Science fiction as a genre has always revolved around writers wrestling with cultural dilemmas, and few have been as compelling as robots. Are they going to obsolete humans? Is their dogged tenacity going to outstrip human potential? Are we going to be able to keep control? From horror tinged films like the chilling The Forbin Project to the more recent I, Robot to the apocryphal The Terminator series, robots are bad news for us humans.
Add a solid dose of conspiracy theory and distrust of the government, mix with the fertile science-based imagination of Michael Crichton, and you have the making of a fascinating movie about robots. That’s exactly what the 1973 thriller Westworld delivers with its dark view of humans and humanity.
Set in the future, Westworld is one of three entertainment areas that comprise Delos, an amusement park that’s like Disney World on steroids. Instead of people walking to passive entertainments, the audio-animatronic robots are autonomous, walk, talk and engage the visitors. As the movie poster luridly promised, it’s where “robot men and women are programmed to serve you for romance, violence… anything!”
And it’s no surprise that when safety is built around technological limitations, something ends up going horribly wrong…
While the main character in Westworld is the always likable everyman Richard Benjamin as just-divorced nerd Peter, it’s unquestionably Yul Brynner who steals the movie as the robot gunslinger. He’s unstoppable when he goes bad in a way that absolutely inspires comparison with Arnold Schwarzenegger two decades later as The Terminator.
Peter is visiting Delos for the first time with his handsome and free-wheeling buddy John (James Brolin), who keeps reminding him that it doesn’t matter if someone else is real or a ‘bot: “just have fun with it!” When Peter spends the night with ‘bot prostitute Arlette (Linda Gaye Scott) he suddenly understands the appeal and awakens with a big cat-that-ate-the-canary grin. Delos is a sensual experience like no other for those who seek the chance to interact with others free of the rules and restrictions of society.
Unfortunately, Peter has also upset the Gunslinger (Brynner), and while Peter outdraws him the first few times they interact, when the Gunslinger is freed up of its human-programmed inhibitions through an unknown programming bug and decides its goal is to pay Peter back, things get dark and thrilling.
The central conceit of Westworld is about the darker side of humanity and it asks the question: are we all just outlaws held in check by social conditioning and the veneer of society? In Crichton’s mind, we are, and there’s no compassion in the human interactions with ‘bots, but more alarmingly, even the question of whether the other players are humans or ‘bots becomes irrelevant.
That’s where the film is at its darkest, when Peter (Benjamin) simply relies on the built-in safety mechanisms (like the fact that the guns have heat sensors and won’t shoot at a warm body, only a cold robot figure) and lets his inhibitions go completely. The bar fight then becomes problematic because it’s clear no-one in the room, human or robot, cares about anyone else’s welfare. It’s just fun and if someone gets hurt? Well, that’s just part of the fun of a good old fashioned brawl.
There’s a group of 70’s sci-fi movies that are surprisingly deep and thoughtful upon rewatching, including Soylent Green, Logan’s Run, Rollerball, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Silent Running. The genre wrestled with the question of what is it to be human, and how can we laud ourselves for our collective compassion when we’re such monsters to each other too?
To be fair, there are also elements of Westworld that are dated and are more amusing than chilling, including the walls of flashing lights and slowly spinning mag tape reels that comprise the computer systems controlling Delos. Apparently half the techs also are stuck with screensavers since there’s not enough actual data to put on the clunky CRT screens. The cinematic style is also more leisurely than our more modern sci-fi movies, producing an uneven pacing that sometimes intrudes on the story.
But really, Westworld boils down to the thrilling chase sequence where Peter tries to avoid being killed by the unstoppable Gunslinger. It’s tight, solid cinema and makes up for some of the slower, anti-establishment rhetoric from earlier in the movie. It makes Westworld well worth going back and watching again.
Note: HBO has introduced a new series based on the movie also called “Westworld“. Episode one has aired and so far there are a lot of subtle nods to the film but it’s seeming like they’re going to really drag things out to get a series out of what amounts to a software glitch in the ‘bots. No Yul Brynner level threat yet, but we’ll see how it shapes up. In the meantime, the 1973 movie might just be required watching…