This month’s classic film review is an analysis of the 1973 film Westworld, a notable first in movie history
Michael Crichton published his most influential early novel, The Andromeda Strain, in 1969 while he was still in his twenties. Pleasingly, when the novel was adapted into a film two years later, Crichton was given a tour of the set by a young Steven Spielberg, who was on his first day at work as a film director. (Spielberg, of course, would later direct the film adaptation of Crichton’s Jurassic Park.)
But as well as being a writer of popular novels which lent themselves readily to film adaptation, Crichton was himself a director – most famously of Westworld, the 1973 film about an amusement park that is a re-creation of the Wild West of the 1880s.
Westworld has a notable claim to fame: it was the first film to use CGI (or, more properly, digital image processing), which would become so crucial to later film adaptations of Crichton’s novels, such as Jurassic Park – another Crichton narrative about a theme park gone wrong.
Westworld, in summary, sees two male friends taking an expensive two-week ‘holiday’ in the amusement park of Westworld – i.e. Wild West or ‘Western’ world, because the park recreates the Wild West of American history (and myth).
There are two other amusement parks, Medievalworld and Romanworld, which we also see in the film, although Romanworld doesn’t figure largely in the plot. All three parks are inhabited by ‘robots’: androids which look exactly like real people, although their hands give them away as machines (the scientists haven’t managed to get the human hand right yet) as well as the other guests.
These two friends settle into the eerily authentic world of the Wild West, getting into bar fights and sleeping with prostitutes (also androids) in the local saloon of ill repute. One of them kills Yul Brynner in a shootout in the saloon – but Brynner is one of the androids, which is then taken away by the workers at Westworld to be reprogrammed and then put back into the park, ‘resurrected’ and ready for another gunfight.
But something’s not right, and these androids are starting to play up. The scientists who programme them don’t even fully understand their circuitry, since – as one of the boffins confides – the robotic extras were created in part by other machines, not by man himself.
You can guess how this will play out: our human holidaymakers will find they are the sworn enemies of the wayward robots, fighting for survival against seemingly indestructible machines.
But if Westworld prefigures Crichton’s 1990s novel – and Spielberg’s blockbuster adaptation – of reconstructed dinosaurs gone rogue, then it also foreshadows later films about robots, cyborgs, or androids that turn on their human creators, such as The Terminator (the subject of a literary film review a couple of months ago).
Indeed, when rumours that a remake of Westworld was in the offing, it was mooted that Arnold Schwarzenegger would be involved and that writers who worked on Terminator 3 would write the screenplay (this never happened).
It’s worth remembering that Michael Crichton lamented that the message of the film had been misinterpreted: most people saw the film as a warning against the dangers of technology, but the real warning was about the financial greed of the park’s owners: even when they suspect something is up with the androids and they may be putting their (high-paying) guests at risk, they hesitate to shut down the parks.
Nevertheless, there are clear similarities between Brynner’s Gunslinger and Schwarzenegger’s Terminator. At one point, after the robotic Yul Brynner has taken to pursuing one of the hapless guests at Westworld through the park, intent on shooting him dead, one of the panicked workers at Westworld warns the guest that if Brynner’s gunslinger character has set his heart on killing the guest, then he will do so: nothing can stop him.
This is a conversation we will see again in ‘robots gone rogue’ movies: Kyle Reese’s warning to Sarah Connor and the police in Cameron’s The Terminator springs to mind. (The final scenes of Westworld, not to give too much away, also share some similarities with Sarah Connor’s lone stand against the deadly T101 Terminator.)
Another way in which Westworld prefigures The Terminator is in its point-of-view: showing us the android’s perspective, what he (or ‘it’) sees. But rather than the red screen with coordinates we get in The Terminator, Yul Brynner’s character sees the world of Westworld in pixels.
And this is where the CGI in the film comes in. This detail made Westworld the first major motion picture film to use the then-new computer-generated imagery, although the graphics now look terribly dated, as you’d expect.
Still, it was a start – as it was also the start of the bestselling novelist Michael Crichton’s hugely successful partnership with Hollywood. Westworld is now a popular TV drama series, with better graphics although without Yul Brynner’s unsettling performance.