Westworld (dir. Michael Crichton, 1973)
“She can not love you. You are neither flesh nor blood. You are not a dog or a cat or a canary. You were designed and built specific like the rest of us. And you are alone now only because they tired of you or replaced you with a younger model or were displeased with something you said or broke.” – Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) laying it out for the Haley Joel Bot in A. I.
So I had a friend in high school who always got excellent Christmas presents. He had the kind of parents who didn’t mind dropping a ton of money on gifts. You know this person right? You come back to school with a new pair of shoes, maybe a couple sweaters. He comes back in a shark skin jacket with an endangered panda cub under each arm. Anyway, one year this friend off-handedly mentioned that it would be hilarious to get a Robosapien. Robosapien, by the way, was this super chintzy robot toy that you might see on display at the front of a JC Penny’s. And of course when Christmas rolled around, along with the movie rights to a bestselling book, an ivory refrigerator, and an Inverted Jenny, he got a Robosapien. Unfortunately, the toy was even less fun than we’d hoped. It was supposed to be a robot with “attitude” (which basically meant it could make fart noises). It also knew a couple of Kung-fu moves, would respond to “touch simuli” (the name of my second soft core porn), and for certain songs it would “dance” (move it’s arms and bend it’s knees). The only slightly “helpful” thing we taught Robosapien to do was pick up a match and walk it across the room.
But all this reminiscing about a bogus robot toy is really just a self-indulgent way of leading into this month’s film, Westworld. Westworld tells the story of two men, Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin) and John Blane (James Brolin), who take a trip to a brand new adult themed amusement park called….Westworld. Westworld is one of three parks run by the ominous Delos corporation. The other parks are Medievalworld and Romanworld. In each of these parks customers can experience the full totality of life in different eras, whether it’s sleeping with the house wench in MedievalWorld or rounding up the posse in WestWorld, humans interact with a state of the art amusement park brought to life by humanoid robots.
But as always happens in these kinds of films, despite every precaution, something goes wrong. The robots that make up Westworld start to act on their own. A robot snake bites one of the guests. A robot woman refuses to sleep with one of the guests. And eventually a robot called The Gunslinger (Yul Brynner) gets fed up with losing all his shootouts and starts killing guests. Before you know it the whole park is overrun by robots gone haywire and The Gunslinger becomes a Michael Myers like villain, stalking our main character, Peter, across desserts and sound stages. If this sounds similar to Jurassic Park, well, it is. Except Westworld was twenty years earlier and actually directed by Michael Crichton (who later wrote Jurassic Park, Andromeda Strain, Congo, and about a zillion more books you see in the checkout line next to People magazine). In fact, Westworld features the exact same line of dialog Spielberg would later use in Jurassic Park. As Peter and John are being driven into the park, a scientist assures the them that it’s safe because “they’ve spared no expense”. It’s a cool moment, not only because that line has become so iconic, but because you understand that Crichton has been exploring these ideas since day 1. No matter how much money you throw into safety, shit’s gonna get real.
Westworld is appropriately labeled a cult film. Premiering in 1973, it was the last film MGM released before they dissolved their releasing company. It’s main selling point was a villainous role given to washed up actor Yul Brenner. It was also the first film to use digital effects (read this New Yorker piece on it). And the film of course touches on themes that’re common throughout Crichton’s work. Namely the relationship between humanities ability to create, and their desire to control those creations.
One of the most effective scenes in the film is when, after a full day of bar fights and cattle rustlin’, the park shuts down. Then while the guests are sleeping, the human workers at Westworld come into town to collect the robots for routine maintenance. The scene sticks because it isn’t stylized. The human workers nonchalantly go about their business of loading all the town’s robots into giant vans. All the androids that we previously saw and couldn’t distinguish from real humans are now lying stiff as boards in the streets. And while they’re slowly stacked into trucks, the audience is reminded of all the work that goes into maintaining such a grand illusion. Not to get too heavy about it, but is this not a perfect metaphor for film? The medium with which we experience Westworld isn’t that different from the park depicted on screen. There are so many people behind the scenes, making sure all the details work in harmony, trying to simulate a more coherent, engaging version of reality.
If there’s one lingering problem with Westworld, aside from the wooden dialog and non-existent character development, it’s that the film feels too lean. The film introduces a number of details/story threads in the first act that seem like they’re going to pay off, only to be dropped entirely. Particularly egregious is a scene where Peter sleeps with a female robot. The robot acts resigned and uninterested in the sexual act until Peter climaxes. All of a sudden we see her eyes widen and she grips him hard. Her head does a little twitchy motion and I assumed we were supposed to question the humanity of this robot. Did his spooge awaken some humanity within her? Can she be impregnated? Crichton made a point to focus on the robot woman’s face during this scene. But it’s never addressed again. I mean, I didn’t necessarily want a shot at the end with a knocked up robot. But c’mon, something. You can’t just tease the possibility of human/android love child and then forget about it.
The whole thing got me thinking that while the robots in Westworld are designed to be subservient to the park’s guests, it’s not too hard to imagine a future where humans and robots live side by side, especially if they were indistinguishable from flesh and blood humans. Take a look at Japan, the Mecca of uncomfortable human/technology relationships, and you’ve got adult men falling in love with body pillows, engineers inventing a manga based self-pleasuring machine, even resort towns offering trips with virtual girlfriends.
Ultimately, the film reaches a rather mature point. After Peter kills The Gunslinger and escapes the terror of a Westworld gone mad, he realizes that it doesn’t matter if the park was “real”. It’s affect on him was real. He could’ve been killed. Other guests actually were killed. No matter how much cognitive distance we put between ourselves and the machines we build, they’ll get us.
– There’ve been reports that HBO has commissioned a mini-series based on Westworld to be produced by J.J. Abrams and Jonathan Nolan. Like I said, Westworld has some cool ideas and if done right it could be a great way to explore, or satirize, our changing relationship with technology. But seriously, J.J. Abrams? Does that guy have to be involved in everything? Star Wars, Star Trek, Mission Impossible, is there any franchise that can stay hidden from the light of Abrams+’s lens flare? Eventually Hollywood is just gonna be J.J. Abrams and Will Smith’s kids.
– I love the names that films give to their giant, evil corporations. Hollywood is really good at choosing names with just the right amount of vagueness. In Westworld the corporation that oversees the parks is called Delos. But other classics include OCP – Omni Corporate Products from Robocop, Weyland-Yutani the British-Japanese conglomerate from Alien, and my personal favorite, Cyberdyne Systems the corporation that builds Skynet in Terminator. Is there anything scarier than a faceless multinational corporation? How many times have you heard your uncle complaining about how they can never get a real person on the phone? Well, just extrapolate that idea into an entire corporation and all of sudden it makes sense why something like the Soylent Corporation can strike fear into the hearts of moviegoers.
– I like that Yul Brenner was a successful Hollywood actor and also completely fucking bald. Like full on mannequin level baldness. Forget all the complaints about the representation of women or minorities in Hollywood. The way Hollywood treats baldness is much worse. The portrayal of baldness in Hollywood in on par with the portrayal of pedophilia and murder. What’s the worst thing screenwriters can think to happen to Anne Hathaway in Les Miserables or Natalie Portman in V for Vendetta ? How about having their heads shaved. Real cool Hollywood. Guess what, some of us don’t have a choice.
– Apparently there was a sequel to Westworld entitled Futureworld. It was made by AIP (Roger Corman’s studio) and starred none other than Peter Fonda. God I’d give anything to have been on set with Peter Fonda in the 70s. If he looks this stoned in the actual film I can’t imagine what it was like when the cameras stopped rolling.