The future is the wild, wild west in which advanced robots go rogue and threaten the guests of an exclusive amusement park.
Westworld posits the idea that people will pay lots of money to attend an “adult” theme park where they can kill with abandoned and have sex with robots masquerading as humans. No one can tell the difference. But what happens when the park breaks down? It’s a classic Sci-Fi Saturday premise explored by author Michael Crichton.
The trailer shows people from all walks of life on their way to Westworld. The voice over appears to come from a video being shown to them of the three areas they can visit: Roman World, Medieval World, or Westworld. The voice says it’s all for fun and no one can get hurt. But soon, characters are shot, or stabbed, or set on fire. It doesn’t look as safe as they advertise. Yul Brynner is listed as the star as an imposing gunfighter that looks like his Magnificent Seven role. Sounds like a recipe for disaster.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
Westworld opens with 16mm, news-style footage of a reporter talking to vacationers that are just returning from Delos, a new amusement park that features lifelike recreations of Roman, Medieval, or Western times. The tourists rave about Westworld, where you can shoot robots that look just like people, and one woman really thinks the men in Romanworld are the best attraction (wink, wink). In what is obviously a paid commercial endorsement, the reporter ends by saying, “Contact us today, or see your travel agent. Boy, have we got a vacation for you.”
On a hovercraft, a new batch of visitors are heading into the park, flying low over a southwestern-style desert. On the craft, a video plats briefing the visitors about each of the possible destinations. Either the lawless old west of the 1880s, the chivalry, romance and excitement of 13th Century Europe, or the “lusty treats” of ancient Pompeii. For Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin) it’s his first time, and he’s asking his friend John Blane (James Brolin) tons of questions, such as how can he tell the robots from the people, can he get injured by the guns, and what sort of gun belt can he get.
They arrive with the other guests, some departing for Westworld, and others departing for the other lands. They change into western garb and are taken into the park where it looks, smells, and feels just like the old west. While Peter and John experience the park, there are continuous scenes of the technicians behind-the-scenes working on computer monitors, and making sure everything is in tip-top shape for the guests. Another man from the hovercraft (Norman Bartold) has decided to go into Medieval World to seduce the queen and fight the black knight. At the bar in Westworld, a gunslinger (Yul Brynner), goads Peter into his first shootout, which he wins easily “killing” the man in black. The gunslinger is taken behind-the-scenes for repairs.
Peter and John then decide to check out Miss Carrie’s (Majel Barrett) bordello, where they each take an attractive woman upstairs. Each woman is lifelike, yet each a mechanical contraption. That evening as technicians collect the “dead” robots from the gunfights, they notice that there’s a number of central breakdowns happening. The Chief Supervisor (Alan Oppenheimer) can’t explain the uptick in glitches, and likens it to “an infectious disease process spreading from one resort area to the next.” Other supervisor’s find this “disease” talk preposterous. The Chief reminds the men that some of the robots were designed by computers and even they don’t know how they work.
After Peter is arrested for killing the gunslinger and John breaks him out of jail (killing the sheriff), the two become outlaws and head into the badlands. Another guest (Dick Van Patten) decides to become the sheriff to fulfill a fantasy. Out in the badlands a robotic snake bites John, which it should not have been able to do. The park supervisors decide not to close the park, but tell the public that Delos is full, and not admit new guests until they figure out the problem. The problems keep multiplying. Soon in Roman World the robots begin slaughtering the guests, while in Medieval World the guest is killed by the Black Knight, and in Westworld John is shot by the gunslinger. Peter runs for his life back into the desert.
He is pursued by the murderous, bald, gunslinger in black. The automaton kills a technician whose cart broke down in the sand. Peter runs past the borders of Westworld, through Roman World and into the access tunnels below the park. He finds dead technicians locked in a control room. He manages to splash acid on the gunslingers face to disrupt the robots visual systems. Then he emerges in Medieval World, hiding in the throne room under a burning torch where the gunslinger can’t see him. But when a sound gives him away, he sets the gunslinger on fire. Finding a female prisoner, he frees her and gives her some water. She short circuits–another robot! The gunslinger, burned and blackened leaps for him one last time before collapsing. The echoed voice of the newscaster from the opening plays as Peter sits, exhausted. “Boy, have we got a vacation for you.”
“Nothing can go wrong.” – P.A. Announcement
History in the Making
Among 20th science-fiction fiction writers, certain names are synonymous with filmed adaptations of their work. These names include Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, and Michael Crichton. Westworld established Crichton as a pioneer of sci-fi methodology, pushing the boundaries of established works. Unlike his previous adaptation The Andromeda Strain, Westworld was an original work written for the screen. It was also the first film that he himself directed. Its themes and stylistic elements would inspire many other similar and derivative films, including works by Crichton himself.
Like Colossus: The Forbin Project, Westworld advances the state of technology in sci-fi films. Instead of a super-computer that wants to complete its programming by preventing war, the technology in question here is robots built for entertainment. And like The Andromeda Strain, the safety protocols created to prevent harm to humans (which are foolproof, of course) fail in the most mundane and unforeseen ways. The technology that Crichton imagines would continue in multiple sequels and a reimagined version of the film, but also inspire a wide range of other sci-fi films in the 80s and beyond such as The Terminator and Crichton’s own Jurassic Park series.
On the surface, Westworld is a western. It has all the trappings of 1960s or 1970s wild west film or television production. The characters all wear period clothing, there was a “Grand Hotel,” a bar fight, characters being thrown through windows, and a character being thrown in jail. It was shot on an existing western street set on the Warner Brothers backlot, which added an air of authenticity. It had guns, deserts, and horses, but that is all supposed to be the facade, as right behind everything are white-suited technicians at computer terminals ordering lunch, and talking about their home lives. They even get Yul Brynner to play a version of his character from The Magnificent Seven, complete with black shirt and hat. After all here he’s the bad guy and needs to wear black. The film served as an early example of science-fiction masquerading behind the facade of something else. Think of it as a version of The Matrix, but instead of being oblivious, everyone knows what’s real and what’s fake–supposedly.
By 1973, computers had become a dangerous foe in genre films. From HAL in 2001, to the nearly sentient supercomputer Colossus in The Forbin Project, the machines man has invented have moved beyond our control. The humanoid robots of the Delos amusement park, look like humans except for their hands. “They haven’t perfected the hands yet,” says John. But other than that, their outsides are indistinguishable from humans. The audience is also told that the robots “are highly complicated pieces of equipment almost as complicated as living organisms. In some cases, they’ve been designed by other computers. We don’t know exactly how they work.” This endorsement doesn’t exactly instill confidence in the process, which is why when they go off the rails, it’s scarier for the audience. These murder bots created a new avenue for other filmmakers to delve into themes of technology gone awry. The fruits of these ideas can be seen in the Terminator characters in that franchise, the revamped Cylons of the 2004 Battlestar Galactica, the replicants of Blade Runner, Ava from Ex Machina, and the synthetic humanoids from the Alien films.
The main theme that the film raises is what is the benefit of having nearly perfect replications of humans? Of course, humans would choose to have the ability to “murder” them at will, and also use them as sex-bots. The characters being interviewed at the beginning of the film find some glee at the fact that they can gun down another “person.” The one interviewee recognizes, with some hesitation, that he knows the things he killed were robots–but they look so lifelike he’s unsure. Peter finds that sleeping with one of the female-bots is amazing! However, the film doesn’t really delve into the consequences of these actions. This was, of course, 1973. And, it was a 90 minute film that dealt with action over philosophy. The Westworld television series on HBO gets into these details, and many more, including what it means to be human.
Westworld also built on the 70s and 80s notion of evil corporations as the usually unseen antagonist. As previously seen in Silent Running and Soylent Green, future corporations were more concerned with profit than doing the right thing, at the detriment of some portion of the populace. To be fair, Delos Corporation is not wholly evil. They may have made some questionable decisions about the setup of their parks, but there appears to be no overt plan to create a murderworld. Certainly the supervisors sit around as a board of directors proxy debating the issues of the day, including whether to warn the guests about the possibilities of harm befalling them, and dismissing the fact that a computer virus sounds ludicrous. But there’s no CEO or corporate shill that is directing these decisions, as would be seen in films like Aliens. It seems more like middle-management making poor day-to-day decisions that compound with the deaths of many staff and guests.
The Science in The Fiction
The film gives glimpses of some very incredible scientific achievements. Of course, the most prevalent is the fact that robots were designed and built to look and act like humans (at least if you ignore the hands). In 1973 this wasn’t too far off. Walt Disney and his Imagineers had created some very lifelike animatronics at his amusement parks, including the Pirates of the Caribbean and Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln. Unfortunately those are not AI creations like the ones in the Delos park, but cleverly crafted puppets that run on a “script” and do not roam around freely. Even Disney’s newest Spider-Man flying robot is still nothing more than a good puppet. But as Ian Malcolm said in Jurassic Park, when the ride breaks down, “the pirates don’t eat the tourists.” It’s also revealed that these advanced synthetic humans were in some part also designed and built by computers and other machines. Meaning that humans had little to no involvement in the process. Currently we may use all sorts of simulations and computers to help design technology, but fortunately there’s no automated process in which murder-bots get created.
Another piece of prescient information that Crichton injected into the story that wasn’t a common phrase, as it is today, was the idea that computers could get a virus. At the time, computers were still massive machines that had very little memory for their size. They were not abundant in homes, let alone businesses. So the thought they could get “sick” seems pretty silly. But Crichton, whose ideas of nearly-there technology, foresaw the problems that the complex machines of Delos might experience in the future. Now it seems like a very normal sort of statement, but no one then could’ve guessed how right he was.
The Final Frontier
Anyone interested in further adventures of the Delos corporation after this film can check out the semi-sequel Futureworld, which only features a brief cameo by Yul Brynner, as the only returning cast member. Next came a 1980 television series, which only lasted 5 episodes called Beyond Westworld, about a mad scientist that wanted to use the robots (now called androids) for his own nefarious purposes outside of the park. It would then be 26 years until HBO decided to revive the franchise, again titled Westworld. The new series, which starts its third season on March 15, 2020, deals with suitably advanced, 21st Century lifelike robots that are so advanced that many don’t realize they are actually robots. Their memories have been implanted to make them, and the audience, believe they’re actually humans. The show deals with the nature of reality, what it means to be human, and human legacy. Having 10 hours per season to delve into the philosophical and introspective nature of humanity allows for much more detailed characterizations and depth. As a bonus easter egg in the first season, the Yul Brynner gunslinger was seen in the background of a scene that took place in a storage area.
Westworld’s debut provided an exciting advancement to sci-fi cinema as well as helping to cement Michael Crichton’s involvement in the genre. Surprisingly enough, Hollywood would adapt The Terminal Man in the following year, but the next adaptation of Crichton’s sci-fi work wouldn’t come until 1993 with Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. Crichton would create another story directly for the screen with 1978s Coma which is more of a hospital thriller. He would also go on to direct the adaptation of his non-sci-fi film, The Great Train Robbery and two other 80s sci-fi films, Looker and Runaway, which were original ideas he brought to the screen. The film’s influence continues to be felt today as scientists debate the ethical and technical limitations for creating artificial intelligence. And of course Hollywood continues to produce films and television shows that deal with A.I. gone amuck.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.