On October 2, the 1973 scifi movie Westworld will be reimagined as a sleek, modern TV series courtesy of HBO. Given that the show is produced by the likes of Jonathan Nolan and J.J. Abrams, expectations are sky-high—but what about the movie it’s based on? I decided it was time to re-watch the film and see if it holds up.
Written and directed in 1973 by Michael Crichton (of Jurassic Park fame), Westworld splits its time between various parts of a futuristic theme park called Delos where guests get to live in recreations of three different time periods: the old west, medieval Europe, and ancient Pompeii). The three worlds are populated with androids the guests can fight and have sex with, all without the pesky morals that might come up if there were “real” people involved.
The film has occasional scenes in Roman World, Medieval World, and the control center of the park, but the main focus, as the name suggests, is West World. The only two humans named in the film are Peter (Richard Benjamin) and John (James Brolin); the former is a first timer to the park who gets really into things, and the latter is on a return visit and treats everything pretty lightly. Except sex with robots. That he’s really into.
While they’re on their trip, a virus begins spreading through the androids, causing them to act in ways counter to their programming. In the case of Medieval World, that means a female android refuses a guest’s “advances” and then the Black Knight doesn’t let the guest win their sword fight.—killing him, That’s when the people in charge try to turn off the park’s power, because they’re the moronic kind of people who deal with super-sophisticated technology; their solution it to leave the androids running amok on reserve power while the living guests suffocate to death, locked in a bunker with no air circulation. During the chaos, West World’s Gunslinger (Yul Brynner) shoots John and the film climaxes with him chasing Peter.
Re-watching the movie in 2016, Westworld feels less dated than it should. It’s a movie from the ‘70s about a future with robots, like there should be a lot more suspension of disbelief required. Setting the parks in the past somehow eliminates a lot of those problems. West World isn’t meant to be a perfect historical replica of the past, but an immersive theme park—so the way it matches Hollywood’s firmly established faux Old West works perfectly. Even the parts with the people running the park aren’t too dated, save for the giant computers. And the fake commercial it starts with is brilliant, because it really sets up expectations the actual story is going to destroy.
When the androids malfunction, they’re brought to a repair shop. But it’s not made up to look like some futuristic engineering space—it’s a hospital. People are put in scrubs and head coverings, their bodies covered except where they’re being “operated” on. That also taps into a shared language in a way a never-seen-before robot space wouldn’t.
It also draws parallels between humans and androids without actually saying anything, which is another theme of Westworld. The movie is incredibly sparse on details. Only two characters have names, and we know barely anything about them. Peter’s recently divorced and a lawyer. And that’s it for character development. The people who work at Delos? Unnamed. The man killed in Medieval World? Also unnamed. But the serving girl he assaults does have a name: Daphne. Late in the film, Peter stumbles into Medieval World, where he finds a woman tied up. He goes to help her and brings her water, which she tries to tell him not to give her. Because she’s an android, and the water causes her to spark and smoke. Westworld does a lot of these kinds of blurring of man and machine, without anyone ever monologuing about how the androids are people, too. Unlike Jurassic Park, Crichton’s other work about a park gone wrong, there’s no Ian Malcolm there to give speeches and predictions.
Westworld is also a trim 88 minutes long. Can you imagine a science fiction thriller that comes in at less than 90 minutes today? It wouldn’t happen. And it doesn’t feel that short. Even though the iconic part of the movie is the Gunslinger hunting down Peter, a large chunk of it is devoted to just setting up the park and how it works—followed to an increasing number of “central breakdowns” spreading from one land to another, with West World being hit last.
Although the death in Medieval World is the moment the humans in charge of Delos lose control, the real tipping point of the movie is when the humans decide to keep guests in a park they know is malfunctioning. While the androids are doing the killing, it’s the humans who make all the mistakes. They’re the ones keeping guests in a park filled with malfunctioning androids. And again, they also shut down the power, which leaves the androids on batteries and traps them in a control room with no air.
No one’s really likable in Westworld. The people in charge of the park care about the bottom line more than safety. Peter, John, and the rest of the guests are easily tempted by violence and sex. Peter starts out questioning Delos, but is soon enjoying himself too much to care. The androids don’t actually have enough personality for us to wonder if the glitch means they’re becoming aware of how they’re being forced to do things—including die, over and over—all at the whim of others. So the Gunslinger feels like a Terminator more than anything else. but he also feels as human as the living humans in the film, including the West World guests that paid money to kill him over and over again.
It’s a pretty grim view, but one that’s really well executed on a tiny budget. I can’t tell you if it resonates more now than it did in the ‘70s, since I was negative years old then, but the theme of a business leaping into commercialized technology before thinking through the implications? Yeah, that still works.