Visitors to a futuristic theme park have their awesome vacation ruined by a murderous malfunction in the park’s robots.
Michael Crichton, 1973
In the near future, the hottest destination for uber-rich vacationers is the Delos amusement park, featuring three themed worlds: Medieval World, where people get to live out their royal fantasies; the hedonistic Roman World; and West World, where every day is a new Western movie. Enriching the experience are highly realistic robots, who respond to the whims of customers like the newly divorced Peter Martin (John Benjamin). He chooses to head to West World, befriending laconic returning visitor John Blane (James Brolin) along the way. The pair party it up in the wild west: safe in the knowledge that nothing in the park can hurt them, they play the part of cowboy outlaws, getting into bar fights, engaging in shoot-outs with the Gunslinger (Yul Brynner), and sleeping with prostitutes. However, when a computer virus-esque malfunction hits the robots during their nightly service, they start behaving strangely, with the Gunslinger repeatedly tracking down Blane and Martin to get retribution for killing him. Robots begin to act strangely in the other Worlds, too – but by the time the park operators take notice, it might be too late.
I have a strong suspicion that the original Westworld is much more subversive than it’s given credit for. Perhaps it’s just me viewing it with modern sensibilities, but it seems to me that it’s much more sympathetic to the “malfunctioning” bots than initially though. Made in 1973, the original Westworld is significantly ahead of its time. The “evil AI” thing was done in 2001: A Space Odyssey five years earlier, but there’s a layer of gendered nuance in this film that’s lacking in 2001 (though the film is still very dude-heavy). The exploitation of female robots is addressed head-on in this film, and there’s an implication that this exploitation is part of what led to the robots’ murderous rebellion via the medieval Queen. There are a few interesting scenes in this regard: Peter talking to a blank-faced robot prostitute, the Medieval World guy being rejected by a chambermaid. There’s a real sense that the villains of the piece aren’t so much the robots but their creators and the self-centred park patrons. The cold, clinical scientists who cut the robots open each night and the callous park operators who decide not to close down the park are more villainous than the single-minded Gunslinger. Yul Brynner nails the role, and is more compelling than any of the humans.
The movie is pretty slow by today’s standards. It’s definitely dated, from the “future” designs to the sensibilities and the pacing. The set-up takes a while, but it nicely establishes the world and the various parks, as well as the major players. There’s a decent build of tension throughout, with the creeping knowledge that something is about to go very wrong contrasting the park-goers’ blithe enjoyment of living out their fantasies. After the excitement of everything finally going pear-shaped, though, it becomes a serious slog as the Gunslinger stalks boring Peter Martin around the different worlds for a full twenty minutes towards a predictable fate. It doesn’t help that Peter is an utterly unsympathetic, dull lead character – in fact, I didn’t even realise he was the main character for the first half of the film. I thought it was the much more interesting James Brolin, who is a) actually recognisable and b) charismatic despite his dickishness. He and the Gunslinger are also the film’s primary protagonists, in that they’re the ones who drive the action through their choices more than Martin, who reacts rather than acting most of the time. The film looks pretty good for its age, too; it’s the first film that used CGI, to pixelate the Gunslinger’s vision, and while that effect doesn’t really work, the practical effects look great. The exposed inner working of the robots are surprisingly effective. Adjusted for its age, Westworld is a really interesting attraction, well worth revisiting.
Westworld on IMDb