Science Fiction and Westerns have gone together for a long time now. It makes sense when you think about it. Exploring outer space is a journey to unknown territory filled with unknown dangers. The same thing happened when the pioneers started moving westward, only in sci-fi you don’t have to be a pest to the locals. Both adult and kids stories have used this connection as it’s a great source of action and drama. I grew up with Adventures Of The Galaxy Rangers, Saber Rider & The Star Sheriffs, Bravestarr, and The Wild West C.O.W.boys of Moo Mesa (though that last one was “sci-fi” in concept and weapons only). Even Japan has made that connection with works like Trigun. You can have fun with it, like Cowboys And Aliens or get serious with shows like Westworld, which brings us to tonight’s review.
Before it was a television series on HBO Westworld was a 1973 movie by Michael Crichton. While he’s known for having movies made from his books, most notably The Andromeda Strain and the original Jurassic Park (the sequel made just to make a sequel movie…that ignored the majority of the book so what was the point of making him do it?), this was an original-to-movies story that Crichton himself made his directorial debut on. The movie would go on to have a sequel called Futureworld (which I’m now adding to the Finally Watched list) and a TV series…not the HBO series that came later but Beyond Westworld, in which a mad scientist decides to use the robots in his world domination scheme…so little if any ties to the movie. I saw maybe one episode of HBO’s series during a preview week and by then the story had past me…also it was during a night of insomnia, so either way I didn’t get the best look at that show. I do know enough to feel confident in answering one question though. If you’re a fan of HBO’s series should you watch Crichton’s original movie?
On the one hand this trailer almost does the plot summary for me. On the other hand it also gives away like half the film. 1970s trailers.
RELEASE DATE: 1973 (my birth year)
RELEASED BY: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)
RUNTIME: 1 hour 28 minutes (closer to 2 hours TV time–I saw it on the Movies! channel)
RATING: PG (TV-14)
SCREENWRITER/DIRECTOR: Michael Crichton (Less than five names? No wonder movies are so expensive today.)
GROSS REVENUE: unfortunately IMDB doesn’t have that info; Wikipedia claims it hit $4 million in the original release and more in re-release
ESTIMATED BUDGET: $1,250,000
The Plot: Fresh off a divorce, John Blane (Brolin) is talked by his friend Peter Martin (Benjamin) to visiting Delos, an amusement park where you can live out fantasies in one of three worlds; Medieval World, Roman World, and Western World (also referred to as Westworld). John finally starts to loosen up and enjoy himself but something is wrong with the park’s systems and the machines are starting to ignore the protocols that make them respond to the guests’ fantasies…and keep them from killing the guests. When one cowboy robot (Brynner) seeks payback on John, he better run for his life.
Why did I want to see it?: Even before HBO announced the series this movie was in the back of my mind as something I wanted to see, not knowing they had made the CBS series. When the show came out I became even more curious as I wondered how much of the movie made it into the plot of the series…which turns out to be more than Beyond Westworld but based on summaries, reviews, and essays I’ve seen about HBO’s series there were a lot of differences, as I’ll get into later. Plus the concept does interest me on its own, a robo-theme park that goes crazy is also something we’ve seen in other stories as late as last season’s Transformers: Rescue Bots Academy. I don’t know if that’s where this plot first appeared but I was curious about how well it did it. Add to that the fact that this was Crichton’s directorial debut and one of the few stories made for the movies and not a book and it easily made the list.
What did I think?: Honestly I liked it. It’s not one of my new favorites but it’s certainly a good movie with some odd choices. That scene with the pilot’s glasses reflecting the ground as they fly over? Just as meaningless in the movie as it was in the trailer. I don’t know what the point was. It wasn’t even that great an effect really. Roman World is almost a non-entity in the film, barely even factoring into the climax, while we do watch one guest in Medieval World a few times Norman Bartold) as the park starts to break down. We’re told the breakdowns started in Roman World, there’s a brief chase in the climax through there, and it’s where we see a mass murder of guests and some of the androids go on an unexplained killing spree. Even the Black Knight, and of course the Gunslinger, have reasons for their murders based on the story they’re programmed to follow. We don’t see anything happening in Roman World. It could be to keep the PG rating but it’s almost useless. At least Medieval world factors into the climax and one other scene I’ll get to shortly.
There’s also a couple of other fun cameos. Majel Barrett plays the robo-owner of a saloon where John and Peter meet a pair of “painted ladies” and later have a barfight. She doesn’t do much on screen (though I bet Miss Carrie does more off-screen wink wink) but she does seem to get into her role. The show stealer among the supporting cast though has to be Dick Van Patten as one of the other guests at Western World. I kind of wish we got a spin-off movie about his bumbling misadventures. I kind of hope he survived.
On to the main cast. Oppenheimer plays the director of Delos, trying to get the growing malfunctions under control and failing to convince the board that the place needs to be shut down before a guest dies as the safety protocols are more and more ignored. Part of the fantasy is in the danger but the guest is supposed to win the day even if he or she decides to play the villain (John and Peter even get to be outlaws for a while) and when even that doesn’t happen within safe events it should be a red flag that something’s wrong. I like that he’s trying to save lives while the board at best only agrees to shut down for a month after the current guests leave to avoid as much negative press as they could, which is still more than you usually get in these kinds of stories. Personally, I think he should be listed among the movie’s stars because he does play an important role, though by necessity he doesn’t interact with the others, and does more in this movie than Brynner.
Don’t get me wrong though. When Brynner is on-screen, doing a variation of his character in The Magnificent Seven right down to the clothes they had him wearing (and apparently this was done on purpose as a nod), he does his job well. The Gunslinger exists so the guests can take down a bad guy but the malfunction causes him to seek revenge on John, and he become quite menacing in the final act. It was a good performance, which according to Wikipedia he only did because he needed the money. Credit for not phoning it in.
As for Brolin and Benjamin they play off each other well. Peter’s been here before so he serves as John’s (and ours) guide into Western World. John’s a bit more reluctant and coming off a bad time, so it’s naturally that he has to connect to this role playing and even then there’s a part of him that doesn’t quite commit as much as Peter does. Peter’s ready to embrace the role but John is still getting into the game and it works for the story as neither is annoying about it. I thought they did very well.
And now we get into the question of whether fans of the HBO series should watch the movie. Again, I’m going by one late season 3? episode and what I’ve heard about it online but there is a huge difference. For Crichton it’s a continuation of his recurring theme of not being ready for everything and that’s where it gets you. For Jurassic Park it was the mechanisms that were supposed to keep the animals in line both technical and natural failing and I hear from SF Debris’ review that The Andromeda Strain has a similar theme. In this case it’s the robots (not called Hosts like in the show) and the computer itself slowly becoming dangerous and ignoring the warning signs until it’s too late.
The HBO series I believe is more interested in the robots being so human that they become essentially human and turning on their masters, blamed on a virus in the movie. Not a computer virus since this is 1973 and the robots seem primarily analog with some computer control, but because the system has become so advanced even the workers aren’t completely sure how it works any more it’s more akin to some human virus, but it’s still only a theory. We’re not given a definite reason for the robots going crazy, unlike (again, from what little info I have) the CEO trying to create life or whatever reason Anthony Hopkins’ character had. We do see one incidence of that in the movie, when John rescues what he thinks is a prisoner only for her to short out when he gives her a drink of water. (I kind of wish this was foreshadowing to how John ultimately stops the Gunslinger but sadly it isn’t. Don’t get your hopes up.) Also, the only difference between the robot characters and the human guests are the hands, since apparently the hands, or more specifically the palms, are too hard to replicate properly. The movie and the show work on two equally valid themes regarding the plot. So if you’re so tied to the show’s theme that you really don’t care about the original theme the movie may not work for you, but if you are curious about that theme and the original concept it is worth a watch to see the inspiration for the show.
Was it worth the wait?: Pretty much yes. There’s surprisingly little dating of the film outside of the computers still using magnetic reels. The effects (not counting the glasses) for making the human actors look like robots was quite good, including the part where Yul Brynner’s face is removed in one scene and gets covered in acid in another. The acting is solid, and I guess being set in a theme park fantasy world does offset the effects, making good use of the budget and only occasionally reminding us this is all fake to see how the park is run as it slowly collapses. I recommend giving this movie a look unless you’re so invested in HBO’s version that you wouldn’t care for anything else. Now I just need to see the rest of this franchise.