Friday, September 30, 2016

TV Series Trailer: Westworld (2016; HBO)

Beyond Westworld: "The Takeover"

In "The Takeover," Dr. Quaid (James Wainright) tests a new chip that can be installed in the human brain, and make people obey his orders.

He tests this new device on a Los Angeles police officer, Captain Nicholson (Monte Markham), and uses his new servant to get close to California's governor, Eric Harper (Robert Alda), who is up for re-election and may one day run for President of the United States.

John Moore (Jim McMullan) and Pam Williams (Connie Sellecca) investigate, and most stop the assassination of Harper at a televised debate in Los Angeles.

The final episode of Beyond Westworld (1980) attempts to change things up a bit, at least before walking that change back. 

This week, a robot neuro-surgeon, played by Star Trek's (1966-1969) George Takei, installs a tiny chip into a human being, making that human a kind of brainwashed agent for Quaid.  Nicholson has no awareness that he is being controlled, or acting strangely, right up until the last minute.

This plot device opens up a lot of possibilities. 

Now, John and Pam have to worry not merely about robots, but humans who have seen their will dominated by Quaid because of the implant  Obviously, there are much more overt moral questions involved in killing a human being, than deactivating a robot.

But by the end of the episode, Quaid decides the tiny implant is a failure and to abandon it, thus bringing viewers right back to square one, and the perennial concept of evil lookalike robots.

I do confess at being a bit baffled by this episode's conclusion.

In the episode's finale, Governor Harper is shot in the head (on live TV, at the debate...) and is revealed to be a robot. 

So, Quaid sent a controlled human (Nicholson), to kill one of his own robots, one who was already the governor of California, and primed to become a presidential candidate?

All to test the implant?

That seems...ridiculous. I would have kept the governor in place, and let him become President, still acting as my agent. 

Still, it is interesting to note that when this episode was made, another former governor of California was also making a run for the highest office of the land: Ronald Reagan.  I wonder if he was a robot too...

Going further down the rabbit hole of this episode's narrative, what does it mean to the citizenry of California, and the United States, to see a sitting governor shot on TV and outed as a robot, for all to see?  

Does all the citizenry know about the Delos robots and their escape form Westworld?  It seems like, if not, this would be a huge media incident.

California Governor shot on stage! Revealed to be Delos Robot! More at 11:00!

But again, Beyond Westworld can't be bothered to explore deeply a single interesting concept.  This episode, instead, is an excuse to play cops and robbers.  Moore goes undercover (again), as a police officer.

Despite all the flaws in "Takeover," I did really get a kick out of the cast. This episode features Monte Markham, George Takei, Hari Rhodes, Robert Alda and Martin Kove. It's a veritable "who's who" of second-string 1970s TV actors.

As noted above, "Takeover" is the final episode of Beyond Westworld, and it showcases, perfectly, why the series failed to catch on. The narratives were monumentally uninteresting, and really good story ideas and concepts were poorly handled, or ignored all together.  

We can only hope the new Westworld (2016) series is a big improvement.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Beyond Westworld: "The Lion" (Unaired)

In "The Lion," John Moore (Jim McMullan) is rooting for his friends at Lionstar Motors to succeed in an important test drive of an experimental new car with a "gasahol" engine  The so-called Lion could thus revolutionize travel. 

Unfortunately, there is a terrible (apparent) accident during the test drive, and driver Corey Burns (Michael Cole) is injured, and left paralyzed, much to the chagrin of his future wife and the heir to the Lionstar Company (Christine Belford).

Enraged by the injuries to his friends, John investigates and learns that Quaid's (James Wainright) robots are somehow involved at Lionstar Motors.  

Apparently, Quaid controls several oil rich countries in the Middle East, and now wants to control a fuel-efficient car too.

When Corey gets back in the car to drive the Lion, the robots plan to finish him off. 

But John Moore drives defensively to save his friend...

The first of the two unaired Beyond Westworld is just as terrible as one might expect, given the quality of the episodes that were broadcast in 1980. 

Once more we have an utterly ridiculous premise that finds Quaid thinking small time instead of big time, attempting to influence the outcome of a test car race.  Again, this is a man who can build exact robot duplicates of heads of state, airline pilots, celebrities, and so forth.  Imagine the havoc he could wreak on a global stage.

Instead, this is a repeat of  "My Brother's Keeper," wherein he tries to control a company or corporation.

The episode reaches ridiculous eights after one character reveals in a briefing that Quaid is already in control of several small countries in the Middle East, controlling their oil.  Now that sounds like a big deal to me; a much bigger deal than a family-owned car company and its struggles with a special fuel efficient engine. I would have loved to seen an episode involving that premise.

And indeed, it seems like John and Pam (Connie Sellecca) might want to devote their time to helping those foreign countries fight back against Quaid, rather than worrying about Lionstar's attempt to bring the experimental engine market.

Another ridiculous moment comes later. We watch as Quaid performs surgery on a robot. He installs the robot's programming on a mini-cassette.  So yes, the Westworld robots all run on 1980s mini cassette tapes. Pretty amazing.

Or pretty analog.

Fans of cult-TV will be intrigued to note that Russell Johnson -- the Professor on Gilligan's Island (1964-1967) plays Quaid's new flunkie in "The Lion, replacing the character played by Severn Darden in early installments. Also the great Michael Pataki is here, in a nothing role.

Finally, I don't like being one-sided in my reviews, so I should add that "The Lion" features one very entertaining scene.  

Specifically, Quaid wishes to meet with John, and arranges a rendezvous in a trailer.  There, he implores John to join him.  "Imagine what we could accomplish together," he implores.

John refuses to team with him, and Quaid -- actually in a different location -- detonates an explosive at John's location. That means that he isn't really talking to Quaide at all, but a robot duplicate.

The series really, really needed more surprises like this one. 

Next up, tomorrow, the final episode of Beyond Westworld: "The Takeover."

Beyond Westworld: "Sound of Terror" (March 19, 1980)

In the final aired episode of Beyond Westworld, "Sound of Terror," Quaid (James Wainright) uses his robots to steal two canisters of uranium and build a nuclear bomb. 

He intends to give the weapon to a North African warlord, so he can become president of his country. Then, that country will be able to offer safe haven to Quaid.

John Moore (Jim McMullan), and Pam (Connie Sellecca) trace the stolen uranium back to a nuclear power plant where a famous pop music act, Power and Ruth, performed recently at an anti-nuke protest.  They fear that one of Quaid's robots has infiltrated the act.

Moore goes undercover with Power and Ruth's band, pretending to be their new PR agent, while secretly trying to determine who might be the robot in hiding.  

Pam and Moore discover that Power (Rene Auberjonois) and his wife, Ruth (Ronee Blakeley) are estranged. He desires more fame, fortune, and fans.  She wants a home and children.

The robot is outed as a member of a band, and John must destroy the machine -- who has become a living bomb -- while the band's plane is in flight.

The third episode of Beyond Westworld focuses on a key issue of 1980: nuclear power, and anti-nuke demonstrations. Here, Quaid uses protesters to steal nuclear materials, essentially using their own agenda of peace against them.  

Also, the whole "Power and Ruth" act seems like a fictional corollary for the then-popular act, The Captain and Tenille.

Once more in "Sound of Terror," a totally unmotivated close-up reveals the identity of one robot, early on, and is then followed almost immediately the by-now familiar robot P.O.V. shot. 

I call this approach anti-suspense.  The editing and shot choice telegraph the identity of the robot, so no one will be too surprised, I suppose. I guess the series had to be family friendly, so that the robots wouldn't really scare people.  

But as a consequence, these episodes are not compelling at all.

Later in "Sound of Terror," another robot is unearthed, wearing heart-shaped sun-glasses, a fashion choice which sort of undercuts his menace. 

And the scene in which Moore opens a plane door while it is in the air is also undercut by the explosive decompression effects.  The robot sort of slow-walks out the plane door....backwards.


Intriguingly, the robot grabs Moore's boot on the way out, and falls out of the plane in a great stunt that clearly forecasts a similar one in The Living Daylights (1987).  There again, a boot was involved ("he got the boot...).

Again, I just want to point out that this could have been a much more powerful story with just a few tweaks.  

What if Ruth was actually the robot?  What if her drive to be a mother, and have a home...was programmed?  What if she discovered she was a machine, incapable of being a mother?  What if the only thing she could give life was the nuclear device in her chest?

That would have been an affecting, amazing story. 

But instead we get this dull story, another runaround that ends with lame fisticuffs and another robot easily destroyed.  

The fourth story, coming up, is the first unaired tale of the series: "The Lion." Stay tuned.

Beyond Westworld: "My Brother's Keeper" (March 12, 1980)

In the second episode of the short-lived sci-fi series Beyond Westworld, titled "My Brother's Keeper," mad scientist Simon Quaid (James Wainright) attempts to use his humanoid robots to gain control of the Stoner family empire, which includes oil interests, and the management of a professional football team.

Quaid's point of entrance into the Stoner family fortune is Dean Stoner (Jeff Cooper), a loser and gambler who owes 200,000 dollars to debtors. 

Quaid plans to buy off Dean's debt, and then when Dean's brother Nick (Christopher Connelly) is murdered by a robot, assume control over the estate himself, per a signed contract with Dean.

Working for Delos, John Moore (Jim McMullan) teams with a new partner, special agent Pamela Williams (Connie Sellecca) to stop Quaid's plan.

They discover, together, that the killer robot is a team quarterback. The robot will throw a football at Nick, using robotic strength, and make the murder look like nothing more than an unfortunate accident.

Meanwhile, to help succeed in his scheme, Quaid has produced a robot duplicate of Pam...

Connie Sellecca joins the cast of Beyond Westworld this week, replacing Judith Chapman as the series' female lead.  

Personally, I liked Chapman's character better, simply because Dr. Garry has a grounding in science, rather than "security" or "espionage" (like Pam), and that gave her some nice differences with Moore. We already have a dashing person of action.  It seems undramatic to match him with another.

In terms of the series, "My Brother's Keeper" begins to cement the formula established by the pilot episode, "Westworld Destroyed." 

Specifically, we now understand as viewers that we will be able to detect the identity of the robot through unmotivated close-ups of seemingly unimportant or insignificant characters.  

And similarly, we will get a shot of the robot's point of view, just to make certain we don't miss the fact that he or she is, actually a machine.

Why is this approach a poor one? 

Well, it eliminates suspense. 

These episodes, produced by Fred Freiberger, would be much more effective if we wondered about the identity of the robot right to the end instead of being told the identity via the unmotivated close-up and ensuing robo-POV. 

Also, the robots tend to be peripheral characters in the series, not ones who really motivate the action  in a meaningful way It would be amazing to be introduced to a character as a major player in the drama (say, like Nick or Dean here), only to find that they are a robot...and don't yet realize it.

But Beyond Westworld simply isn't that crafty, or suspenseful. It doesn't really seem interested in the potential of the premise -- lookalike robot infiltrators in humanity's affairs -- just surface action.

This episode also cements the standard visual clue (appearing at story climax) that a robot has been rendered inoperative. His or her eyes go white, or blank when it is deactivated. Here, the robot quarterback gets electrocuted, and his eyes go white.

A big question here involves Quaid and his approach. He told Jim and Laura in the first episode that he possesses an "impregnable" army of loyal robots.  

If this is the case, why mess with the penny ante  plot like the one explored in this episode? Why not just make a robot replacement of Dean? Why all the elaborate plotting to kill Nick, buy Dean's debt, and assume control of the family business?

The biggest problem, perhaps, with Beyond Westworld at this point is that it is crushingly uninteresting. The lead characters are cardboard, the evil genius's plans don't make much sense, and the stories so far generate no sense of tension or suspense. 

That only leaves action, frankly, to appreciate.  And the action scenes on the series thus far have been anemic.

Next episode: "Sound of Terror."

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Beyond Westworld: "Westworld Destroyed" (March 5, 1980)

Beyond Westworld (1980) -- a nearly-forgotten TV series that was broadcast a mere three times on CBS (though five episodes were produced) -- has long held a reputation for being absolutely dreadful.

I always chalked this reputation off to two important facts.  

The first fact is that newspapers and other periodicals tend to review the first episode of a series only, and don't typically revisit a series as it grows (and hopefully improves).  

Exhibit A: Star Trek drew terrible reviews from Variety and other mainstream periodicals (including TV Guide), on its premiere.

We all know how that turned out.  

I'm certain those critics wish they had been given the opportunity to update or modify their original harsh reviews. Today, their reviews look silly.

Secondly, circa 1980, science fiction was still generally considered by mainstream critics to be cheesy kid's stuff, unworthy of serious attention or study.

What this means is that there was little chance that critics of the day would like a series called Beyond Westworld in 1980, even if it had the name Rod Serling attached (which it does not). 

Even if it had the name William Shakespeare attached, actually. 

So going in to Beyond Westworld, I was hopeful. Perhaps I would unearth a lost, underappreciated treasure.

After actually watching the pilot episode, "Westworld Destroyed," however, I can understand, at least, why critics hated this series.  

In fact, I would be hard-pressed to name a worse introductory episode or a sci-fi TV series.  

My hope at this point is that the later episodes are better. I'm keeping an open mind, as I post reviews over the rest of the week.

The concept behind Beyond Westworld -- that lookalike robots are infiltrating important positions in 20th century society, at the behest of a misguided "creator," Dr. Simon Quaid (James Wainright) -- isn't bad in and of itself.  In a way, the remade Battlestar Galactica (2003-2008) adopts this premise closely.

Rather, at least in terms of this episode of Beyond Westworld, the story is incoherently executed. The story jumps from place to place, location to location, with seemingly little reason, and the result feels like visual whiplash.

But first, a synopsis of "Westworld Destroyed," or as Quaid calls it, "the final chapter of Westworld."

Dr. Laura Garry (Judith Chapman), an employee at Delos Corporation, summons security expert John Moore (Jim McMullan) by helicopter to the company's skyscraper.  

She has bad news: Westworld -- a futuristic amusement park run by Delos -- has been destroyed ostensibly by the creator of the humanoid robots that populate it, Dr. Simon Quaid (Jame Wainright).  
Worse, Quaid has replaced a human crewman aboard a U.S. nuclear submarine, the Remora, with a robot duplicate.  That duplicate is preparing to launch a devastating nuclear attack against Delos.

Now John must identify the robot, and stop Quaid's plans.

First off, no Westworlds are actually destroyed in this episode.  The title is odd, considering that the series' lead characters actually visit Westworld, and leave it intact before the hour is over.

As you may be able to tell from the synopsis, Beyond Westworld feels more like an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man (1973-1978) or The Bionic Woman (1976-1978) than it does a legitimate follow-up to the 1973 film from writer/director Michael Crichton.

How so? An attractive young profession is assigned a mission to track down and dispose of fembots -- er, robots -- in different settings each week.  For "Westworld Destroyed," the setting is a nuclear submarine.

Of course, most Six Million Dollar Man and Bionic Woman episodes are coherent. You have an idea how and why characters move from point A to point B, and what their goals are in that movement. 

Beyond Westworld's first installment doesn't achieve that level of competence.

Some of the things the story seems to leave out: how exactly and when did Quaid make his exact duplicate of the agent?  How did he get him aboard the sub? Wouldn't security be pretty tight?

Secondly, how is John able to get aboard the sub at sea so easily, several times in the episode?

Early on, we see a helicopter lowering John aboard aboard the sub, of course, but there is another interlude on the same sub later, and there's simply a scene change, with no indication that Jim has had to travel some distance, or take some time, to get to the submarine.  Both he and Laura seem to come and go to from the sub (which is always moving...) with no fuss at all. 

"Westworld Destroyed" also features a largely pointless return to Westworld. 

There, a gunfighter (Alex Kubik) -- a pale imitation of the iconic Yul Brynner character -- is activated by Quaid in an attempt to murder John and Laura.  John takes him out almost instantly, a fact that weakens the very premise of the series.  In the movie, the character was virtually indestructible. He was, essentially, the Terminator of his day, and of the 1970s.

Now, the robot is offed instantly by a mid-level security specialist, and that's rather underwhelming. 

Also, why does Laura tell John that Westworld is destroyed in their first scene together, and then take him to Westworld, which seems unharmed.

I won't go so far as to ask why there is a poster for Westworld (1973) in Laura's office, one featuring the faces of Benjamin's and Brolin's characters.  Aren't these real character, in this franchise?  Another poster for the film shows up later in the series, in "Sound of Terror."

Beyond Westworld also doesn't deal well with nuance. Quaid is intent on taking over the world with robots because he feels that the world's values are "obscene."  He sees the robots as a corrective, and is supposed to be the TV program's villain. 

Yet we also see, at Delos, an example of a female robot -- Jan -- who has been designed to survive cave collapses, and can therefore rescue trapped miners.

So Delos is already working on a way to integrate robots into daily life, which is only a degree removed from Quaid's plan.  It seems like Quaid and Delos want the same thing, to improve daily life with robots. Yet they are pitted against each other.

Some of the visuals of "Westworld Destroyed" don't hold up to scrutiny well, either.  For instance, when the robot is outed on the nuclear submarine, he gets sprayed with foam from a fire extinguisher. A close-up shot shows us the robotic face, with what looks like shaving cream, or worse -- cream pie -- all over it.  The shot gets giggles, not chills.

There are reports on the Internet that the original pilot for this series was two hours long, and if so, that may explain why this hour seems so slapdash and sub-par.  There is no connective tissue between scenes, no establishing of characters, and no real build-up of drama.  The hour just races from scene to scene with no apparent rhyme, reason, or logic.

It's also extremely interesting that Delos -- the villain of the features films -- has been transformed into the savior of humanity on the series.  I guess we should just think of it as the OSI.

Tomorrow, I'll move to episode two: "My Brother's Keeper."

Advert Artwork: Beyond Westworld (TV Guide Edition)

Pop Art: Westworld (American Cinematographer and Crazy Editions)

Pop Art: Westworld and Futureworld (Famous Monsters Edition)

Pop Art: Futureworld (Ballantine Novel Edition)

Advert Artwork: Westworld Print Advertisement

Theme Song of the Week: Beyond Westworld (1980)

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Films of 1976; Futureworld

A key character in Futureworld (1975) informs another character that the problem at Delos -- the amusement park of the future -- is "the memory" of the nightmarish events that occurred in Western World, or for viewer purposes, the harrowing events of the great sci-fi movie Westworld (1973).

The very same problem might be ascribed to this less-than-satisfactory cinematic sequel directed by Richard T. Heffron and starring Peter Fonda and Blythe Danner.  In short, it just doesn't live up to the original, action-packed experience of Westworld.

Though it is rewarding and ambitious that this AIP, Samuel Z. Arkoff sequel heads off into new story territory rather than aping the formula or plot-line of the previous film, Futureworld still suffers dramatically from a lack of forward momentum, and a slow-moving, obvious narrative. 

In short, it takes this movie roughly 83 minutes to get to the plot point that audiences have already reached much sooner, and that is that the robots at Delos have taken over the park, and are producing robot duplicates of world leaders and opinion makers.  

Today the amusement park...tomorrow the world.

Since the two lead actors in the film are playing ace newspaper and TV reporters, you'd expect them to put two and two together a lot sooner than they actually do.   But no, they can't even detect a robot close-up, face-to-face in the Delos mission control room. 

Not exactly Woodward and Bernstein, this Browning (Fonda) and Ballard (Danner).

Worse, Futureworld spends an inordinate amount of the film's running time in the underground bowels of Delos, apparently really the Intercontinental Airport in Huston.  Whatever the precise location, it looks like an endless, over sized boiler room, and after a while all the scenes set there look interchangeable and play as deadly dull.

"In Futureworld, nothing can go wrong..."

Some time after the violent events at Western World, the Delos board of directors holds a briefing to announce the re-launch of the $1,200-a-day amusement park. 

The company has committed 1.5 billion dollars to replace the malfunctioning equipment, and executives claim that the new Delos is "fail safe."

International Media Corporation sends reporter Chuck Browning (Peter Fonda)  to investigate the new Delos.  Browning is eager to take the assignment because an informant just recently contacted him about a "big" story at the park and then was found murdered, with news-clippings clutched in his hand. 

Tracy Ballard (Blythe Danner) a TV newswoman with an audience of fifty-five million viewers is none-too-pleased that Browning will be tagging along at Delos, but she and Chuck quickly develop a flirtatious and competitive relationship.

Once at Delos, the reporters visit "Futureworld," a new theme park to go alongside Roman World, Medieval World, and the now-defunct Western World.   After their arrival, the reporters board a rocket simulation, visit a space station, spar with robot boxers, and otherwise enjoy the space age sights and sounds of the luxury resort.  A Delos executive named Duffy (Arthur Hill) escorts the duo on a tour of the Delos facility, and Chuck sneaks off to see if he can discover the truth behind the smooth-running facade.

What Chuck and Tracy soon learn with the help of an employee named Harry (Stuart Margolin) and his android buddy, Clark, is that Delos has been producing duplicates of all the big-wig, high-roller visitors, from Russian generals to Iranian oil magnates.   Ballard and Browning themselves are to be duplicated by the robots, who believe that "the human being is a very unstable, irrational, violent animal" and that mankind will destroy the Earth "before the end of the decade."

Before escaping Delos, Tracy must face down a robot double of herself in the abandoned Westworld, while Chuck battles his own malevolent doppelganger in Futureworld.

"Once you make it with a robot, you don't want anyone else..."

All movies are a reflection of their cultural context, and Futureworld is no exception. 

Coming soon after the Watergate scandal and Nixon's resignation, this movie headlines  two "hero journalists" -- again, think Woodward and Bernstein -- as they uncover a far-reaching conspiracy and essentially save the world as we know it.  In other words, this movie comes from an age in which we had respected journalists (not "lame-stream" media), and believed that these truth-seekers could successfully stand-up to City Hall. 

The other cultural or historical context at work here is one that a blog reader Indianhoop insightfully suggested to me in a comment on my original review of Westworld way back in 2011.  I had asked the question "why were the mid-1970s obsessed with robots who could have sex, and duplicate other human functions

In particular, I was thinking of movies such as Westworld, Futureworld, The Stepford Wives and TV characters such as The Bionic Woman's fembots.  Indianhoop suggested that the women's rights issues and battles of the 1970s (Roe v. Wade, Title IX, the ERA, etc.) were at the crux of the issue, and I believe Indianhoop is correct. In the mid-1970s, women were stepping out of so-called "traditional roles" and countenancing more economic and reproductive freedom than in any decade before.  The reaction by men -- if genre movies are any guidepost -- seemed to be downright fear. 

Without women to lord it over, I guess, human robots were considered next in line for domestic servitude. After all, machines follow orders, don't step outside of their programming, and can fake orgasms least if Stepford Wives is any indication.

Ironically, one fact that so dramatically undercuts Futureworld is the writing of the lead female character, Tracy Ballard.  This is a  dedicated woman who has risen to the top of her profession (think Barbara Walters in the 1970s) and who commands a vast worldwide audience.  And yet Ballard spends most of the film as an arm ornament for Peter Fonda, alternately poo-pooing his theories or screaming in terror.  Ballard initiates no investigation on her own, and shows not the slightest bit of interest or curiosity in learning the truth about Delos.

Lois Lane, she ain't. 

Despite what was going on in America at the time, what we really have in the Tracy Ballard character is a good old fashioned damsel-in-distress, dressed up in disco-decade, women's lib clothing.   Ultimately, she's kind of laughable, and almost wholly incidental to the narrative.

That's not Futureworld's only letdown either.  Late in the film, robot duplicates of Chuck and Tracy are produced, and sent out to hunt down "the originals."  All throughout the film, the robots of Delos have been portrayed as unemotional creatures who obey orders and programming, but have no overt "human" countenance. 

Well, wouldn't you know it, Fonda and Danner both play these robot duplicates as devilish, sinister characters, who seem to take tremendous, sadistic pleasure in destroying their human prototypes. 

Why are these robots -- all of the sudden -- out-and-out evil?  Aren't they just fulfilling their programming?  Even when The Gunslinger went on a rampage in Westworld, he wasn't cackling with malevolent glee.  That's what made him scary: he was an implacable foe with a neutral countenance.  We were able to project our human fears upon his relatively blank visage, but he was no two-dimensional mustache-twirler.

Another major scene in Futureworld is simply baffling.  Duffy escorts Ballard to a "dream chamber" where she can go to sleep and Browning can watch her dreams unfold on a video monitor that resembles Spock's library computer on Star Trek.  

Almost immediately, Ballard dreams of the Gunslinger (Yul Brynner) from Westworld, but not as a terrifying predator or foe, but rather as a "fantasy lover."

In the dream, the Gunslinger appears out of nowhere and rescues Ballard from doctors in red-jumpsuits who are pursuing her.  The Gunslinger shoots them down, and then lassos Ballard in slow-motion...and beds her.

So, why is Tracy Ballard -- TV newswoman extraordinaire -- dreaming of the Delos Gunslinger as a fantasy lover?  Not a single word in the screenplay indicates she even has specific knowledge of the rogue robot cowboy.  But assuming she did have such knowledge, why would Ballard's dreaming mind spontaneously turn the murderous Gunslinger into a fantasy sex partner?

Maybe I'm being obtuse, but I just don't get it.

I know that my wife thinks Yul Brynner is hot, but come on.  Would you dream of bedding a  mass murderer?  And a robotic one at that? This entire, incongruous scene feels like an excuse to shoehorn Brynner into the proceedings.  It's a bizarre and confusing interlude, and has nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the film.   The moment wherein Brynner lassos Danner with an animated pink lasso is just...well, embarrassing.  It's great to see Brynner back in his iconic role, looking as fit and menacing as ever, but his presence adds nothing to the movie.

I've read various reviews of this film over the years indicating that there is "high tension" here, but I certainly didn't feel that way.  Unlike Westworld, which moved with drive, humor and purpose, Futureworld meanders  around for about an hour-and-a-half minutes, then spends the last fifteen minutes tying up loose ends.  There's almost no real tension, since Delos employees allow Browning and Ballard to look around, and the 400 robot series is programmed to ignore visitors in their midst.

I also find it unfortunate that Futureworld wastes so much time in the bowels of the amusement park rather than exploring the Futureworld setting.  This is a place of "space safaris," holographic chess (presaging Star Wars by two years...) and skiing on the "ice slopes of Mars."  Wouldn't you rather see some of that, instead of endless boiler rooms?

But the trenchant point here concerns fantasy...and the fantasy experienceWestworld was about living in a fantasy world of violence and sex, and discovering it isn't such a fantasy after all.  The film didn't hammer you over the head with that theme.  Rather, it had a nice, droll sense of humor about the whole thing.

Futureworld ignores this idea (and the sense of humor) entirely in favor of its very dry conspiracy about lookalike robots...and boiler rooms.

Or as Tracy Ballard declares at one point in this interminable movie, walking through  yet another industrial-looking chamber, "This is about as exciting as a visit to the waterworks."

Yep.  This movie went to Futureworld and all the audience gets is a dumb T-shirt.

Movie Trailer: Futureworld (1976)

The Films of 1973: Westworld

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

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  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.

Movie Trailer: Westworld (1973)

Monday, September 26, 2016

Ask JKM a Question: The Westworld franchise?

A regular reader, Chuck, writes:

"I do not know if this is an “Ask JKM” subject, so much as a general request but here goes---With the new (and perhaps over-hyped) HBO series Westworld set to start this October, I was wondering if you had any plans to discuss the films on which the series is based, Westworld (1973) and/or Futureworld (1976)

Personally, I have not watched either film before, but I want to make it a priority before the series premier on October 2(?).

Anyway, if you have given any thought to the matter—please do. I always enjoy watching (or re-watching) a movie or episode, and then reading your review of the same.

Chuck, that's a great question, and it has inspired me to spend this week looking back at the Westworld franchise, which includes the original film, the follow-up you named, Futureworld, and the short-lived 1980 series: Beyond Westworld.

Your sense of the timing of this is right.  

With the franchise destined to return next week on HBO, it seems an appropriate juncture to remember the history of Westworld.  

Look tomorrow for my Westworld review, and then follow-up posts about the franchise throughout the week. I plan to review every episode of the old TV series (there are just five) and post some views of merchandise/collectibles from the 1970s.

Don't forget to ask me your questions at

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