70s Memories: Westworld (1973)

Written by Michael Crichton
Directed by Michael Crichton
Starring Yul Brynner, Richard Benjamin, James Brolin
US Release August 17, 1973
RT 88 min.
Home Video Warner Brothers
Classic Horrors rating = 7 (out of 10)


Twenty years before Steven Spielberg directed Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, Crichton himself directed another movie about an amusement park gone wrong. Instead of dinosaurs, though, the three parks within Delos (“the vacation of the future today”) were inhabited by lifelike robots.  In the movie Westworld, for $1,000 a day, guests could visit Medieval World, Roman World or Western World and experience one of three interactive historical experiences.  I’m not sure why robots were employed to populate these “worlds,” except that there wouldn’t be much of a movie unless these robots malfunctioned to become murderous.

Westworld is a more cynical movie than Jurassic Park. In the latter, there’s a sense of awe and wonder before things go to hell.  But in the former, there’s only selfish hedonism which results in a feeling that the movie’s victims get what they deserve.  Also, in Westworld, the generic “supervisor” and “technicians” behind the scenes act like it’s just a matter of time before things fall apart anyway.  When confronted with the fact that more and more robots are suffering from “central malfunction,” the Delos engineers admit that, since some of the robots were designed by other robots, they “don’t know how they work.”

As signs begin to show that they’re headed for a meltdown, the chief supervisor (Alan Oppenheimer) picks up a phone that’s dead and asks, “Doesn’t anything work around here?” When there’s still time to prevent disaster, there’s a brief debate about whether or not the stockholders can insure the safety of their guests.  I’ll let you guess how that one turns out.  Again, there wouldn’t be much of a movie if they sent everyone home and closed the parks.  Later, when the robots in all three parks are running rampant, systems begin to fail in the command center.  They cannot escape because the doors are electric.

But the story really isn’t about the behind the scenes buffoons running Delos. It’s about two buddies, John Blaine (James Brolin) and Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin), out to have a little fun over the weekend.  Blaine has visited Westworld before and, on the hovercraft ride to the park, more or less outlines the rules for Martin.  The only way you can identify a robot is by looking at its hands; they haven’t perfected those yet.  The guns are real; they have sensors to prevent guests from shooting anything that has a body temperature.  And, the robots simply “exist for your pleasure; nothing can go wrong.”

The gentlemen’s park of preference is Westworld, where Blaine can sit back in the authentic 1880s saloon and sip a whiskey while beautiful women fawn all over him and Martin can exercise some assertiveness while exploring the thrill of shooting a bad guy. In this case the bad guy is the “Gunslinger”, played by Yul Brynner, in a nod to his character in The Magnificent Seven.  Martin disposes of him relatively quickly, but robots can be repaired and returned to duty, so he comes knocking on their door with a grudge.  He’s disposed of again, but the third time’s a charm and he ultimately becomes a terminator, out to destroy Martin.

There are some enjoyable sci-fi details in Westworld. Regardless of the carnage and destruction that might occur during the day (bar fights, bank robberies, jailbreaks, etc.) in the faux Wild West, it takes only a few trucks and uniformed workers to clean things up at night.  And, when things are running properly, it takes only a flip of the switch to shut things down at the end of the day and the flip of a switch to turn them on in the morning.  There’s a nice scene from Medieval World where knights, maidens and horses that have been stopped in their tracks are “turned on” for another day of business.

While most of the happenings in Westworld are satiric, there are some frightening situations. While I wouldn’t strictly consider it a horror movie, Brynner’s Gunslinger is nevertheless a terrifying monster.  The casting couldn’t be better.  In case you take it too seriously, though, Dick Van Patten is another guest at Westworld who provides comic relief.  He’s a bumbling, accident-prone fella, characteristics that are highlighted when he seizes the opportunity to become sheriff.  All this makes the tone a little uneven.  The aforementioned bar fight is accompanied by music right out of a madcap comedy.

By the time an engineer states, “Sir, we have no control over the robots at all, Westworld is in complete action thriller mode, and it’s very entertaining, a real crowd pleaser.  This is reflected in its box office receipts for 1973, when it was MGM’s biggest success of the year.  It inspired a sequel (Futureworld) and a short-lived CBS television series (Beyond Westworld).  Last year, HBO felt the franchise could do it again and season one of their series demonstrated that it could.  With technology nearly out of control these days, it’s perfect timing, even though it’s a darker version that doesn’t have as much silly fun with the concept as the movie did 41 years ago.

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