Retro Review: Westworld is a True Sci-Fi Classic
Westworld is most definitely a product of the 70s in just about every way, with its sepia browns and yellows, kitschy wit, and male bravado. But that adds to the charm of Michael Crichton's directorial debut. Two decades before Jurassic Park hit theaters, Crichton wrote and directed this similar tale on a smaller scale, about an amusement park where the attractions turn on the visitors. He manages to make it work on a number of different levels. There is humor and action, as well as a distinct blend of genres that is more than effective, and some genuine chills thanks to the performance of Yul Brynner.
In an anonymous future world, The Delos Company has created a high-end fantasy amusement park for adults. In this park exist three distinct "worlds" where visitors can inhabit a romanticized (and safe) version of past times. There is Romanworld, Medievalworld and, of course, Westworld, and for only $1,000 a day tourists can put on the appropriate garb of their world and live as Romans, kings, or outlaws. Each of the environments is populated with a variety of advanced robots, which range from horses to snakes to human beings. These robots roam their worlds purely for the pleasure of the visitors, who in turn can kill the bots or, ahem, even love them, depending on the situation, all with no repercussions. They are simply hauled away by the scientists and engineers who operate the park, reset, repaired, and put back in place in time for the next sunrise.
James Brolin and Richard Benjamin star as John and Peter, two vacationers who suit up in their best Wild West garb and travel to Westworld. While John is confident and brash having already visited the park before, his companion, Peter, is a greenhorn who has trouble buying into the falsity of the park's inhabitants. Before long, however, Peter acclimates to Westworld after he kills a robotic gunslinger known as the man in black, played by Yul Brynner. The two vacationers have a blast for a while, cavorting with the brothel robots and getting into barroom brawls. But something begins to go wrong.
What is so ingenious about the film is the way it slides in and out of the genres it represents. After opening with pure sci-fi, the story slips easily into being a Western with a difference, but as soon as night falls on John and Peter's trip, we're right back to sci-fi, with a healthy dose of horror.
As the sun sets on a wild day of robot shooting, the scientists and engineers begin to notice malfunctions in some of the robots, but before they can intervene, the gunslinger embarks on a mission to hunt down the unsuspecting vacationers, John and Peter. The final pursuit is thrilling, as Brynner's man in black systematically stalks his prey, a classic horror element is introduced to the film, which now bears all the hallmarks of the slasher movies that would flood theaters some 5-10 years later.
The visual effects of Westworld might not be much to look at by modern day standards, but their charm still have something to offer a modern audience. Crichton's story is lean, almost too lean, as there is untapped potential left out of the story, but that's all part of what makes the HBO serialized adaptation of Westworld such an exciting prospect. There is potential to expand this story and, given a larger budget and advanced technology, open up these worlds and explore some more themes within them. This is no criticism, though. Crichton worked with what he had, and created a time capsule of a film, something dated and timeless all at once, where themes of the dangers of technology are examined in some interesting and entertaining ways. Indeed, much of what is explored in Westworld is even more relevant today, especially with the likes of Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk both preaching caution over the development of artificial intelligence.
The Westworld series comes to HBO this Fall.