Vacation From Hell: Looking Back At The Original Westworld
The current incarnation of HBO’S Westworld series is now on the eve of its fourth episode and enjoying universal critical approval. Mixing thought-provoking science fiction with disturbing horror, the show poses a number of ethical and social questions about socialites rapid adoption and integration with technology. Where do we draw the line between artificial life and human life? Is it murder or infidelity if none of it is real? These are poignant questions in 2016 and the show could not have arrived at a better time to explore these themes. To get a better understanding of this new incarnation we here at Film in Dublin have decided to revisit the Cult 1973 original. Released incidentally only 2 days after the opening of Disney World Florida, Westworld posits a future where rich tourists can enjoy luxury vacations in a state of the art adult theme park, their every needs served by lifelike robots. The vacation becomes a nightmare when the androids start malfunctioning and killing the guests. 43 years after its release, this low budget SCI-FI now seems sharply relevant. It is a cautionary tale of man’s inability to see its own fallibility in the pursuit of innovation.
Michael Crichton makes an interesting choice by populating his film with truly unlikable characters. There is a distinct lack of heroes. The central protagonists played by James Brolin and Richard Benjamin display some truly despicable behavior. The casting is top notch. Brolin is perfect as the personification of American masculinity. He seems at home in the Western setting as if he has strolled in from the set of Bonanza. Benjamin is his opposite; his wire frame painting a picture of a weaker man that might not be evident in the writing. The script dispenses with back-story in an effort to move the pacing along, but this physicality really helps as shorthand. It is the third character, played with suitable legendary status by Yul Brenner that is the film’s highlight. Laying down the groundwork for both Michael Myers and the Terminator, Brenner as the unstoppable Gunslinger steals the limelight from the moment he walks into the saloon. Dressed head to toe in black he deliberately plays the inverse of the iconic Chris Adams from the Magnificent Seven. Brenner is simply terrifying. With only a handful of lines and the briefest of screen time, he manages to sell an entire arch with just a collection of subtle facial expressions. Watching Brenner’s Gunslinger slowly come to life is a delight. The more he kills, the more emotion creeps across his face. It is a truly memorizing performance.
Shot on a relatively meagre budget for the time of $1.25m it was the last film to be shot on the MGM backlog. Crichton felt that because most of the situations were Western clichés he would film them as such. The town scenes and in particular the bar fight mid-way feels like they could have been lifted from an episode of Rawhide. Both Roman world, and Medieval World have the feel of an Errol Flynn epic and the obvious sets, play into the artificial nature of the theme park. Once the chase elements of the third act kick in, the action moves out of the backlog and into the Mojave Desert. The shift in tone and the expansive cinematography strip the film of its artificiality and express the real danger the guests now finds himself in.
Crichton’s idea of playing on Western clichés continues with Fred Karin’s score. Mixing traditional western themes with electronic music, it starts suitable light and gradually allows SCI FI elements to seep in. By the time, the chase has moved into the labyrinth of hallways beneath the park, the western elements have all but gone and full electronic has taken over. Crichton employs the score at times disconnecting with the events on screen. The Prison break with its jaunty playful score contrasts with the Sheriff being gunned down in cold blood.
Westworld was Crichton’s theatrical debut. At first glance, there is something so traditional about the direction. It has the look of any cheap studio Western popular on television during the era but it is in the unremarkable direction that is easily the film’s masterstroke. Crichton stated that the story would never work as a book. People’s fantasies about Westerns did not come from books; they came from growing up watching John Wayne pictures. Choosing to shoot 2/3rds of his film in this familiar style feeds into the theme of artificiality. The guests have come to Westworld to act out a recreation of the authentic Wild West, of course it would resemble the television and movies they would have grown up on. This unremarkable style is slowly stripped back and once the third act kicks in POV’s and dolly shots are employed giving the film a more modern film-making feel. At several times throughout slow motion is used. As we mentioned earlier Westworld is distinct for its lack of Hero’s. The slow motion highlights the atrocious acts our “Heroes” commit gunning down people with little or no remorse.
The film is not without its flaws; the first two acts have a slow meandering pace and there are some logic questions that are best left unanswered. Despite this, the third act it is as taut and exciting as any modern blockbuster. The winding corridors of the underground complex provide the film’s tensest scene. The score is paired back to just the sound of the Gunslingers shoes echoing against the hard concrete floor. He seems so isolated and alone and is at this moment surrounded by his lifeless robot counterparts that he finally seems vulnerable. It is these flickers of humanity, in the films closing scenes that offer the greatest glimpses where the television show could go.
Frustrated by the audience misreading of the film and jaded by the film making process, Crichton put down his camera and stepped away from movie making for the next half a decade. He would return in 78/79 with the one two punch of Coma and the Great Train Robbery but his filmography would never reach the heights of Westworld again. He would of course revisit the world of malfunctioning theme parks with Jurassic Park. At a lean 85 minutes long, we only scratch at the morally grey areas the premise tantalizingly hints at. It will be interesting to see the direction Johnathon Nolan’s HBO show goes with these ideas.