Film Review: Westworld (1973)

Michael Crichton has never encountered a piece of technology that didn’t scare the crap out of him, to such a degree that he reminds me a lot of H.P. Lovecraft.

H. P. Lovecraft’s work, for all it’s strengths, reminds me of an agoraphobe who went outside at night, looked up to see a sky full of stars, and tried to put into words how and why that scares the everloving crap out of him through horror fiction. Westworld, in the same way, feels like Crichton, as a techno-phobe, went to Disneyland, was scared out of his mind by the park at a conceptual level, and channeled that fear into a work of fiction.

(You could take the same framework and replace Disneyland with “The San Diego Zoo”, and you’d have Jurassic Park).

Now, the current HBO TV series has things to say – about how we depict the world in our fiction, about who we are and how that relates to how we pretend to be, about corporate ethics, and about artificial intelligence and what it means to be human. This film doesn’t have anything like that to say. We get close to that on a few points, related to a brief subplot in Medieval World with one of the guests wanting to bed the queen, and staff being forced to adjust the story on the fly to reflect his wishes – along with some implications on what’s going down in Roman World, which we never really see on camera.

That said, this film isn’t bad. In particular, Yul Brenner’s performance as the Gunslinger is great, and as he goes from a conventional western antagonist to a slasher movie villain with a gun, Brenner brings a great sense of menace to the role. Brenner’s background in western film also adds a lot to the role. He fits in wonderfully in the environment of the western, constantly providing a sense of legitimate menace, causing us to become accustomed to it so even though we know he’ll become a legitimate threat, we’ve become at ease with his menace until the point comes where what was the status quo is now very much real. Indeed, how the Gunslinger is portrayed here by Crichton and Brenner lends a lot to how James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger would go on to portray The Terminator in the 1980s.

The mundanity of how the park works behind the scenes almost works – until the point where things go wrong. At that point Crichton technophobia steps to the fore, and you start running into situations where Crichton clearly knows about things like the Maintenance tunnels underneath Disneyland that keep everything running quietly, but not how the tunnels work. For example, we have things like the doors staying locked, and ventilation going off line when the power is disengaged, and an inability to turn the power back on the same way you turned the power off. For a writer who is applauded on their research, this is a tremendous oversight, and one which doesn’t necessarily interfere with the fundamental conflict of the film, with the robots going murderous.

I’m glad that I saw this film, if only to see just how impressively the current HBO series has built off of the concepts here, and has told a better story than Crichton did, and arguably, than Crichton could.