similar theme park gone wrong scenario in Jurassic Park. But Westworld is the original, and a damned great ride. I’m shocked at how good it still is. Western fans and science fiction fans should all watch this movie again. As Yul Brynner famously says, “Your move.”

Westworld-Yul-Brynner-wide

 

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Zombie Girl

There’s this young woman outside our front doors who looks lost. It’s a cold and windy fall evening outside our venue, and I’ve noticed her standing around for a while now. I would use the word waif to describe her. Slight, short, skinny, but dressed well. She definitely seems to be buffeted by the wind and has backed herself into a corner to keep warm.

Lots of people wait around outside our doors for their Uber or Lyft car to pick them up. Cabs pull up outside all the time, and people checking in to the nearby hotel. Or they linger outside for a quick smoke. But this girl was just standing in a dark corner outside our doors with her arms wrapped around herself. Remember in the movie Blade Runner when Pris is standing around with her raccoon eyes trying to find somewhere safe? She pulls a bunch of newspapers and debris over her to sleep in an alleyway. She had a feral, vulnerable and paranoid look on her face. This girl had that same demeanor.

I stepped outside and asked her if she wanted to wait inside to get out of the cold and wind. She sheepishly came inside and thanked me in a quiet voice. Now that she was under some better light I could see that she was indeed very skinny, and also had braces. In the weird yellow lighting in the entryway she looked very odd, and her braces just made her look like she had terrible teeth. She also had somewhat hooded eyes. Her natural complexion gave her dark bags under her eyes and her prominent eyebrows ridged her deep eye sockets. She was also chewing gum, which kind of reminded me of the nervous teeth grinding that meth users will do.  I was trying to figure out if she had some problem besides just presenting a bit strangely. Like drugs or a mental illness.

I tried to engage her in some conversation to see if I could help her with anything. I asked if she was waiting for a ride, or if she was lost. She just sort of nodded her head no and kept chewing. She also was rocking from side to side a little bit and making other employees wonder about what she was doing. I let her be for a little bit. I told some coworkers that I invited her in to get out of the bad weather, but to keep an eye on her.

The concert was about to let out, so I warned her that she may not want to stand there when the crowd starts pouring out. She looked at me like I told her aliens abducted her as a young girl and planted a tracker device inside of her. I’m starting to get the idea that she doesn’t know anything about this establishment. We are a restaurant, bar, and music venue. Not a bus stop with a nosy security staff.

She moved to walk into the bar and I asked to see her ID. Her hooded eyes looked up at me like my goal in life was to irritate her. I had to reiterate that she was walking into a bar that serves alcohol, so she needed to show her ID for entry. She brought out her purse and fumbled around inside of it for a long time. I looked around at some of the bartenders and caught them smirking at me having to deal with a potentially problematic and weird situation. I smirked back.

She pulls out a card and hands it to me. It isn’t any kind of Oregon drivers license at all. It’s some sort of card with just her name and photo on it. It struck me as an ID card for a residential treatment center. The facility name sounded familiar, but handing this to a door guy is the equivalent of handing them a library card. I now had a better understanding of what I’m dealing with here. She probably lives at some kind of adult care facility. She got a furlough pass from the treatment center and decided to wander around Portland creeping people out. I informed her that this wouldn’t work. She needed to have a drivers license or a passport to get in. She got frustrated and grimaced at me before returning to her post of rocking back and forth, chewing her gum, and glaring at people.

Without a proper ID she really has no justification to be here. She can’t legally enter the doors and is now only on premises because I was being nice and invited her inside the foyer. She can’t tell me how she got here, she can’t tell me where she’s going, and she can’t tell me what she plans to do after she leaves. Now the concert finished and the crowd is coming out the doors, right towards our favorite anti-social lady. She doesn’t move to get out of their way, she just stands there arms crossed looking at people as the stream around her. I start to hear people asking her if she’s ok. A few women even ask her why she’s mad. Our friend isn’t answering people but she’s standing there making people uncomfortable as hell. Somebody asks her why she’s making that face. She gets angry and starts yelling at that woman.

I ask her to come to the side where she will be out of the way of the crowd trying to get around her. I again ask her if she needs me to call her a cab to get home, because she can’t stay here any longer. I stated clearly that I am security here and that she is going to need to leave. She can’t be here without a valid ID. She gets mad at me and starts telling me that I invited her in here. I reminded her that was me being nice, and before I knew that she had no ID and no business here. Now that she’s aggravating customers and essentially refusing to leave, it escalates.

“I’ve been more than nice with you, and I’ve offered you all sorts of help tonight. But now you’re being asked to leave. If you don’t leave now, this will be considered trespassing and we will call the police.”

The crowd has finally flowed around her and left the building. She’s still here arguing with me. Over refusing to leave a place that she didn’t want to be in the first place. Sometimes it isn’t the big burly dudes that swing on you and start spitting…it’s the tiny women. I really have no idea what this girl is capable of now that she’s turned on me and is being rude and yelling at me. And nobody wants to see a male security guard manhandling a tiny woman by herself. I have no interest in putting my hands on her, especially in this situation. So I kick it sideways.

I thought that a different security staff might be helpful here, a female security staff in particular. Nothing I say to this woman is helping, and she’s in hate with me right now. I found my female coworker and quickly gave her the short version of why this woman needs to leave the premises. She walks out into the foyer with me, and our unwanted guest sees her and immediately walks out the front door. Damn, I should’ve involved her 20 minutes ago.

We stand around for a few minutes and joke about how weird that woman was, and how after battling with me all it took was my female coworker to walk out and it was over.

Then I look across the bar through the crowd and I see her again. She had walked all the way around the building and was standing at the back door. There is a large glass window the size of a door and she’s standing right there looking into the bar. She can’t get in, but what the hell is she even doing there? She’s still shuffling around, rocking from side to side looking inside the bar like a zombie. That’s it. She’s a zombie.  If she would just raise her hands and moan a little she would be exactly like an extra on The Walking Dead. There are strange green and yellow lights near that exit, which only add to making her look sickly and affected. Her scowling grimace is exactly what all zombies do in the movies. Standing by the glass but not being able to get in is a trope of most zombie movies. We can see zombie girl and she can see us, but she can’t get in.  “Brains…..”

The ridiculousness of this situation got to me and I went outside to go tell her to leave the premises one last time. I leave through the front door to circle around to that back door to intercept zombie girl. Starting to feel like this is the moment I get jumped and bitten by this zombie. Never go anywhere alone. I, of all people, should know better. I imagine her biting me and then I become one of them. I wander back into the venue, where I order a rare burger before biting a coworker’s neck.

I approach that back door alcove to find her gone. Poof. Vanished. I don’t know where she could’ve gone that fast from when I spotted her. She’s nowhere. Zombie girl has escaped me. This time.

But I’m pretty sure I can find a crossbow around here somewhere.

 

 

 

 

 

Howdy, Roy

Tonight I met Roy. Roy and I had a unique time together.

I carded this guy as he came in the door. He was a big dude, tall and stocky like a lumberjack. He was in his 40’s and asked me a lot of questions. He was wearing overalls and a flannel shirt.

Sometimes when a person comes through the door we just have a short 20 second interaction where I ask to see your ID and give you the appropriate stamp. Other times I act like a host and answer a bunch of questions and even help seat you in the appropriate area. Other times I’m an event promoter and I’ll try to sell you on seeing the bands performing tonight. Or I’m the concierge and I’ll answer dietary questions about our menu, coordination for someone with special mobility needs, and even act as a tour guide and offer suggestions for other nearby places.

Roy came in and just wanted to be my friend. He told me his name was Roy and asked mine. Sometimes I don’t give my name but this instance seemed harmless so I told him. He seemed more than content to just stand in the entryway and chit-chat with me, his new best friend. I answered some questions of what we offered and how the place worked. He was intimidating visually, but a teddy bear once you started talking to him. I quickly understood that he also had a limited mental capacity. He wasn’t grasping social etiquette well and had a slight speech impediment that made him sound drunk when he wasn’t. He shook my hand and held onto it wayyyyyyyyy too long. He proceeded to shake my hand several more times. He also had thick Coke-bottle glasses and very bad teeth, so his overall first impression wasn’t that great.

He saw my female coworker standing behind us and went up to her and said, “You’re purrrrrrty.” And he wasn’t being a lecherous old man. Imagine the mentally challenged character from the great Steinbeck novel Of Mice and Men. Lennie. That’s him. That’s Roy. I think that he honestly didn’t get out much and wanted to give her a compliment. However, giving a compliment like that comes off more like you’re an inbred hillbilly rapist from Deliverance or The Hills Have Eyes. He just as well could have said, “Girl, you got a purty mouth. Let’s make a baby.”  Once he moved into the dining area my female coworker said, “Roy is just a simple man.” We laughed and moved on to helping other patrons.

About a half hour later one of the managers asked me for help with exiting a customer.
I knew it was Roy immediately. They told me that a gentleman had been cut off and they had already removed full alcohol bottles from his table. Now he had moved to a stranger’s table and was talking with them. They had asked him to leave and he refused. So they asked me to escort him out. Ah Roy, we hardly knew ya.

I walked into the restaurant portion and immediately saw large Roy, good ol’ boy. He had indeed sat down at a table with a stranger and was talking his ear off. Loudly. And he was now indeed drunk. I walked around the table and said hello to Roy. I then asked the man at the table if he knew this man. He laughed and said that he didn’t.

I asked Roy to walk outside with me. Of course he shook my hand another time. I leaned down and tried to explain as clearly as I could. Smiling, of course. “Roy, the managers here have asked me to ask you to leave now. They aren’t going to serve you any more beer because it seems that you’re pretty drunk. So I would like you to walk outside with me and we can find you a way home tonight.”

Tactful and clear. I feel like if I hadn’t bonded with him at the door and become his new best friend, this wouldn’t have gone well at all.

He said almost bashfully, “Oh ok.” He stood up and smiled at me and held his arm out in the gesture that means, “After you.” I smiled at him and made the same gesture, encouraging him to walk out of the restaurant ahead of me. “Oh, after you, Roy.”  He made the gesture again and said, “Go ahead.” I made the same gesture and said, “No really, you should go first.”

Now, obviously everybody saw me get called over to kick this guy out. Everybody is watching this silly interaction go down. Roy is about a foot taller than me, and a hundred pounds bigger, and he’s drunk. And a bit mentally challenged. He could do some damage to me if he wanted to. I guarantee that all waitresses, managers, customers, and hosts were watching this happen wondering what in the hell we were doing. Was he about to swing on me? Were we about to dance? Am I going to grab his arm and try to manhandle him out of here?

I finally said to him, “Roy, I’m security here and I am supposed to walk out behind you. So please, let’s both walk out now.” Letting somebody whose intentions you have no idea about get behind you would be completely stupid. He could decide he didn’t want to get kicked out and punch me in the back of the head. He could get his arm around my neck and choke me. He could trip or tackle me. No way in hell I would ever do that.

So he walked out of the restaurant ahead of me and I followed him out.  Like two old friends. I made eye contact with a few customers and staff as we walked past. Everybody was watching us intently, but smiling at me seeing that Roy and I had come to an understanding. At the door he asked if I could call him a cab. I said I would gladly do that once he walks out the front door of the establishment. We have cabs outside our place all the time, and if there isn’t one already there, they get there in a minute or two.

As I called for a cab for Roy one of my coworkers said, “That was the nicest, sweetest bouncing of a drunk that I’ve ever seen.” Indeed. It may have been. Playing tough guy in this situation probably would not have worked as well as acting like the guy’s friend. Always go for charm when you can in these dicey scenarios.

I look outside and I see a vehicle pull up outside our doorway. This is common as Lyft drivers, Uber drivers, and taxi cab drivers are constantly parking out there for loading and unloading. I see Roy go up to the vehicle, thinking that it was his driver already. He starts pounding on top of the vehicle in drunken excitement. A man gets out and starts yelling at him. This guy is a jarhead military-looking guy and he is angry. “Hey get the fuck off of my car! What are you doing? I’m an off-duty sheriff and I’ve had a shitty day. Who do you think you are???”

Goddammit. I finally got Roy out of here without incident and now an off-duty sheriff is about to kick his ass. Once I saw Roy start to pound on the vehicle I dropped the phone and ran outside.

“Hey there! Officer hold on, this is a misunderstanding. This gentlemen thought you were his Uber driver. He didn’t mean anything by it, and also he’s a bit…uh….challenge—uh…he’s had too much to drink tonight. Please, just let me handle this.” Angry off-duty sheriff backed off.

“Roy! Hey buddy, this isn’t your ride. This is somebody’s personal vehicle and you surprised them. But your taxi just rolled up down here at the street. Come over and let me walk there with you.”

He shook my hand about 4 more times and I swear he just about hugged me. We walked to the street where Radio Cab was waiting. He thanked me for a great night and muttered something about how he’s just living the life, ya know? Just living every day.

Hell yeah, Roy. Preach. If you come back again, please ask for me. Cause now we’ve got history. And I’ll keep you out of trouble.