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Stark Reviews: Westworld (1973)

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Stark says: Boy have we got a vacation for you! Where nothing can possibly go worng!

Let’s see now, we’ve done cowboys and dinosaurs, cowboys and Joan Crawford, cowboys and foxes…. What’s missing? Oh yeah, COWBOYS vs ROBOTS, otherwise known as Westworld.

Now, because Hollywood can’t leave any damn thing alone ever,* Westworld is being currently being re-booted into a TV series, starring Anthony Hopkins and Evan Rachel Wood. I’ll keep my pistol in my holster until I’ve actually seen it, but in the meantime, let’s cast a beady eye over the original.

Westworld was written and directed by novelist, MD and general over-achiever Michael Crichton, he of The Andromeda Strain fame. This was his directorial debut, and apparently, he wasn’t keen on making a science fiction film, but that’s the only thing any studio would trust him with. Maybe that’s why he turned out a hybrid instead; part body horror, part pastiche, part sci-fi, part cautionary tale, and a whole lotta Western.

The Good

Westworld doesn’t seem like such a big deal on the surface. It’s enjoyable; one of those films you might call good, but not great. It doesn’t tend to show up much on lists of ground-breaking or seminal films. But look a bit closer and it becomes a join-the-dots of influences; a crossroads film that pulls together the conventions of genre that had – for the moment – passed its heyday, with a genre that was just about to burst into full bloom. 

Once you start looking, it isn’t hard to trace the threads. Throughout, Westworld tips knowing winks to the Western. Some are subtle, like the way John Blane watches the desert roll by from inside a hovercraft. Others are more obvious, like the fact that the Gunslinger’s costume is exactly the same one Yul Brynner wore for his role in The Magnificent Seven. It’s this collision of genres that gives the film its power, yet also results in the strange fact that Westworld’s legacy is far stronger than the film itself.

Take the character of the Gunslinger, for example: an implacable android who sloughs off human control yet still works as programmed, hunting down an individual with chilling precision. Sound familiar? Well it should. Westworld was the first feature film to make use of digital image processing to achieve the Gunslinger’s pixelated sight; a technique that would go on to be utilised in Terminator (1984).

Similarly, Crichton re-used the idea of a collapsing amusement park – as a metaphor for humanity’s misplaced superiority over science – in Jurassic Park (1990). And anyone who knows their Simpsons will recognise the inspiration for both the Itchy & Scratchy Land episode “where nothing can possibly go wrong”, and ‘The Boy Who Knew too Much’, where Principal Skinner hunts Bart across town, Gunslinger / Terminator-style: “Oh my God! He’s like some sort of non-giving-up school guy!” 

It’s hardly surprising that Westworld spawned such jubilant pastiches, since we get the feeling that Crichton himself took a childlike glee in coupling science fiction with the most Western-y of Western features. Westworld has everything you might expect: jail-breaks, a saloon brawl, prostitutes, gun-fights, whiskey and tin baths. Blane soon settles in with his best cheroot-chewing, Man-with-no-name impression, while Peter Martin finds it more difficult, saying that he feels silly. “It’s not a joke, it’s an amusement park”, Blane tells him. 

Westworld is supposed to be just that; a Disney Land, simultaneously clichéd and sanitised. No one dies in the fights or shoot-outs. They’re collected in the dead of night by silent workers, repaired in labs and released again to serve their purpose. The Gunslinger’s purpose is, of course, to provide a frisson of danger and to massage the guests’ egos by losing quick-draw contests. Yul Brynner’s only real lines in the film – apart from “Draw” – read like they’ve been pulled straight out of a penny Western:

“Sloppy with your drink? Get this boy a bib. He needs his mama.” 

Of course, Martin wins the ensuing gun-fight easily, and though he has misgivings, he and Blane quickly embrace libertarianism, doing whatever they want with impunity. But Westworld is a seductive illusion. Like so many real-life frontier towns before, it cannot prevent its own slide towards entropy and destruction, reflecting the chaos theory that ultimately spells disaster for the carefully programmed world of Delos.

The Bad

Yul Brynner is just so great in this film, he shows up most of the other actors, especially the technicians, who are a bit clunky. But then, MGM didn’t give Crichton any say over casting, so we can’t blame him too much.

Some of the scenes lack subtlety; there are a few hefty info-dumps that could’ve been woven into the dialogue better. And on a several occasions I felt like I was being beaten over the head with the metaphors, like after Martin and Blane’s encounter with the robot prostitutes. “How was it? Wasn’t it terrific? Boy, machines are the servants of man!” 

The pacing too, is a little off-kilter. We spend a lot of time with Blane and Martin, getting up to high-jinks in Westworld (the barroom brawl does look like ridiculous fun), and in comparison, the last third of the film feels rushed. Everything seems to go completely to shit in about a minute. As a result, the Gunslinger’s end, after an epic chase across the desert and through the resort’s underground tunnels, is a bit of an anti-climax.

The Ugly

While some of Westworld’s metaphors might be a bit… blunt, they do work well in the context of the film. For example, Delos’ worlds – Roman World, Medieval World and Westworld – are highly romanticized settings that allow guests to revel in base instincts. All three feature moral turpitude, relaxed laws and fights-to-the-death; concepts that stand in stark contrast to the highly advanced technology that makes Delos possible.

In fact, the juxtaposition of instinct and technology is one Crichton exploits at every turn. The Gunslinger’s sophisticated tracking system is useless when Martin hides his tracks by the age-old trick of riding through water. Never one to miss an opportunity, Crichton takes this contrast to its extreme, and has Martin survive – SPOILER! – through a combination of instinct and natural elements; fire and water turn out to be the key to survival over a technologically-advanced being that is otherwise unstoppable.

In a last bald, but potent, visual metaphor, we see the Gunslinger reduced to an empty face beneath a cowboy hat. His costume is all that remains. Coupled with Martin’s less-than-triumphant victory, the costume serves to recall Yul Brynner’s character Chris Adams in The Magnificent Seven and his final lines: “We lost. We always lose.”

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*Incidentally, the Hollywood churn-mill are also re-making The Magnificent Seven, due in September 2016. It must be let’s-remake-everything-with-Yul-Brynner-season.

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