Friday, 10 December 2010

Westworld (1973)

Country: USA

Produced on a modest budget of $1.25 million by MGM Westworld was one of the most commercially successful science-fiction films in the age before Star Wars (1977). It marked the debut to feature filmmaking of Michael Crichton, who in the 1970’s contributed (either as writer or director) a number of interesting pictures within the ‘Revolt of Technology’ subgenre. The first was The Andromeda Strain (1971) which was based upon his novel of the same name and saw an alien virus come to earth due to technological efficiency. Also of note is an adaptation of his novel The Terminal Man (1974) which charts the effects of a microchip placed in a scientists' brain in order to control his violent seizures. Another major contribution was Coma (1978) which he also directed, and combined elements of the paranoid thriller with technological unease. But for me Westworld eclipses all of these efforts by some distance. It was Crichton’s clearest and most efficient distillation of his techno-phobic themes, but also displayed a brilliantly self aware attitude to genre which was never replicated in Crichton’s later career. Crichton’s awareness of icons, conventions, and expectations makes Westworld both fun and incredibly chilling.

The company Delos offers up to the public the cutting edge in amusement parks. Three spheres of representation and fantasy on one site; Romanworld offers the lust and debauchery of ancient Rome, Medievalworld offers court intrigue, pageantry and sword fights, and finally Westworld offers the brawls, gunfights, hard drinking and easy women of the wild west. These locations are populated by androids as white suited technicians sit in their control rooms making sure the guests have a great experience. Although Crichton’s screenplay doesn’t develop this theme Delos are in fact commercialising violence, death, and adultery. The androids become metaphors for oppression and their revolt is an understandable response to their exploitation. Delos are also selling a Hollywood constructed dream, which possibly excuses the incredible gender imbalance of Crichton’s film. This is a totally masculinised world, and although we do briefly glimpse female guests at the start of the film, the film opts too ignore their experiences. In a way this is what Hollywood has always done, so is this a symptom of 1970’s filmmaking or a clever attempt to show through the reconstructions of Delos the absence of female voices?

The manner in which Westworld satirises the myths of the wild west within a science-fiction framework is part of its charm. This is achieved through a regular cross cutting technique which shows Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin) and John Blane (James Bolin) adapting to their western experience and the laboratories and technical spaces of the engineers and scientists. This is the 1970’s remember so everything is white and clinical and the computers and mechanical gizmos are clunky and huge. The film does also attempt to satirise the rampant machismo of the wild west through the weedy character of Peter Martin, but all to quickly Martin becomes an efficient killer. The film steadily builds towards the predictable moment when the androids go haywire with a series of minor malfunctions, malfunctions that are overlooked by the capitalist forces that control the amusement parks. Although the malfunctions are never satisfactorily explained (a major plot weakness) Crichton does introduce the concept of a computer virus, a moment of prophetic insight which somehow humanises the androids and gives their rebellion substance.

The chief example of this is the battle between Peter Martin and The Gunslinger (Yul Bryner). Having despatched the black dressed gunslinger twice before Martin and Blane are in no mood for him after a night of heavy drinking. The look of gleeful satisfaction on the gunslinger’s face after he has shot Blane almost suggests he is enjoying the cold pleasure of revenge. His silver eyes shine with delight throughout his stalking of Martin, who desperately flees through each resort to escape the violence of the automaton. Bryner is excellent here, and it is clear the heroism of his role in The Magnificent Seven (1960) is being subverted to terrifying effect. We are even afforded several point of view shots from the gunslinger, which gives the character a frightening autonomy and subjectivity. The stalking sequence sees dialogue almost completely excised as man does battle with machine. Although Martin cannot compete with the gunslinger’s efficiency or strength he is able to eventually outwit him. The most terrifying moment comes after Martin has damaged the android’s vision, as Martin shrinks in terror against a wall the inhuman look on the android’s face as it seeks its prey has stayed with me a long time. Fortunately for Westworld these moments come at a time when the film is just starting to lag, and the initial surprise of the premise has been forgotten. A sequel entitled Futureworld appeared in 1976 in which Bryner reprised his role, but it was a significant step down from Westworld.

© Shaun Anderson 2010


  1. Crichton used a similar premise for Jurassic Park, the amusement park gone wrong. I've always been curious for this one, but have never actually seen it.

    I did manage to see both The Andromeda Strain and Coma, I really enjoyed COMA, it was a creepy flick, Michael Bay stole some images from COMA for THE ISLAND, specifically, those scenes with the comatose people hanging on those floating beds.

  2. WESTWORLD is an ace sci fi movie in my book, too, Shaun. I have DVD-R of FUTUREWORLD in widescreen I copied from cable a couple years back. Brynner is only in it briefly during a bizarre dream sequence. The premise is quite good, I thought, but the movie itself wastes its potential.

    RUNAWAY from Crichton in 1986 I think it was, was pretty decent with Tom Selleck and Gene Simmons as the main villain. He controlled these robot bug things. I haven't seen that one in years.

  3. From 1968 to around 1976 was a true golden age of science fiction movies. Westworld, The Andromeda Strain, Colossus: The Forbin Project, The Man Who Fell To Earth, all great movies. I haven't seen Westworld for a while but I ordered the DVD recently thinking it was time for a re-watch.

    Even the failures, like Logan's Run and The Omega Man, were interesting failures.

    Westworld is infinitely better than the bloated mess that was Jurassic Park.

  4. Thanks for the comments gentlemen, as always greatly appreciated;

    @ Franco - I like the elements of paranoia in COMA, but I've always found it to be a bit of a trudge. If you're able to track it down THE TERMINAL MAN is an interesting watch.

    @ Brian - I've haven't seen FUTUREWORLD for many years, which is why I've added it my online rental list for another look. It is certainly an inferior film, but I find a lot of the American sci-fi films of the 70's to be really interesting. I remember RUNAWAYS, it used to play a lot on television here in the UK in the late 80's and early 90's. I really enjoyed it.

    @ Venom - I couldn't agree more, I'd also add SILENT RUNNING and SOYLENT GREEN to your list of great sci-fi movies from that period. The former is arguably the greatest American sci-fi film of the 1970's. I'm with you on JURASSIC PARK.

  5. Apologies! - my last comment was directed at dfordoom.

  6. Another classic in SciFi that I have somehow managed to miss, been looking forward to it for years but I havent grabbed it yet. Might need to bump it up on the Netflix que while the wife isnt looking!

  7. I too enjoy Westworld and after reading your Review will be looking to seek it out for a revisit. Yul Bryner was a master stroke of casting as the man already looked like a Robot his Elven ears and (Red Dwarf Crichton esq head), much like the casting of Robert Patrick as the Liquid Metal Terminator in T2.

  8. Not only did he look like a robot Feore, but it was also clever casting because it subverted his screen persona. Bryner of course was the leader of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and the hero of numerous westerns. It doesn't quite reach the effect of Henry Fonda in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, but it isn't far off.

  9. Phase IV, directed by Saul Bass is another favourite 70s scifi movie of mine, and criminally overlooked. Also, Capricorn 1, although a straight thriller rather than scifi.


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