Reviewed Jun 21, 2012
Robert Cettl’s review:
The early 1970s were an intriguing and despairing time for American science fiction cinema. Increasingly, the genre films reacted to social problems with a bleak pessimism that mostly stressed the dystopic possibilities of the future. Overpopulation made an urban hell in Soylent Green and ZPG, chemical warfare made the world a nightmare in The Omega Man, large corporations controlled the global social order in Rollerball and the United States became an Orwellian state in THX 1138. The trend was ever more post-apocalyptic, as inevitably society was in a desperate state of collapse, even at war with the ancestors of humankind in the atheistic, Darwinist allegories of the Planet of the Apes cycle. With Michael Crichton’s directorial debut Westworld, technophobia re-entered the field of social criticism as the impetus behind the modern movement towards inevitable apocalypse. Crichton was an author whose previous work, The Andromeda Strain, had been made into a tense movie by director Robert Wise and whose novels were granting him major Hollywood attention as an “up and comer”. Crichton would make several more films as director (notably the popular Coma) but is best known today as the author of the books on which such films as Jurassic Park, The Thirteenth Warrior and Congo are based. Many critics justifiably found Westworld a most promising debut.
Westworld takes place in the near future. A holiday resort, Delos, is in operation giving vacationers the chance to live out their fantasies in self-enclosed theme parks populated by robots programmed to enact roles specific to the vacation environment. There is Westworld, an authentic western town where the guests can get into safe gunfights against robot gunslingers (and visit robot brothels), Romanworld and Medievalworld, similarly recreating the past using robots. Two vacationers (played by Richard Benjamin and James Brolin) go to Westworld, slipping into its routines, and amused by their repeat encounters with a particular gunslinger robot (Yul Brynner). Every night, the robot casualties are taken away for service and reprogramming, where the technicians have noticed an unusual amount of malfunctions, which some attribute to a form of computer virus. However, they let the theme parks continue to operate. A tourist in Medievalworld however discovers that the robot he is supposed to duel is far more intent than programmed to be, and Brolin is bitten by a robot snake: now the guests are being harmed. An order to close the parks does not work and soon the robots are rebelling against their human masters, and Brolin and Benjamin must face the single-minded determination of a silent, vengeful Brynner.
The future in this film is antiseptic and orderly and the holiday resort is intended as the fusion of technology and fantasy as a form of human entertainment, for those who can afford it. Robot technology is used to effectively make robots the servants of humans. However, these robots are mistreated, shot and beaten in the name of human leisure. The female robots are also sexual playthings to be toyed with and discarded at will. The first hint of rebellion comes with such a sex robot’s refusal to be seduced by a boorish male guest. The scene of the robot examination room resembles an emergency surgery room and it is clear that the robots represent a kind of modern slave underclass. Their malfunctions are thus the beginnings of a slave revolution – technology rebelling against its creators. Whilst this is a familiar theme in science fiction film and literature, paralleled in the contemporaneous Conquest of the Planet of the Apes it is here applied to a truly novel premise that makes for a fascinating generic hybrid of science fiction and western. It is a sombre and self-reflexive comment on the nature of escapist fantasy. The interactive fantasy is a frivolous form of genius that can only bring disaster. In its way, the film is a sober treatment of humanity’s need to control everything and yet cry out for a safe danger: cinematic fantasy is no longer enough – what is needed is interactivity.
In some ways, the scientists have fallen into a God-like trap, believing that they can control their creations at will: technological deification. Thus, the film sly builds sympathy for its robot slaves as it simultaneously exposes the arrogant indifference of humanity. The guests are essentially enlivened by the power they have over the robots, the superiority and lack of social constraint being the thrill. It is a harsh assessment of human nature as inherently domineering, seeking to control and order the will of others, and in need of personal validation through escapist fantasies. When these fantasies crumble, humanity is lost and the film becomes a one on one hunt as the robot gunslinger is determined to kill the surviving tourist at all costs: after all he is just carrying out his programming to an intense level, shorn of the imposed constraints of subservience. In that aspect, the relentless stalking robot is a forerunner of the likes of The Terminator, and Crichton would return to the theme or malfunctioning robots for his film of Runaway. Steven Spielberg’s version of Crichton’s Jurassic Park is similarly a version of the unusual theme park gone totally wary, its attractions suddenly no longer safe. For Crichton, it is evolutionarily inherent in any creation to rebel against its creator and seek its own destiny, however mechanized this process may render humanity and its achievements.