Westworld (1973)

You just have to love the premise of Westworld. Basically, it’s a Sci-Fi Western, done as a disaster movie, set inside a  very high class futuristic history themed amusement park/resort that is staffed by humanlike robots, and the catch is, on one fateful day the robot population suddenly springs out of control and start running amok, forcing the resort guests to fight for their very survival. If that synopsis sounds awfully familiar to  Jurassic Park, it’s no wonder because both stories were written (and in Westworld’s case, also directed) by the same person, a fellow called Michael Crichton.

Though very similar, there are still some notable differences  between the two properties. Where in Jurassic Park it was like visiting a really nifty version of a dinosaur zoo park, in Westworld the experience is far closer to that of a roleplay oriented amusement park, only far more immersive. The resorts depicted in Westworlds are luxury vacation spots where ‘going native’ within a chosen historical time period is the whole selling point. Always wanted to be a cowboy? Go to Western world, the main resort world featured within the movie, and have fun challenging people into fast draw duels on the Main Street. Not your cup of tea? Then how about giving a Medieval world a go by becoming a nobleman or a knight and jousting over the hand of a beautiful princess. If even that doesn’t suit your fancy, there’s still the option of visiting Roman world, where one can indulge on the decadence and luxury of the old Republic. And it doesn’t end there. Because the three resort worlds are all populated by robots who easily can pass for humans, you are provided the freedom to do as you wish within the resort grounds, enabling you to sample out all sorts of activities, such as murdering people in duels, participate in violent bar brawls, or have sex with beautiful woman sexbots with no real life consequences to worry about.

The sexbot part is especially great, if for no other reason than the fact that one contemporary review at the time of release of the picture described the act of having sexual congress with sexy robot ladies as (and I’m heavily paraphrasing here) “the ultimate form of masturbation” which, after having seen the movie, feels wholly appropriate. Speaking of sexbots, the more you start to think about the way women are treated and objectified in this movie, the more gross it gets. Especially when you remember that within the resort world there exists a specific ‘seduction’ feature for all the guests where they basically get to have hanky panky with any robot that they choose at any given time, if that is their wish. This, along with the notion that there really are no strong female characters in the entire story, really tells you a lot about the era of the movie was made in. Any woman  you see  can basically be divided into two groups, either she is a robot who is most likely there only to be lusted after, or she is a random superficial background character with no significant role in the plot. Ah, the good old days when women knew their place.

Once you can get past the certain level of inherent ickiness of the movie when it comes to gender roles, there’s actually plenty to like here. The central premise behind the resort world is very appealing, even by today’s perspective, and it’s a very silly, but fun Sci-Fi concept with a decent amount of intrigue to it. It’s basically a timeless adolescent power fantasy made real that, even as an adult, has unparalleled draw to it. The visual look of the film also looks very nice and doesn’t feel that outdated, which is a great achievement considering this was made over forty years ago. Even if the hardware is rooted on very outdated technology by today’s standards, there does still remain a vague sense of advanced kitsch technology that goes a long way to sell the futuristic world that they have created for the story. For example I quite liked how they depicted the visual input of the Gunslinger robot’s to the audience by having his vision consist of numerous small grids, that all joined together formed a larger image. It’s a very neat and simple way to depict his eyesight as a robot and the obvious weaknesses of it was exploited in clever way later on the story, when the hero protagonist has to defend himself against the Gunslinger’s relentless attacks.

The writing, while not particularly cerebral and high brow or especially gripping, for the most part was also good and got the job done well enough, the script offered some pretty serviceable Sci-Fi and neat ideas in it, which was a plus. They do a good job of establishing very early on that something is amiss in the park, by letting you know the resort has had increasing problems with the robots malfunctioning  for awhile now and the staff have clearly taken notice of it, but (this is where the writing does something particularly clever) as they are running a lucrative business, they feel compelled to postpone any major hardware overhaul and system analysis regarding the matter until they current visitors have all left, which of course ends up biting them in the ass almost immediately. That said, I still would have wanted to see the robots malfunction a little more in few subtle ways prior to the main chaos event. A girl sex-robot showing signs of free will by not agreeing to have sleazy relations with a human guest when he puts the moves on her and a random robot snake (this is one of the things where the script just got a bit too goofy) ignoring its programming and attacking a guest do on paper accomplish that, but it’s addressed so overtly by the technicians afterwards that you end up wishing they had not been so blatant about it. It would have been nice if, say, the movie had slowly built up the notion of something being a bit off about the robots in subtle ways before you reached point in the movie that reveals that the resort has been experiencing more and more frequent system errors.

Before I wrap this up, there are some nitpicks I’d like to cover. It’s rather odd and inconsistent the way the robocalypse unfolds in the story. The Roman world for example seems to descent into pure murder chaos immediately for no apparent reason once the robots break off from their programming, where as in Medieval world you only see a single guest die and only because he happened to be in the middle of a sword fight and the robot suddenly wasn’t holding back anymore. Meanwhile, in Westworld, the robot population seems to have just largely disappeared apart from Yul Brenner’s Gunslinger robot, and he seems to be still just following his old token bad guy programming, only now there are no safety protocols active preventing him from killing the guests. It’s a bit unevenly handled to a degree that you just can’t ignore, and you never get a proper sense of why the robots would revolt in such fashion in the first place. Are they suppose to be aware of the abuse that they experience each day, meaning they were out for revenge, or have they just gone completely berserk? It’s also a bit vexing how after the cataclysm begins, outside of one random encounter with a robot technician employed by the resort,  we don’t encounter any human survivors who would have survived the initial massacre and it’s kinda dull to see the resort worlds depicted entirely empty outside of the few dead bodies that are visible. There aren’t even any other rampaging robots. It is a bit eery, I’ll you grant you that when everything is empty, but I would have been better if there were some scenes where the protagonist would have to evade detection from other robots beyond Brynner’s homicidal Gunslinger character. I’m also well aware that the movie is called Westworld, but really, if you’re going to feature parallel resort worlds like Roman world and Medieval world, you could at least try to incorporate those worlds more into the narrative beyond few superficial glances to them. Now they just feel like something they threw in because it sounded cool, and serve very little purpose beyond that of a brief change in scenery.

All things considered, I can’t say I was disappointed with this movie. I had plenty of fun, it’s quite well made movie, Yul Brynner was simply superb as the relentless robot antagonist and the Sci-Fi elements were  quite entertaining. It certainly has made me hyped over the upcoming HBO TV adaptation that seems to promise to deliver a lot more complex and in-dept  take on the premise.

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