With HBO’s new series Westworld already proving itself to be a huge hit and the internet going into overdrive with the announcement of the long-awaited Red Dead Redemption 2 from Rockstar Games, it seems “virtual westerns” are very much a la mode right now. So what better time to look back to Michael Crichton’s original Westworld film as it becomes more and more seminal with each passing year and explore the nature of its profound influence on popular culture, and even how we experience it.
THE ANDROID IN BLACK
Released in 1973, Westworld was written and directed by novelist Michael Crichton after the success of the adaptation his novel, The Andromeda Strain, in 1971. Starring James Brolin (father of Josh), Richard Benjamin, and -most memorably- Yul Brenner, Westworld depicts a theme park that has faithfully recreated three iconic eras in history: Medieval World, Roman World, and West World. Brolin and Benjamin play the two leads taking a trip to West World and experience its joys and wonders before the android populace turn against their guests and Benjamin’s hapless noob becomes hunted by Yul Brenner’s menacing mannequin.
The whole “theme park goes into meltdown” thing became quite the calling card for the film’s director. Not only did he revisit it again in the 1976 sequel Futureworld but he even tried to bring West World back itself in a short-lived TV series in 1980. Of course, though, it was the 1993 adaptation of Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park that really resonated with audiences under the masterful hand of Steven Spielberg’s direction.
However, it’s not just malfunctioning machines and rampant raptors that Westworld proves to be the progenitor of. Yul Brenner’s murderous paranoid android is a clear prototype for James Cameron’s Terminator, even down to the POV shots as the robot scopes out his prey. Speaking of which, towards the end of the movie there is a scene where Brenner’s antagonist is forced to switch to infrared heat vision to track his victim; a precursor to a certain dreadlocked alien hunter’s methods a decade later, perhaps?
“DON’T BE TOO PROUD OF THIS TECHNOLOGICAL TERROR…”
While Westworld‘s influence on later works of sci-fi is obvious, one would struggle to claim it is a bonafide classic. After a smartly post-modern advertisement opening the film, Westworld really does struggle to build much in the way of tension with only Brenner’s brilliantly stoic performance providing any menace until everything goes to hell. Despite its brief running time, Crichton can’t manage more than a leaden pace in the opening two acts, which isn’t helped at all by a dated over-reliance on slow motion.
Looking back on the film now, it does feel very under-developed in its first hour. Yes, there’s some brief exposition as to how guests can’t shoot other guests (heat sensors on the pistols) and scientists, wearing their requisite white lab coats, puzzle over why their attractions are starting to play up without really giving any insight into it (something they seem to be addressing at great length in the HBO show).
However, this does go in some way to show how far ahead of its time Westworld was. The scientists theorize that the robots are contracting a “disease” that’s affecting their behavior (the term “computer virus” wouldn’t be coined for another 12 years) and while Crichton’s script is undoubtedly pulpy in its indulgence in western cliches, it’s incredible to think of how prophetic this plot mechanic was despite the hokey manner in which it is presented. It’s also the first film to use CGI by using “raster graphics” for Brenner’s POV shots, which makes it a significant landmark in filmmaking.
These influences and ideas are only skin deep, though, compared to the truly profound nature of Westworld.
GRAND THEFT AUTOMATON
You see, Westworld‘s most prophetic idea isn’t unstoppable killing machines or using computers to manipulate imagery, it is how we would seek to be more and more involved and immersed in entertainment. Its most profound concept is that it’s one of the earliest, if not the earliest, depiction of a “virtual world” being used for recreation in fiction, something that millions of us engage with on a daily basis in the 21st century.
Okay, so we’re not all packing our suitcases to go to a theme park with dubious safety measures to get vicarious thrills in an artificial environment but we are ostensibly engaging in the promise of West World via open world video games such as the Grand Theft Auto series and, most aptly, Red Dead Redemption. Indeed, in a month where virtual reality is attempting to go mainstream with Playstation VR, we’re edging ever closer to a concept proffered some 40 years ago.
It’s not just the idea of the virtual world either, Westworld also explores how we would behave in such an environment. In the opening commercial at the start of the film, a guest proudly proclaims how he shot 6 people before correcting himself by saying that “they weren’t really people… I think”. What Crichton’s film absolutely nails is that in an evocative environment free from real life consequences, we’re not just free from our routine lives but also from our very own morality and what an overwhelming and transformative elixir such a prospect would be for us (the experience costs $1,000 a day in the film and “worth every penny” according to its guests).
Admittedly, 1973’s Westworld doesn’t really anticipate how we would gamify and apply narrative to these worlds, which is something that the HBO’s show creators smartly seem very keen to get into, but the very idea of a world where we are the protagonist creating our own adventures and anarchy without the fear of real reprisals comes through loud and clear. And it is this that should put Westworld in the same bracket as William Gibson’s Neuromancer as an astonishing piece of prophetic fiction as to how we would be experiencing reality in modern times -or at least, in this case, the realities we choose to be in.