Released: 17 August 1973
Director: Michael Crichton
Budget: $1.2 million
Stars: Richard Benjamin, James Brolin, Yul Brynner, and Alan Oppenheimer
Following a messy divorce, Peter Martin (Benjamin) is treated to a much-needed vacation by his friend, John Blane (Brolin). The two journey to Westworld, a Wild West-themed amusement park populated by sophisticated androids, and indulge in a number of fantasies. However, when the machines begin to not just break down but go on a murderous rampage, the two find themselves fighting for their lives against the machines, in particular the aggressive Gunslinger (Brynner).
Many years before he came a household name thanks to Jurassic Park (Crichton, 1990), Michael Crichton had already achieved significant success as a writer and had even directed a television film. Wanting to break into the Hollywood mainstream, Critchton produced an original screenplay for his feature-film directorial debut. The result was Westworld, a film that was ahead of its time in many ways, being one of the first examples of a computer virus driving robots or machines into a murderous frenzy, and pioneered several unique filmmaking techniques despite the tight budget, rushed production schedule, and interference from the film studio.
Still, Westworld went on to become Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s biggest box office success of that year; it also received high praise at the time, particularly for its effects and Brynner’s chillingly menacing performance. A favourite of mine since childhood, and a clear precursor to science-fiction greats like The Terminator (Cameron, 1984), Westworld inspired both a critically-panned sequel in 1976, an obscure television series that ran for five episodes in 1980, and, after years of speculation regarding a modern-day reboot, an extremely well-received and award winning HBO series that is part-reboot, part-sequel. Considering today is the day that HAL 9000 first came into being in Arthur C. Clarke’s seminal work 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), this seems like a great opportunity to talk about other instances of A.I. and machinery gaining sentiency and running amok against their human masters.
Personally, I’ve never been a fan of Westerns; I often find them to be slow and dull and boring to look at as there’s a lot of arid locations and I’ve just never really connected with them. Westworld, though, cuts through that bias thanks in large part to its infusion of science-fiction elements. The film spends quite a bit of time selling us on its premise, which was obviously very new and unique at the time, literally opening with quite a long-winded, if amusing, sequence wherein spokesman Ed Wren (Robert Hogan) introduces the concept of Delos and their android-populated theme parks. He interviews a few random visitors to sell the unique concept of highly sophisticated and realistic robots offering a fully immersive experience and the confidence Delos has in the excitement, safety, customer satisfaction, and appeal of their theme parks
If you’ve seen any sci-fi film before, much of this will be easily absorbed but, while this opening scene may drag a little bit, it’s pretty effective at establishing that Delos is fully confident in their facilities and we’re soon introduced to our extremely likeable protagonists, Pete and John. Benjamin and Brolin are two immediately amiable guys who have good chemistry and believable banter together; John is the expert as he’s paid a thousand dollars a day to visit Westworld before but, as it’s his first time, Pete’s conveniently full of questions and scepticism.
Clearly the more highly strung of the two, it takes Pete a little while to acclimatise himself to the whole experience, which annoys and frustrates John who just wants him to relax and have a good time, but it’s a great way to sell Pete as an audience surrogate since it’s our first time, too, and he quickly becomes immersed in the unique experience Westworld has to offer. While listening to Delos’ introductory video package, we are sold the idea that Delos’ attractions offer a completely immersive, but completely safe, experience; they’ve “spared no expense” to recreate each World and ensure the visitors that “There are no rules” and that “Nothing can go wrong” on a continuous loop which…well, if that’s not a pretty glaring red flag then I don’t know what is!
Delos has gone to immense lengths to recreate the details of each World down to the smallest detail, offering visitors period-specific costumes, weapons, and accessories. Their machines are so lifelike that it is pretty much impossible to tell them apart from humans or other lifeforms except for their hands, which “haven’t been perfected [yet]”. Accordingly, they talk, act, and even bleed like a human, making the experience all the more realistic.
To mix things up a bit, the film continuously cuts away to the engineers and puppet masters behind each World, who toil in a hot, highly sophisticated bunker of sorts. Using massively complicated computers, they control and dictate the routines and activities in each World, including the machines. They clean up the dead bodies once night has fallen (conveniently there’s apparently not much of an external nightlife in Delos’ resorts), program infidelity into the Queen (Victoria Shaw), cause bar fights to happen, and pretty much have their fingers in every aspect of the resort from their elaborate control room.
Delos have, however been smart enough to program a safety feature into the revolvers of Westworld; they will only fire if the target has a low body temperature, ensuring guests don’t accidentally kill each other. How this works in the sword-based Medievalworld is not explained, however, and the virus that ends up spreading from machine to machine also ends up overriding this safety feature.
If there’s one negative to Westworld, however, it’s the pacing; being a product of the seventies, the film isn’t exactly action-packed from the get-go and it likes to take its time explaining or establishing its concept and its world and acclimatising the audience to the fiction it is presenting. This isn’t really a bad thing; it’s much faster than 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968) or Alien (Scott, 1979), for example, and it leads to some fun scenes like Pete’s liaison with a robot prostitute, a few looks at how Delos run their operation behind the scenes, and an extremely amusing and exciting bar fight where Pete and John lackadaisically sit and play cards until their game is ruined. Plus, once the robots start running amok and the film’s climactic chase kicks in, Westworld really steps up and becomes this incredibly tense and engaging quasi-horror film.
Delos’ Chief Supervisor (Oppenheimer) explains that their machines are so sophisticated that even the technicians don’t fully understand them; many of them are built by other machines and are so advanced that their internal mechanisms are something of a mystery. He is horrified when a robotic snake manages to injure John despite it (and, presumably, all the machines) being programmed not to cause physical harm to the guests. He suggests, to chagrin of his peers, that the machines could not only have a degree of autonomy outside of their control but also that a virus is spreading throughout the resort, affecting each machine in turn. These days, that’s a well-accepted concept but, here, it is met with ridicule and scorn and seen as a mysterious, unknown enemy threatening the safety and security of their facilities. Quite how it comes about isn’t explained and is somewhat irrelevant once the machines go crazy and start killing mercilessly until they eventual break/shut down.
Pete first runs afoul of the Gunslinger while choking down a whiskey at the local bar; dressed exactly like Chris Adams, his famous character from The Magnificent Seven (Sturges, 1960), Brynner delivers a cold, inhuman performance and speaks in blunt, antagonistic tones. Pete easily bests him in their first encounter, only for the machine to be fixed up and return to accost John later in the film. Again, Pete is able to put him down and the Delos scientists equip him with a few experimental upgrades to improve his performance. It surely breaks the immersion, somewhat, to have the same machines return to the resort after being “killed” and it’s left somewhat ambiguous whether the Gunslinger has been programmed to seek revenge or whether he is doing so of his own free will since, of all the machines, save the Black Knight (Michael Mikler), the Gunslinger is the only one to hold a grudge and specifically target a particular guest.
As a result, when the Gunslinger shows up after the machines have started running amok, he immediately confronts Pete and John once more rather than joining his fellow machines in their rampage. He guns down John in cold blood and a lengthy, intense chase scene takes up the majority of the film’s final act as the Gunslinger toys with Pete, chasing him across the resort and dragging out his kill while Pete stumbles across the dead bodies of other guests and the inert forms of the machines.
This is where Brynner’s performance really shines; he exudes a stoic, fittingly-machine-like demeanour that clearly set the standard for performances in the Terminator movies (Various, 1984 to 2019). Relentless and persistent, the Gunslinger pursues Pete on horseback or at a measured, leisurely pace; terrified out of his mind, Pete is unable to compose himself enough to get a clean shot at the Gunslinger and is forced to turn to more practical means, such as tossing caustic acid in his face and finally setting him on fire. Seeing Brynner’s features melt and his human façade break away to reveal his gruesome metallic insides is a truly chilling moment and when the Gunslinger finally collapses in a smouldering heap of sparks and fire, it’s easy to feel the same sense of grief, relief, and shock that Benjamin’s expression and body language display.
As mentioned, the Gunslinger isn’t the only mechanical menace in this film; one of the other guests (Norman Bartold) sets himself up as a Lord of the castle in Medievalworld and, as a result, is forced into a duel with the Black Knight. From what we see of the Delos technicians, this is a pretty standard storyline for Medievalworld as they program the fight to always go in favour of the guest and look forward to watching it go down. This time, however, the Black Knight lands a killing blow and the Chief Supervisor immediately orders all the machines to be shut down. By this point, however, it’s too late; the virus has progressed so far that not only are the machines beyond the control of the technicians but they are locked in their bunker as all the doors as magnetically sealed. As a result, for their hubris they are left to slowly suffocate and die, powerless to save themselves or the guests from the robot rampage occurring across the resort.
The idea of a themed resort where guests can indulge their every whim and which is populated by advanced robots is extremely unique and interesting and Westworld does just enough with the concept to sell you on the potential and scope of this world appearing, at first, to be little more than sci-fi buddy comedy/action film of sorts and then descending into a horrifying tale of man versus machine for its incredibly tense finale. Many of Westworld’s concepts have since been perfected elsewhere or improved upon by numerous other films, videogames, books, comic books, and television shows but none of that dilutes the impact that Westworld still makes thanks to the unique way it presents these elements. The idea of a computer virus making machines go nuts might have been new and somewhat awkward to convey at the time but the film does a masterful job of showcasing it without really having to delve into the exact specifics of how and why it occurs; it’s a mystery, one that quickly escalates to become so dangerous and deadly that the only thing that matters is surviving rather than trying to figure out the how and the why of it all.
Even better is the fact that the film’s effects are obviously all achieved through practical methods; while they would obviously be perfected over the years, it’s still admirable to see the lengths Crichton went to render the machines’ thermal vision through early digital effects and the horrifying, skull-like, almost alien inner workings of the machines once the Gunslinger’s face is dislodged. Punctuating the film’s simple but effective cinematography and presentation is a pretty engaging soundtrack; from a suitably Western theme to a highly effective, pseudo-synthetic score that really sells the tension and desperation of the film’s big chase scene, Fred Karlin’s fantastic score is always used to great effect to sell whatever’s happening onscreen and, for me, really helps to keep Westworld as appealing today as it was when I first saw it all those years ago as a kid.
Have you ever seen Westworld? What did you think of it and how do you feel it holds up today? Perhaps you’re more a fan of the recent television show; if so, what are some of your favourite moments? How are you celebrating the birth of HAL 9000 today? Whatever you think about Westworld, or if you have other examples of A.I. going rogue, feel free to drop a comment below.