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Review: Westworld (1973)

Westworld (1973)

Directed by: Michael Crichton

Premise: Set in the near future, adult tourists visit a theme park that recreates an American frontier town and is populated entirely by lifelike robots. A malfunction sends the park into havoc and an animatronic gunslinger begins shooting the tourists.

What Works: Most people know Michael Crichton as the author of science fiction novels like The Andromeda Strain, Congo, and Jurassic Park. But Crichton also had a hand in filmmaking and he wrote and directed several films throughout the 1970s and 80s. His first directorial feature was 1973’s Westworld and the movie possesses many of the themes that frequented Crichton’s literary work while including some satirical elements. In many respects the movie was ahead of its time. The film begins with a mock television commercial for Delos, an amusement park where adults can go to history-themed “worlds” and immerse themselves in a simulation of the Roman Empire, life in a medieval castle, or an American frontier town. This opening commercial spot would not be out of place in Saturday Night Live or The Daily Show and the opening sets up the tone of the picture. The movie follows the paradigm later repurposed for Jurassic Park in which the resort is overly automated and when the system crashes the lives of tourists and park employees are put in jeopardy. For a movie of 1973 there is a lot in Westworld that was cutting edge at the time and much of this film remains provocative and relevant for the contemporary audience. Like an adult Disneyland, the attractions of Westworld create a simulacrum of history and the film is about the crumbling difference between reality and fantasy. Although it isn’t commented upon overtly, these historical scenarios don’t really reconstruct the reality of history. Rather, they are a commercial confection of reality informed at least as much (if not more) by television and movies than by the work of historians and they are intended as adult playgrounds for guests to act out lascivious fantasies. In that respect, Westworld prefigures Eli Roth’s Hostel as much as it does Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park and it introduces an interesting ethical question: if we do something horrible to a robot, is it still immoral? In the age of first person shooter videogames this remains a relevant question. The fantasy of Westworld sets up a dramatic situation in which desire and technology intersect and of Michael Crichton’s many technological cautionary tales this remains one of his most interesting pieces.

What Doesn’t: The story of Westworld is a slow burn but it’s a little too slow. The breakdown does not occur until the last third of the picture but it’s fairly obvious where this is going so the audience tends to be ahead of the movie. The payoff is satisfactory but the film is a bit long getting there. The bagginess of the first two thirds of the picture is partly due to the clumsy and incomplete way in which the themes are established. Westworld has a lot of overlap with Jurassic Park both in the overall concept and in its specific themes like the power of science reduced to a commodity and the instability of complex systems. Jurassic Park wasn’t exactly a philosophical exegesis but in that movie the exposition was presented with some energy and flair. The exposition of Westword tends to be heavy and it does not take full advantage of the implications of its story world. The first portion of Westworld also sags because of the underdeveloped relationship between the lead characters played by James Brolin and Richard Benjamin. These two guys don’t have much of a rapport and it’s unclear if they are lifelong friends or if they just met on the shuttle to the resort. Of the two, Benjamin’s performance suffers and is often flat in moments that ought to be more dramatic.

DVD extras: Featurette, trailer, and the pilot for the Beyond Westworld TV show.

Bottom Line: The action of Westworld is somewhat pedestrian but the thrills are more than compensated by the vibrant ideas of this picture. Westworld remains a provocative piece because of the questions it raises about reality and what it suggests about the ethics of our entertainment.

Episode: #547 (June 21, 2015)