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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- 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.”