Long before Michael Crichton penned his Oscar-winning tale of dinosaurs once more walking the earth, he had an earlier stab at a tale of an amusement park going awry. It’s also in my opinion the better of the pair and has finally been granted a UK DVD release by Warner Bros.
The disc itself is disappointing, both in terms of extras and presentation, though. There’s only a trailer included here and the DVD menu is uninspiring, with no animations or interactive footage at all and just scene access and language options available. The sound too is no great shakes, with just 2.0 Dolby Stereo available – no surround sound remastering here (although to be fair, this is reflective of the source material). The print has been given a clean up though, looking highly polished considering its original 1973 release.
While it’s a shame that the DVD hasn’t quite been given the full treatment it deserves, it’s not a decision breaker. This is because the film itself is just so damn good.
Westworld is set in a theme park of the future, one in which visitors can pay $1,000 a day to spend time in one of three worlds – RomanWorld, MedievalWorld or WesternWorld. It’s so expensive because inhabiting these worlds are lifelike androids, designed to give customers what they want and never harm them. An advertisement for the theme park at the film’s opening includes the slogan ‘Boy, have we got a vacation for you.’ Chicagoans John Blane and Peter Martin (played superbly by James Brolin and Richard Benjamin) clearly think so as they arrive ready to give WesternWorld a spin. Unfortunately, they, and their fellow visitors, pay little attention to the tanoy announcement as they are transported to their chosen destinations. ‘Nothing can go wrong’ it boasts. As all seasoned cinemagoers know, that’s just asking for trouble.
The trouble here is an all too modern one that’s affected us all from time to time – a computer virus. It’s just that this one’s a biggie, affecting all the androids on the resorts and bringing chaos and death in its wake. This is one vacation the guests weren’t expecting, and it’s not going to end well.
The true genius of Westworld lies in its pacing. It would have been very easy to bring the virus into play early on, showing the true horrors the androids cause across the resorts in gory, strung out detail. That the film builds to its climax slowly is what makes it the storming success it is. It isn’t until the last half an hour until things really kick off, but the seeds for all the ensuing death that’s to come are sown throughout the previous hour. Indeed, pacing throughout the whole film is expertly done with its 85-minute run time making for a taught, exhilarating ride.
The film’s primary focus is rightly on the more interesting WesternWorld, with an interesting side story set within MedievalWorld and next to no time at all spent in the less appealing RomanWorld. It’s gunplay, sheriffs and bar brawls that audiences want to see and Westworld delivers that in droves, following Blane and Martin as they set about their holiday of a lifetime.
The DVD cover gives centre stage to Yul Brynner, and quite rightly so. Appearing in Westworld as a gunslinger that regularly shoots it out with Martin, first in a bar, then in his hotel room, it is Brynner who you’ll remember long after the film ends. When the androids run amok it’s his remorseless, unstoppable machine that burns up the screen, stalking Martin and Blane relentlessly like an early version of Arnie’s Terminator. His performance is beguiling, his tense presence stealing every scene and driving the film towards a thrilling conclusion.
It’s far from just Brynner’s film though. Both Brolin and Benjamin play their roles as cool, collected know-it-all and his wide-eyed naïve friend respectively very well. Their dialogue together, though sparse, is perfectly formed with not one word spoken out of turn and through their brief conversations we learn everything we need to know about them; Martin is on vacation to forget about his wife, Blane is a seasoned Westworld visitor and they’re very good friends.
For such a dark-themed film, it’s surprising how much humour there is throughout, most of it coming from the peripheral characters. The new sheriff in town especially is a joy, a scene with him practising his quick draw in front of a mirror a particular highlight. Then there are Martin’s first attempts to get into character on his themed holiday. ‘Vodka Martini on the rocks, very dry with a twist of lemon’, comes his order at the town saloon.
The first film to use digitised images, Westworld is an ambitious, enthralling movie that deserves the much wider audience that this DVD release should give it. It’s disappointing that Warner Bros couldn’t dig up some interviews or other nuggets from the archives but that shouldn’t detract from what is one of the best films ever made. It’s been in my top three movies since I first saw it as a teenager. Revisiting it now doesn’t change that one bit.