Skip to main content

Nothing can go wrong.


Westworld
(1973)

I had it in my head that I first saw Westworld on Moviedrome during the late ‘80s. Alex Cox would no doubt have preceded it with a few gnarled sentences of commentary. But, since Moviedrome didn’t show the film until 1997, and Cox had long since departed by that point (it was never the same with Mark Cousins squeaking his way through the introductions), I must have taken it in under different circumstances a good decade-to-15 years earlier. Whenever it was I first happened across the picture, I don’t think my opinion has changed much in the intervening years; great concept, so-so execution. Michael Crichton clearly thought he’d come up with the goods, as he proceeded to recycle his plot for Jurassic Park (right down to the over-extended build-up).


There’s no doubting Westworld’s influence, far beyond that of its author’s subsequent work. From Michael Myers in Halloween to Arnie in The Terminator, the unstoppable killing machine has become a movie staple. It even seems surprising that James Cameron didn’t have a Schwarzenegger-type in mind given the similarity between his impassive, expressionless robot and Yul Brunner’s Cowboy. And, like Brunner, Arnie was cast against type. Brunner’s is an icy, creepy riff on his appearance in The Magnificent Seven. Early in the proceedings, the Cowboy is programmed for taunts and mocking smile. But once it goes haywire it is virtually a T-800 prototype, right down to a dissolving face that leaves its inner workings exposed. In addition, perhaps the ultimate compliment for a movie, it was appropriated for a band’s name.


Crichton was inspired by something as simple as Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride; such a non-cerebral spur may be why Westworld invites a number of possible readings. One the one hand there is a warning of consumerism gone out of control, a not uncommon theme in ‘70s science fiction and horror. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead showed the true face of mall culture. Crichton presents a vision of what happens when the things we make for pleasure begin to rule us. Alternatively, it’s a deeply conservative parable; a Biblical judgement is reserved for those of us who think we can indulge in immoral behaviour (prostitution, thievery, murder) without guilt or consequence. Then again, maybe it’s a vision of our desensitisation to reality (ever encroaching in an age where our every moment is instantly rehearsed on the nearest video screen). When John (James Brolin) is gunned down, Peter (Richard Benjamin) is initially unsure this isn’t all a trick; another part of the show. When our lines of reality blur that much can there be any way back?


And there’s also Crichton as the predictive writer; the spreading system corruption within the robot populace might be labelled good old-fashioned entropy, or it might be viewed as the now commonplace computer virus (one of the scientists makes the analogy to an infectious disease afflicting the automatons). And what is Westworld, if not a virtual reality programme? It just needs that next step of non-physical travel (this is something that will feature in a number of his pictures/adaptions of his work; the manipulation of reality, including Disclosure, Rising Sun and Looker). I think I’d pick as most persuasive the idea that systems will always breakdown. If only because Crichton returns to this theme in the aforementioned Jurassic Park. In both, man’s “creations” overcome imposed limitations and wreak havoc. In Jurassic Park, the natural order has been suppressed and reasserts itself. In Westworld, humans have willfully enabled technology to unchain itself from their control; a scientist informs us that, in some cases, computer components were designed by other computers (“We don’t know how they work”).


Ultimately this isn’t Crichton’s attempt at a cautionary tale (those tend to be his most misjudged expeditions; see Rising Sun and Disclosure). He’s just after making an exciting science fiction movie. In that respect, his motives may be fairly pure, which make considering possible interpretations more fun; this is far from his later habit of bending the unsuspecting viewer’s ear with the unreconstituted ramblings of a middle-aged white American male.


Westworld came to life on a relative shoestring, which explains why it looks much like a TV movie, complete with a stock western backlot set and scattered doric columns and busts (depending on the zone you’re visiting). Crichton’s direction is of the basic point-and-shoot variety too. He’s not one for building up tension, and his grip on forward momentum is only as strong as the content of his screenplay. The pursuit of the last 20 minutes works reasonably well because it is scripted that way. This also means the set-up drags somewhat; there’s a little too much “good time boys” yee-haw indulgence, and the lack of budget entails a shortage of spectacle; it’s not really selling the experience to us as vicarious tourists.


Indeed, Crichton is rather shy about the areas that might have enlivened the introductory passages. One could imagine Paul Verhoeven let loose on Romeworld, a zone replete with a “sensual lack of morality”. This is the world we see the least of but, when the park breaks down, its Romeworld’s toga clad corpses that are strewn everywhere. Yet there’s no sign of lethal force having occurred mid-orgy. Elsewhere, a dirty old medieval holidaymaker wants to have his wicked way with a perky sexbot totty (“What’s your name, child?”). But divorcee Peter has a rather subdued time with his saloon tart. The tone is so unlibidinous that Mrs. Gene Roddenberry (Majel Barrett) plays the brothel madam. She’d pass for Mr. Gene Roddenberry quite easily.


We should perhaps respect Crichton for going as far as he does, dragging his park’s raison d’etre down to the basest human impulses. And for suggesting we’d all be having it away with jumped-up household appliances if we could. Of course, he doesn’t delve into the nitty-gritty of who scrubs the sexbots clean of all those messy human bodily fluids (which raises a question I’ll come back to shortly). Instead, he lavishes time on the repair of a bloodied actionbot. He might have gone much further in exploring the implication that our ascent from the inclination to rape-and-pillage is purely illusory; it is only “civilised” society that prevents us from indulging our darkest desires. And, given the chance in a virtual setting, we will embrace them.


But Crichton has a relatively benign vision of those taking part. The violence they inflict is never unsettling (such is Hollywood) and is not expressly punished. One might argue that the dirty old man is felled for his perceived predation, and that Peter survives because he is shown to have a conscience towards the machines everyone else demeans. But he’s the one who shoots down the Gunslinger; not once, but twice. In glorious squibtastic Peckinpah slow motion. And I’m dubious that Crichton was so considered; it seems more likely that Peter was chosen to survive because he is the least likely to. I don’t think, in general terms, Crichton is depicting his guests as any more licentious or excessive than the average tourist. Or, no more guilty and deserving of massacre at any rate.


When the robot rebellion begins, after Crichton has needled us for a good 50 minutes that things are slowly but surely going wrong, the picture may be more effective for it’s lack of auteurism. When said unfortunate medieval holidaymaker, dueling for fun with the black knight, is run through, Crichton doesn’t bother with close-ups or fast cutting. It happens in long shot, and the effect is more disturbing for the matter-of-factness with which it is presented. There is a striking shot during the opening scenes of landscape reflected in a pilot’s sunglasses, but the fanciest Crichton gets technically is the point-of-view of the Gunslinger. This is the movies’ earliest use of digital image processing, employed to pixelise the robot’s vision. It’s rudimentary, to the extent that you wonder how these robots can see a damn thing, but instantly recognisable and thus clearly enormously influential (that word again).


On the subject of futurism, one aspect that stands the test of time is Fred Karlin’s eerie score.  It has just the right tone of dissonant, detached menace; there’s a highly evocative quality to early synth music, and you can hear the through line to John Carpenter’s minimalist beats. It also provides the pulse of scenes you would only see in a mainstream movie during the ‘70s; the methodical, almost meditative process of gathering shattered automatons, transporting them to the workshops and then setting to work on repairing them.


The cast is fairly unprestigious, such that I was more intrigued to see Jared Martin (The Fantastic Journey, Dallas, the ‘80s TV War of the Worlds) pop us as one of the technical crew than the main players. Richard Benjamin, as mentioned, is the most unlikely of heroes (he’d go on to a more comfortable second career as a director of middling comedies). James Brolin was no star when the film was made but you naturally assume that, with his model good looks and easy confidence, he will save the day. So, when Brunner shoots him down at the hour mark (I always remember it as sooner), it’s quite a shock. 


I can’t speak for the reaction on Westworld’s initial release, and of course I knew who Brolin was by the time I first saw the movie, but it puts me in mind of the rug-pulling of Janet Leigh’s exit from Psycho or, more pertinently, John Boorman’s Deliverance the year before. There, the obvious man’s man Burt Reynolds is waylaid while Jon Voight rises to the challenge of backwoods mastery. Is Crichton saying anything with this, other than presenting a clever shock? Brolin becomes rather petulant when the park doesn’t do exactly what he wants (“Doesn’t anything work around here?”) but a robot snake has just bitten him. I’m not sure we can infer much from the everyman’s success, other than recognising Peter’s essential niceness. When a technician tells him he hasn’t got a chance and he replies “Yes I do” there seems to be little reason for his newfound confidence. He shows no great skills other than a capacity for pegging it.


There are a few nitpicks regarding the logic of this environment. Crichton obviously gave a fair bit of thought to how his fantasy world should operate, such that the weapons have sensors so humans can’t shoot other humans. But why are the robots even armed with live rounds? What do they have to hit in the normal course of duties? And, even assuming the precautions taken are foolproof, a cursory glance at an evening’s entertainment suggests ambulances will be out in force. Punching an android will likely break your hand, and being thrown off first floors in bar fights-for-fun may break your back. Most of all, there’s the silliest of android mishaps. So goofy you wonder if Crichton dodged all critical faculties for a moment; Peter gives water to a poor robot strumpet that has been chained up in the castle dungeon. And she promptly short circuits. Let’s hope it doesn’t rain too hard and sticky fluids don’t get expelled into any robot orifices.


Westworld was a success, but it took MGM three full years to churn out an enfeebled sequel (without its creator’s involvement). A doomed TV series followed in 1980, and whispers of a remake have been circling over the past decade. With Arnie’s name attached, which looked like a lazy repetition of past glories (Terminator in a ten-gallon hat). That now seems to have been nixed, partly because Arnie’s comeback has fizzled but mainly because J J Abrams is turning Westworld into an HBO series. HBO, a world where all the lurid, twisted potential of Crichton’s premise can finally be explored…

***


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

What ho, Brinkley. So, do you think we’re going to get along, what?

Jeeves and Wooster 2.4: Jeeves in the Country  (aka Chuffy)
The plundering of Thank You, Jeeves elicits two more of the series’ best episodes, the first of which finds Bertie retiring to the country with a new valet, the insolent, incompetent and inebriate Brinkley (a wonderfully sour, sullen performance from Fred Evans, who would receive an encore in the final season), owing to Jeeves being forced to resign over his master’s refusal to give up the trumpet (“not an instrument for a gentleman”; in the book, it’s a banjulele).

Chuffnall Hall is the setting (filmed at Wrotham Park in Hertfordshire), although the best of the action takes place around Bertie’s digs in Chuffnall Regis (Clovelly, Devon), which old pal Reginald “Chuffy” Chuffnell (Marmaduke Lord Chuffnell) has obligingly rented him, much to the grievance of the villagers, who have to endure his trumpeting disrupting the beatific beach (it’s a lovely spot, one of the most evocative in the series).

Jeeves is snapped up into the e…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

That be what we call scringe stone, sir.

Doctor Who The Ribos Operation (1978)
Season 16 is my favourite season, so I’m inevitably of the view that it gets a bad rap (or a just plain neglected one), is underrated and generally unappreciated. Of its six stories, though, The Ribos Operation is probably the one, on balance, that receives the most accolades (on some days, it’s The Pirate Planet; many moons ago, back when DWAS was actually a thing of some relevance, The Stones of Blood won their season poll; there are also those who, rightly, extol the virtues of The Androids of Tara). I’m fully behind that, although truthfully, I don’t think there’s an awful lot between the first four stories. Why, I even have great affection for the finale. It’s only “KROLL! KROLL! KROLL! KROLL!” that comes up a bit short, which no doubt makes me a no good dryfoot, but there you are. If that Robert Holmes script is on the threadbare side, through little fault of his own, The Ribos Operation is contrastingly one of his very best, a hugely satisfyi…

Angry man is unsecure.

Hulk (2003)
(SPOILERS) I’m not a Hulk apologist. I unreservedly consider it one of the superior superhero adaptations, admittedly more for the visual acumen Ang Lee brings to the material than James Schamus, Michael France and John Turman’s screenplay. But even then, if the movie gets bogged down in unnecessarily overwrought father-son origins and dynamic, overlaid on a perfectly good and straightforward core story (one might suggest it was change for the sake of change), once those alterations are in place, much of the follow through, and the paralleling of wayward parents and upright children, or vice versa, translates effectively to the screen, even if the realisation of the big green fella is somewhat variable.

I do… very competitive ice dancing.

Justice League (2017)
(SPOILERS) Superheroes, and superhero movies, trade in hyperbole, so it shouldn’t be surprising that DC’s two releases this year have been responded to in like, only each at opposite ends of the spectrum. Wonder Woman was insanely over-praised in the rush to fete a female superhero finally leading a movie, crushing all nuanced criticism in its wake. Justice League, meanwhile, has been lambasted on the basis that it’s more of the same as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, only worse – to the extent there have been calls for a Zach Snyder Director’s Cut, which is quite an extent, as extents go – as it’s guilty of being an unholy clash of styles, grimdark Zach scowling in one corner and quip-happy Joss pirouetting in the other. And yes, the movie is consequently a mess, but it’s a relatively painless mess, with the sense to get in and get out again before the viewer has enough time to assess the full extent of the damage.

‘Cos I’m the gringo who always delivers.

American Made (2017)
(SPOILERS) This is definitely more the sort of thing Tom Cruise should be doing, a movie that relies both on his boyish™ charm and at least has pretensions of ever so slightly pushing the envelope of standard multiplex fare, rather than desperately attaching himself to an impersonal franchise (The Mummy) or flailingly attempting to kick start one (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back); remember when Cruise wouldn’t even go near sequels (for about 20 years, The Color of Money aside, and then only the one series)? American Made is still victim to the tendency of his movies to feel superstar-fitted rather than remaining as punchy as they might be on paper (Made’s never quite as satirically sharp as it wants to be), but it at least doesn’t lead its audience by the nose.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

Sometimes when you take people away, they don't come back.

The Ward (2010)
(SPOILERS) I’d felt no particular compunction to rush out and see The Ward (or rent it), partly down to the underwhelming reviews, but mostly because John Carpenter’s last few films had been so disappointing, and I doubted a decade away from the big screen would rejuvenate someone who’d rather play computer games than call the shots. Perhaps inevitably then, now I have finally given it a look, it’s a case of low expectations being at least surpassed. The Ward isn’t very good, but it isn’t outright bad either.

While it seems obvious in retrospect, I failed to guess the twist before it was revealed, probably because I was still expecting a supernatural element to be realised, it being a Carpenter movie. But then, this doesn’t feel very much like a Carpenter movie. It doesn’t have a Carpenter score (Mark Killian) or screenplay (Michael and Shawn Rasmussen) and it doesn’t have Gary B Kibbe as lenser (Yaron Orbach). I suspect the latter explains why it’s a much more professi…

You diabolical mastermind, you.

The Avengers Season 4 Ranked – Worst to Best
Season Four is generally held up as the pinnacle of The Avengers, and it certainly maintains the greatest level of consistency in the run. Nevertheless, as I noted a few reviews back, one viewer’s classic is another’s ho-hum with this show, perhaps because it doesn’t elicit the same kind of exhaustive fandom to establish any level of consensus as some series. There follows my Worst to Best ranking of the season, told mostly in pictures. The index for full episode reviews can be found here.