Tuesday, February 22, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Westworld (1973)


In 1984, Arnold Schwarzenegger portrayed an emotionless, homicidal android  in James Cameron's The Terminator...and an iconic movie villain was born. 

But in the decade before The Terminator arrived in theaters, there was another silver screen model for relentless android villains: Yul Brynner's 406 model "Gunslinger" from the 1973 Michael Crichton  (1942 - 2008) sci-fi/horror thriller Westworld. 

And like Schwarzenegger after him, Brynner returned to this iconic role for at least one theatrical sequel, 1976's Futureworld.  The Westworld franchise also spawned a TV incarnation years after the original film, 1980's short-lived Beyond Westworld

Today, a remake of the original Westworld is being planned for theatrical release in 2012, though it has apparently been in the works for a decade or so at this juncture.  At one point, there was even talk of Schwarzenegger taking on the role of the Gunslinger, which seems appropriate given  the actor's career history.

Gazing back at the original Westworld today, it's not difficult to determine why audiences responded so enthusiastically to the film and its seemingly unstoppable, silver-eyed bogeyman. 

Indeed, the film still excels as a lean, efficient thriller, and the movie capitalizes ably on a  universal human fear (also marshaled in the Halloween films) of being pursued by a seemingly inhuman being that absolutely won't stop; no matter what. 

Like Michael Myers himself, you can shoot, stab or burn the Gunslinger android and it doesn't seem to phase him one bit.  And again like The Shape, the Gunslinger wears a mask of sorts; an inexpressive "human" face that reveals nothing of his internal motivations, needs or desires. He's impossible to read, beyond the fact that he absolutely wants to kill you.

After the thrilling action elements of Westworld, there's also a fascinating science fiction premise operating here, one specifically involving modern human morality.  In this regard, the film concerns an amusement park called Delos where rich patrons can pay 1,000 dollars a day to relive past epochs in "Western World," "Roman World" and "Medieval World." 

More than that, these patrons pay for the right to have sexual intercourse with subservient androids (with no consequences...) and even kill those androids (again with no consequences) in the various theme parks.  Clearly, there's a statement here about the activities that human beings consider entertaining.  Is it okay to commit violence when the target of such violence is a machine?  Is it okay to engage in casual sexual relations with a slave, too?  

Also, though it isn't heavy-handed about it, the film comments broadly on technology and the use we put it to.  There's the suggestion here that the androids are beginning to develop some sense of awareness of themselves and their rights as intelligent beings.  

And their uprising in the film -- though terrifying -- seems justified given their cruel treatment at the hands of the wealthy elite.  In many ways, Westworld forecasts Terminator and also the re-made Battlestar Galactica of the last decade in exploring such a notion.  It's a science-run-amok Frankenstein story in which the technological children of man, perhaps rightly, turn on their biological parents.

Westworld received decidely mixed reviews upon release in the mid-1970s.  Newsweek's Paul D Zimmerman wanted the film to go further than it did, noting "What's the point of fantasy if it's rated PG?"  Meanwhile, Pauline Kael assessed the film "moderately entertaining."   Audiences were more enthusiastic, and today the film is indeed considered a genre classic.

Uniquely,  Crichton returned to the narrative template of Westworld while fashioning his most famous novel (later a movie), Jurassic Park.  In that instance, another high-tech amusement park also fell prey to a rebellion by its denizens: genetically-engineered dinosaurs.

"The best amusement park in the world...."

Westworld opens with a TV commercial that promotes the concept of the amusement park Delos to future clients. 

Here, in this world, you can escape complex reality and live another life all together. 

In Western World, Roman World (a place of "sensual, relaxed morality"), and Medieval World, visitors can indulge their most elaborate fantasies all while interacting with robots programmed to act, talk and even "bleed" just like humans.  You can kill, or fuck, for sport.

When the commercial's spokesmen interviews visitors to Delos, they enthuse about the amusement park, noting that it is "the realest" thing they have ever done.  One senior citizen raves about having played "sheriff" in Westworld for a week.  Another client, a woman, blushes at her memories of Roman World.

After the advert ends, and a hover craft lands at Delos, two visitors to the park, the macho John (James Brolin) and the neurotic Peter (Richard Benjamin) choose Western World as their "world of choice" and are shuttled by tram to a re-created town mimicking conditions in the American West of 1880. 

In short order the pair indulges in whoring and gunfights..and even murder.   On two successive occasions, Peter is confronted by a bald, dressed-in-black Gunslinger (Brynner), an android who seems to have it in for him.  And in both instances,  Peter bloodily guns the robot down.

While John and Peter enjoy their week in Westworld, the scientists tasked with overseeing the vast Delos grounds toil in subterranean environs to repair and service hundreds of androids.  A new concern soon arises.  Android breakdowns are on the rise, almost as though an infectious disease is passing from one android to another.  The scientists watch concerned as android behavior begins to turn...rebellious.

Instead of shutting down the park, the scientists opt to continue observing.

This delay in decisive action proves to be a mistake, since the androids revolt and begin to murder the Delos guests.  In Westworld, the Gunslinger returns one last time, looking to even up the score.  He murders John in a shoot-out.  The machine then sets off on a relentless pursuit of Peter through Roman World and Medieval World. 

A desperate Peter now must utilize every survival instinct and weapon at his disposal (including hydrochloric acid and fire) to survive the machine's endless attacks.

"The realest thing I've ever done..."

The first thing to acknowledge about Westworld is that the  Michael Crichton has directed the low-budget picture with a real sense of competence...and most importantly, consistency.

For instance, all of the scenes set in the underground complex utilize lengthy camera pans.  These pans (of high-tech machinery, infirmary beds for the robots, whirring reel-to-reel computers, etc.) cover a tremendous amount of territory and successively give one the impression of Delos' massive control apparatus. 

We return to this underground complex several times in the film, and Crichton universally deploys these lengthy pans; not just to provide the setting a sense of scope, but also to keep things moving in the film. 

We're constantly aware, via these frequent panning shots, of the momentum necessary to keep Delos operational.  Underground, nothing ever stops.  And the nighttime "clean-up" scene in Westworld with vehicles and workmen gathering the "dead" androids for repairs likewise adds to the film's sense of reality; to the sense of a real-life park at an apex of activity.

Inside Westworld,  Crichton adopts a different technique to film the "fake" cowboy moments; the moments that seem to be straight out of old Western films and TV shows.  In this case -- for bar fights and shoot-outs that aren't real -- he deploys slow motion photography so that immediately our minds seize on the concept of movie Westerns; and of a history of being entertained by them.  These heightened, almost exaggerated (and again, lengthy) sequences remind us that this world of Delos is all but  "play acting;" that the world Peter and John engage with in Delos is not real or authentic.  It's a game.

When things turn sour inside Westworld,  Crichton makes another pivot in terms of stylistic flourishes.  He does away with the artificiality of the slow motion photography and relies instead on staging and shooting tricks we most closely associate with the horror genre.  He thus adopts first person subjective shots, tracking shots, and even stages a decent "jolt moment" as Peter backs up into terror.   All of these moments combine to ramp up the tension, and carry us through the film's exciting climax.  There's even a sting-in-the-tail/tale involving the (scorched) Gunslinger as he gets up for one last kill.

It isn't so much that any of this workmanship represents revolutionary or trail-blazing filmmaking; it's merely that Crichton's approach is economical and adroit; efficient and well-done.  Without being show-offy, he almost universally finds the right shot for the right scene, and the result is that Westworld moves effortlessly from set-piece to set-piece with a bit of good visual grace to go alongside the film's subversive and extremely witty sense of humor.

"There are no rules..."

If Crichton proves deft as a film director, it's fair to make the same case for him as the film's screenwriter. 

Even though Westworld features a fairly straight-forward narrative that devolves into a last-act chase sequence, Crichton has nonetheless layered on social commentary in a way that proves both appealing and funny.  These touches earn the film a serious appraisal in terms of the genre and what it can accomplish.

Specifically, Westworld ponders the human race and its unlucky creation, the androids of Delos.  First let's consider the humans. 

These are creatures who pay an exorbitant fee to escape from reality into a more primitive, less comfortable past.   That fact alone says something about us, doesn't it?  Specifically, it says that we've built ourselves an uncomfortable modern world in which the only outlet or escape is a fantasy that looks to the past; to "less complicated" times.  Ironically, we romanticize that past and yearn for the "simplicity of it" instead of making the present more tolerable and liveable. 

As Star Trek's Mr. Spock would say...highly illogical.

In this more primitive past, the vacationing guests at Delos can indulge sexual and violent fantasy, all without feeling the slightest bit of guilt or remorse about the behavior because the target of these fantasies is a machine...and we don't consider machines to be life-forms. Again, this is a statement about us as a species.  We find killing...fun.  And we consider machines to be subservient; not our equals.

Intriguingly, Delos also makes it possible for people lacking in any real survival skills or abilities (like Dick Van Patten's character) to buff up their egos and feel like larger-than-life heroes.

Yet  those feelings of heroism and bravery stem from killing machines who are programmed to be slow on the draw; or by bedding female androids who are not entitled "to refuse a guest's seduction."  

In other words, it's a stacked deck. 

There's no danger here and no real adversity either.  And where there's no adversity, there's no growth and no learning.  Again, it's all just a game, a delusion to make a guest feel "special" when in fact the androids have no choice but to die on cue or submit to sexual advances.  As a species, we're easily fooled into believing we're pretty terrific, aren't we?

And that's where Peter (Benjamin) proves an interesting character.  He's a neurotic, insecure lawyer still hung up on his ex-wife (who took him to the cleaners during their divorce).  He's the stereotypical modern "sissy" man, and he feels "big" about himself for bedding an android, and for shooting down an android gunslinger.  

He thus mistakes the world of Delos for one that really matters. This error becomes plain to him when the androids malfunction and commit murder.  Suddenly, Peter is thrown into a situation that is all-too-real, and he must use his wits, imagination, constitution and other human gifts to survive the day.   His previous (and short-lived) confidence was based on a sham.

But at the end of the film, a battered, sweating, exhausted Peter realizes the truth.  That he survived something "real" and that it wasn't at all a game.  Rather, it was terrifying.  The last shot of the film is a close-shot of Peter recognizing human folly.  He recognizes his own folly (in treating the game like it mattered) and the Delos creator's folly: in believing that nothing here could ever possibly go wrong.

In terms of the androids, the film hints (and just barely so...) the idea that the machines are gaining an awareness of how badly they are being used by the human guests.  In Brynner's case, one gets the sense that the android is tired of losing to a sissy human who he knows he could beat in any fair fight.  The androids here are "sex models" and gunfighters, and every single day they have to die or put out so that men like Dick Van Patten or Richard Benjamin can feel better about themselves.  Men like the character played by James Brolin are not much better: macho thugs who see people simply as receptacles for their urges and appetites, both sexual and violent.

It's an unflattering portrait of modern man.

In this scenario, as in films like Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, audience loyalties become increasingly divided.  It's not right to enslave any creature, and yet nor do we wish to see humanity subjugated before an enemy.  Westworld offers a very interesting take on all this, and I agree with reviewer Zimmerman that the film would have been even better had it been R-rated; so that we could understand even better the plight of these machines who suddenly realize it isn't so pleasant to be cast as the villain (or the prize...) in another creature's fairy tale.

Finally, I just have to comment on Yul Brynner's famous performance.  He gives new meaning to the term "steely eyed," and brings an intense sense of physicality to the role of the android gunslinger.  He moves with a strange but purposeful carriage (even while riding a horse) and successfully evokes the feeling of something that is more than human.  Although his face rarely shows expression of any type, there is also something in Brynner's gait and stance that implicitly suggests an under-the-surface malevolence.  Even though he is an emotionless machine, he's clearly a bad ass.  

This is a really accomplished performance, and Brynner isn't just portraying a machine...he's portraying a machine with a (data?) chip on his shoulder.  He's a lot of fun to watch in this movie.

When I wrote Horror Films of the 1970s back in the years 1999-2000, I finished off a review of Westworld with the thought that "what man has forged to serve him will dominate him unless stopped, or conversely, treated with common decency."  Today that conclusion still seems apt.

Someone organize those androids at Delos a union...before it's too late.

10 comments:

  1. I ***love*** Westworld. It's one of my favorite films of all time. I even love the sequel, though the TV series is dire.

    --Rich Handley

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  2. Hi JKM;

    Another favorite from those cynical 70's. If memory serves from old issues of Starlog or Fangoria Ahnold based his own performance specifically on Brynner's Gunslinger, and the fact that Yul had stepped away from heroic roles to play a villain also figured into his decision to take the role (it's hard to believe that it was a tough decision at this late date, but so it was - in the interview I remember, conducted pre-release, Ahnold spends most of his time trying to justify taking the role!)

    I disagree somewhat on the rating issue; first, if it had been "R" I probably wouldn't have been able to see it in 1973! (Double-bill at the drive-in with Soylent Green, eat your heart out.) And this is a great movie for (certain types of)kids. Second, I'm of the "less is more" school of thought... I really doubt that extra heapings of 70's-style gore (tamer) and sex (hairier) would have added much, and, worse, would have distracted from the Disney-esque mode of Delos' vision of "olden-days" - gunfights were bloodless, fistfights were painless (the bar-fight scene is a bigger quibble for me - humans would have gotten very hurt since there's no way of telling humans from robots when you throw a punch or smash a chair), etc. The movie was made at a time when Gunsmoke was still a hit show and Wild Wild West, the Rifleman, and other westerns played constantly in syndication. There's a power to the scene when James Brolin's character is shot and he looks down to see actual, real, red blood - his expression, as I remember it, is disbelief and confusion.

    On the other hand, a sudden switch to R-level gore as Richard Benjamin runs through the ruins of Roman World past butchered patrons would have been quite a strong "horror" moment. Now that's something that's worth adding in with CGI. Get to work ILM!

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  3. SteveW12:39 PM

    I've been wanting to watch this one again with the kids. It's been years since I've seen it, and of course Yul was great--but I recall that the concept was almost too strong for the execution (i.e., the movie needed a bigger budget, better "human" leads, and a more skillful director). It does strike me as a great candidate for a remake. It's got such a juicy sci-fi premise that with a hotshot director, the remake could improve on the defects of the original and become a new classic (like Kaufman's "Body Snatchers" remake).

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  4. Wonderful examination of an early Michael Crichton film, John. Another of those wonders from the 70s decade. As well, I really admire it for the use of Yul Brynner and his Gunslinger character. His demeanor and body language really made this role iconic. This is saying something since it is clearly based upon his 'Chris' character from the legendary 1960 John Sturges film, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (itself a remake from Kurosawa's SEVEN SAMURAI). It's rare that someone can reprise a role so well and make it distinct. You can see each reference the other plainly, and without diminishing either. Great stuff.

    Wonderful look back at this, John. Thanks for this.

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  5. Again, another film that was very formative in both my love for sci-fi and a film that scared the crap out of me as a kid. (SPOILERS AHEAD)

    Many, many indelible memories...when Brolin is shot (and when you think about it, why were the androids given live ammo?), when Dick Van Patten (?) is killed in Medieval World and as you stated Bryner's seemingly relentless chase of Benjamin's character in the final portion of the film. I think this film pre-dated the "fake-out" grand finale (of Friday the 13th etc) when Yul pops up one last time after his acid bath.

    It has its flaws, as you've stated, but very similarly to the original "Stepford Wives" it was a film of its time that questioned what it means to be human or a creature created by humans.

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  6. You really hit this one out of the park, JKM! And also have me jonesin' to watch this film again.

    I can remember seeing this on TV as a kid and Yul Brynner's icy stare, devoid of any humanity really scaring the crap out of me... it's a primal image that has never left me and still gives me the heebie jeebies when I watch it.

    It also reminds me of the seemingly unkillable guy in A BOY AND HIS DOG.

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  7. Hi everybody,

    First, I want to apologize for taking so long to respond to your great comments on Westworld. It's been a busy week here in Muir-land, alas...I had time to moderate the comments, but not reply.

    Sorry about that.

    Rich: We share a love of Westworld, then, as well as POTA! I've been trying to get my hands on the TV episodes to see how dire Beyond Westworld really is. Am I a bludgeon for punishment?

    DLR: Okay, I'm officially green with envy. A double bill of Soylent Green and Westworld? I wish I could travel back in time for that. Incredibly awesome.

    I see what you mean about less possibly being more in this situation, in terms of sex and violence. And I agree with you that the strongest moment in Westworld might just be James Brolin's expression of disbelief as he is shot. This is supposed to be fun! WTF! -- perfect.

    I like that you mentioned those TV westerns too, because Westworld is definitely a pivot off of that "bloodless" world of television Westerns, as you insightfully note. That's something that viewers today might not really get.

    SteveW: I don't disagree with you about a remake, I think it could actually be pretty incredible under the right circumstances. We live in an even more violent society than we did in the 1970s, and we've seen all kinds of violence lately in the national discourse, between Arizona and other horrible things ("who's going to shoot the President', etc.). A new Westworld could be more explicit and possibly even more reactionary. I'm all for it with the right talent directing.

    Le0pad13: Your comment is just one reason I love you! That's a great comment n Brynner, and I must confess, I wasn't thinking of himin terms of that other famous role. But now that you bring it up...yeah. Man, that's another level to the film's dueling reflexive realities, in some sense.

    Indianhoop: I'm so glad you brought up Stepford Wives. Good insight. I was thinking about that movie while writing this review too. I kept thinking of historical context, and I kept wondering: what was in the water in the mid-1970s about human androids basically acting as sex slaves to wealthy men? What was the real life context that gave rise to that? Anybody know? I'm not sure; I never found anything. All I could think was that science fiction was clearly taking Disneyland to the next level; but why in 1973-1975? Any thoughts?

    J.D. Westworld definitely gets the blood running cold. I was more involved in the movie than I realized at the finale. At one point, Richard Benjamin bumbles into something (while hiding from Yul's infrared vision) and I actually jumped off the sofa a little bit at the jolt. The movie gets under your skin, and really works like gangbusters, I think. Crichton directs this film very, very capably in my estimation.

    Great comments on a classic!

    best,
    JKM

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  8. JKM....putting on my "history teacher hat" I'd say that the android/fembot craze of the mid 1970's probably was a counter-reaction to the women's liberation movement of the era. It was a pretty charged time (Roe v Wade, Title IX, ERA etc.) in the war of the sexes...and to a certain extent these films (Stepford Wives most definitely) reflected American males fear of the growing power/equality of the American woman.

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  9. Indianhoop: That's a very good point, I think, about the historical context. Thank you for putting on your teacher's hat...brilliant!

    best,
    JKM

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  10. Anonymous2:07 AM

    Don't forget this was the first film to have digital image processing. Crude by today's standards but someone had to be first.

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