One short year after the film adaptation of his first huge bestseller became a big hit (1971’s The Andromeda Strain), author Michael Crichton was somehow able to parlay that into directing jobs. I’m still trying to figure that one out, though I’m convinced Satan and a bloody signature were in there somewhere. After directing Pursuit, a mediocre made-for-TV political thriller with Ben Gazzara, in 1973, the doctor-turned-novelist went straight on to big budget Hollywood features.
The timing of his first feature was good, anyway. The early ’70s were a golden era for dystopian sci-fi. You had Omega Man, Soylent Green, the Planet of the Apes films, Logan’s Run, Rollerball,and several other memorable and not so memorable looks at the assorted grim and broken futures that may await us. That was just the pervasive mood of the times, I guess.
Two years after author Ira Levin went to Disneyland, was both impressed and terrified by the hyperrealistic animatronics, then returned home to write The Stepford Wives, Michael Crichton likewise went to Disneyland, was likewise impressed and terrified by the animatronics (specifically those in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride), then returned home to write the screenplay for Westworld.
Androids indistinguishable from flesh and blood humans have been a regular source of cinematic paranoia since even before Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and a familiar trope in speculative fiction long before that. What if robots who looked and acted just like us started replacing humans? And what happens if their circuitry starts going a little kooky?
Then of course there’s the whole issue of dehumanization in the tecnological age. Yeah, let’s see how many ways we can juggle that one. One thing’s for certain—it sure cuts down on the fancy makeup effects. Androids were a staple of The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and in countless sci-fi films of the late ’50s and 1960s, so in that there’s not a whole lot new afoot in Westworld.
The one twist Crichton does bring to the game (and one that would become a common theme in writer George Saunders’ short stories) was to leave the androids-gone-haywire within the confines of a futuristic amusement park. In fact, in the case of Westworld, it’s an amusement park which bears some unmistakable similarities to Disneyland, except it’s an amusement park aimed strictly at adults, the visitors have no choice but to interact with the androids, and there’s plenty of sex and violence involved. But visiting Westworld (or Romanworld, or Medievalworld, the other two sub-parks within the complex…Shogun World wasn’t a thing until HBO came along) will set you back $1000 a day (just like Disneyland!).
Star James Brolin plays John, a repeat visitor to Westworld who seems strangely bored and cynical about the whole thing for some reason. An odd reaction, not only because he’s the one paying through the nose for the privelege of being there, but because he’s brought a friend (the great Richard Benjamin as Peter) along in hopes of distracting him after an ugly divorce. What better way to forget an ex-wife than to go to a theme park where the only available drink is no-name whiskey, you’re free to shoot whomever you like, and you can have sex with robot hookers, right?
Then there’s the always stiff and creepy Yul Brynner as The Gunslinger, the villainous android whose initial cartoon villainy turns real when something in his CPU goes bananas. Despite top billing (and the clear references to his role in 1960’s The Magnificent Seven) he’s strangely underused here, appearing only in a brief scene toward the beginning, then returning again for the extended (which is a nice way of saying “overlong”) stalking sequence that ends the film. As other androids start getting fed up with these stupid annoying human tourists and the fun-filled amusement complex devolves into bloody chaos, he’s not even the most frightening robot of the lot.
While Brynner’s unchanging facial expression is understandable given he’s an android, the fact that Brolin’s own expression rarely strays too far away from “catatonic” has led some (me anyway) to speculate he might be a robot himself. In contrast, Benjamin is all over the place, bouncing from wide-eyed to mortified to whiny to overenthusiastic about the whole experience, often inexplicably.
That’s part of Westworld’s overall problem. Crichton once said that since the action in the park was made up of tired Western cliches (the comic bar fight, the showdown, the whorehouse), he decided to shoot the film like a series of genre pictures. Sounds to me like he’s making excuses, trying to justify the film’s lack of any consistent tone, which slides every which way unpredictably from scene to scene, leaving the film feeling more like an AIP quickie than a major studio undertaking.
Along with the inconsistent tone there’s the whole pacing issue. As a director Crichton never really did get much of a grip on pacing, and given how many scenes involve interminable silences in which nothing at all happens, I shudder to think of what his original three-hour cut must’ve been like. Then again, maybe he cut out all the good, exciting parts.
For all the film’s deep and pervasive faults (it really is kind of a sluggish clunker that’s hard to watch at times), the behind-the-scenes shots in the park’s control room have a solid authenticity to them, as dozens of technicians at blinking consoles and on telephones try to contain what seems to be an early incarnation of a computer virus spreading among the androids. Crichton has always been good with technical language (even if at heart it’s all gibberish, a mix of technobabble and strings of numbers), and having techs break away to order breakfast or check on their laundry gives the scenes a verite feel.
In the end the control room sequences are far more exciting than anything happening in the park itself. This may explain why the ersatz sequel, 1976’s Futureworld (with which Crichton was wholly unconnected), concentrated on the more sinister behind-the-scenes goings-on at another robot amusement park, using the “androids gone bonkers” scenes as a mere sidelight.
I was gaga over Westworld when I was a kid, same as I was over most of the dystopian films of the era, but looking back on it now it’s just flabby and dull, alternatingly dragging and jerking along with nothing holding the center together. I guess I should give Crichton a break given he was an inexperienced director in way over his head, but still. There’s no denying he was a man with a sometimes remarkable, occasionally prescient imagination (in this case no one had really considered the possibility of computer viruses yet), but watching it now it feels more like an early draft of what would eventually become Jurassic Park.
Not that it’s a story without possibilities, which may explain why the aptly named Bad Robot was not only interested in the property in the first place, but was able to gather a top of the line cast and sell it to HBO. Of course, they took this story to the absolute limit in the show’s first season, and season two is even further out from the original concept. But will they ever be able to top The Simpsons Itchy and Scratchy Land episode?