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…

***


Popular posts from this blog

Abandon selective targeting. Shoot everything.

28 Weeks Later (2007) (SPOILERS) The first five minutes of 28 Weeks Later are far and away the best part of this sequel, offering in quick succession a devastating moral quandary and a waking nightmare, immortalised on the screen. After that, while significantly more polished, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo reveals his concept to be altogether inferior to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s, falling back on the crutches of gore, nihilism, and disengaging and limiting shifts of focus between characters in whom one has little investment in the first place.

The Bible never said anything about amphetamines.

The Color of Money (1986) (SPOILERS) I tend to think it’s evident when Scorsese isn’t truly exercised by material. He can still invest every ounce of the technical acumen at his fingertips, and the results can dazzle on that level, but you don’t really feel the filmmaker in the film. Which, for one of his pictures to truly carry a wallop, you need to do. We’ve seen quite a few in such deficit in recent years, most often teaming with Leo. The Color of Money , however, is the first where it was out-and-out evident the subject matter wasn’t Marty’s bag. He needed it, desperately, to come off, but in the manner a tradesman who wants to keep getting jobs. This sequel to The Hustler doesn’t linger in the mind, however good it may be, moment by moment.

Captain, he who walks in fire will burn his feet.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) (SPOILERS) Ray Harryhausen returns to the kind of unadulterated fantasy material that made Jason and the Argonauts such a success – swords & stop motion, if you like. In between, there were a couple of less successful efforts, HG Wells adaptation First Men in the Moon and The Valley of the Gwangi (which I considered the best thing ever as a kid: dinosaur walks into a cowboy movie). Harryhausen’s special-effects supremacy – in a for-hire capacity – had also been consummately eclipsed by Raquel Welch’s fur bikini in One Million Years B.C . The Golden Voyage of Sinbad follows the expected Dynamation template – blank-slate hero, memorable creatures, McGuffin quest – but in its considerable favour, it also boasts a villainous performance by nobody-at-the-time, on-the-cusp-of-greatness Tom Baker.

If this were a hoax, would we have six dead men up on that mountain?

The X-Files 4.24: Gethsemane   Season Four is undoubtedly the point at which the duff arc episodes begin to amass, encroaching upon the decent ones for dominance. Fortunately, however, the season finale is a considerable improvement’s on Three’s, even if it’s a long way from the cliffhanger high of 2.25: Anasazi .

My hands hurt from galloping.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021) (SPOILERS) Say what you like about the 2016 reboot, at least it wasn’t labouring under the illusion it was an Amblin movie. Ghostbusters 3.5 features the odd laugh, but it isn’t funny, and it most definitely isn’t scary. It is, however, shamelessly nostalgic for, and reverential towards, the original(s), which appears to have granted it a free pass in fan circles. It didn’t deserve one.

Your desecration of reality will not go unpunished.

2021-22 Best-of, Worst-of and Everything Else Besides The movies might be the most visible example of attempts to cling onto cultural remnants as the previous societal template clatters down the drain. It takes something people really want – unlike a Bond movie where he kicks the can – to suggest the model of yesteryear, one where a billion-dollar grosser was like sneezing. You can argue Spider-Man: No Way Home is replete with agendas of one sort or another, and that’s undoubtedly the case (that’s Hollywood), but crowding out any such extraneous elements (and they often are) is simply a consummate crowd-pleaser that taps into tangible nostalgia through its multiverse take. Of course, nostalgia for a mere seven years ago, for something you didn’t like anyway, is a symptom of how fraught these times have become.

I’ve heard the dancing’s amazing, but the music sucks.

Tick, Tick… Boom! (2021) (SPOILERS) At one point in Tick, Tick… Boom! – which really ought to have been the title of an early ’90s Steven Seagal vehicle – Andrew Garfield’s Jonathan Larson is given some sage advice on how to find success in his chosen field: “ On the next, maybe try writing about what you know ”. Unfortunately, the very autobiographical, very-meta result – I’m only surprised the musical doesn’t end with Larson finishing writing this musical, in which he is finishing writing his musical, in which he is finishing writing his musical… – takes that acutely literally.

Out of my way, you lubberly oaf, or I’ll slit your gullet and shove it down your gizzard!

The Princess and the Pirate (1944) (SPOILERS) As I suggested when revisiting The Lemon Drop Kid , you’re unlikely to find many confessing to liking Bob Hope movies these days. Even Chevy Chase gets higher approval ratings. If asked to attest to the excruciating stand-up comedy Hope, the presenter and host, I doubt even diehards would proffer an endorsement. Probably even fewer would admit to having a hankering for Hope, were they aware of, or further still gave credence to, alleged MKUltra activities. But the movie comedy Hope, the fourth-wall breaking, Road -travelling quipster-coward of (loosely) 1939-1952? That Hope’s a funny guy, mostly, and many of his movies during that period are hugely inventive, creative comedies that are too easily dismissed under the “Bob Hope sucks” banner. The Princess and the Pirate is one of them.

Who gave you the crusade franchise? Tell me that.

The Star Chamber (1983) (SPOILERS) Peter Hyams’ conspiracy thriller might simply have offered sauce too weak to satisfy, reining in the vast machinations of an all-powerful hidden government found commonly during ’70s fare and substituting it with a more ’80s brand that failed to include that decade’s requisite facile resolution. There’s a good enough idea here – instead of Charles Bronson, it’s the upper echelons of the legal system resorting to vigilante justice – but The Star Chamber suffers from a failure of nerve, repenting its premise just as it’s about to dig into the ramifications.

You’re going to make me drop a donkey.

Encanto (2021) (SPOILERS) By my estimation, Disney brand pictures are currently edging ahead of the Pixars. Not that there’s a whole lot in it, since neither have been at full wattage for a few years now. Raya and the Last Dragon and now Encanto are collectively just about superior to Soul and Luca . Generally, the animation arm’s attempts to take in as much cultural representation as they possibly can, to make up for their historic lack of woke quotas, has – ironically – had the effect of homogenising the product to whole new levels. So here we have Colombia, renowned the world over for the US’s benign intervention in their region, not to mention providing the CIA with subsistence income, beneficently showered with gifts from the US’s greatest artistic benefactor.