Westworld (1973)

Star Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

With the success of HBO’s Westworld behind us, I was finally able to watch the film that started it all. Starring Yul Brynner, Richard Benjamin, and James Brolin Westworld is a campy, sci-fi film that focuses on the fear of the possible robot uprising in a theme park. Lacking the depth and complexity of HBO’s reimagining, Westworld is still  just as relevant today as it was 40 years ago. Directed by Michael Crichton, the film examines our relationship with machines and our fear of their sentience. How would that change our dynamic? Would they befriend us? Would they enslave us? Or, would they try and kill us?

The film follows two friends Peter and John as they experience the amusement park known as Delos. John has already been to the park once before, but Peter has not. Inside the amusement part are three separate worlds  that guests can experience; Westworld, Roman world, and Medieval world. Each park is filled with robots designed to recreate the time period it represents so that guests can experience those worlds as realistically as possible. Peter and John are visiting Westworld where they’ll be able to partake in a world similar to the old west, complete with saloon drinking, bar fights, shootouts, duels, brothels, bank robberies, and any other aspect of the old west a guest might want to experience. After Peter enters into a duel with a mysterious gunslinger robot and wins, the Delos technicians notice an increasing number of malfunctions from the robots in the other parks. These malfunctions spread through the robots like a disease, until all of the robots are detached from their Delos programming and begin to kill all of the guests. Peter and John then has to escape from the gunslinger, who has come back for revenge, and escape the park.

The hardest part about watching this film after seeing the HBO series is watching all of the things the film could have explored further that the show took the time to explore, with one difference. In the film the control room is a small room with computers all around with ancient CRT monitors and large tape decks and maybe 10 people. The series had a significantly larger room with more people and more advanced technology to control the robots and control the park. Of course, HBO has an extra 40 years of special effects advancements on its side, but they do a much better job of showing how deeply controlled the park is. The scenes in the control room in the film largely involve dialogue and staring at computer screens. Another thing the series emphasizes more is how the robots work. In the film the robots appear to be nothing more than fancy, advanced Disney animatronics where the series shows them as fully functioning artificially intelligent machines. The film does nothing to explore what consciousness looks like for one of the park’s robots. But, with 10 hour long episodes its a lot easier to explore the depth of a world than a film that is only an hour and a half long.

One thing the film does do a better job of is showing the other worlds within the park. Even if its just for a few scenes, Westworld features Roman world and Medieval world and what different guests could experience there. This was teased in the season finale, which makes the upcoming season very exciting. The fact that the first season chose to focus on only one of the many possible worlds, helped streamline the story and introduce the core concepts that the show would be dealing with. The multiple worlds in the film did not hinder the story at all, because the use of multiple worlds only served to build the world of the film in a different direction than the series.

Westworld was first and foremost a science fiction thriller about the fear of robots working outside of human control. It didn’t need to look at how the robots experienced the park or their rise to consciousness. The films focus was on humanities fear of a potential threat, and the film played with that fear perfectly. From the moment the two protagonists appear on screen the film (mostly) follows them as they experience the park. Most of what they experience is new for both the audience and Peter which makes him the perfect character for the audience to connect with. At first he expresses concern with how lifelike the robots are, but he quickly gives in to park and enjoys everything the park throws at him. When the robots do start to kill off the guests there is no explanation for how or why. This reflects how many people might not understand how machines work “under the hood,” but they know what those same machines could do if they go bad.

Compared to similar films, Westworld has a significant level of camp to it. The film deals with some pretty heavy subject matter, but with different focus than its current HBO counterpart. In spite of the level of fear this film maintains, the effects are fairly outdated by today’s standards, which reduces the seriousness of the events on screen. That being said, it’s not a bad film. Viewed within the context of time, the film stands on its own with some relevant themes and ideas that are just now appearing in our weekly news. It seems like every other week a different tech leader is warning about the impending rise of artificial intelligence, when the machines might overthrow us. Hopefully that will never happen, but if it does we have films like Westworld to prepare us. Especially if the robot is nothing more than a robot caricature of a character from The Magnificent Seven. 

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