RECAP: Westworld

Westworld (1973): Michael Crichton

Used to be that movies borrowed their films from other source materials. HBO seeks to change that up, mining this decades-old sci-fi film for its 2016 series Westworld.

One of the most successful Harvard medical school dropouts, 30-year-old Michael Crichton wrote and directed his first feature film after publishing two best-selling novels.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: The robots populating a fantasy amusement park malfunction, killing the park’s guests. 

Hero (5/10)

Man with two first names, the lithe, bony Richard Benjamin believed that Westworld would be his only chance to appear in a western. He was right. Benjamin plays Peter Martin, a first time guest of Delos Island.

Delos Island is the home to three amusement parks: Medieval, Roman, and Western World, a $1,000-per-day (more than $5,000 in 2016 purchasing power!) resort that allows guests to indulge themselves in fantasy living amongst dozens of robots in those eras.

Richard Benjamin (or Benjamin Richard?) and James Brolin
Richard Benjamin (or Benjamin Richard?) and James Brolin

Peter flies to Delos for the first time, accompanied by his friend John Blane (James Brolin). We first meet the pair onboard a deluxe jet flying customers to the island. Peter is nervously excited, or excitedly nervous–hard to say which–and directs several questions at his buddy.

How much does a gun weigh? (three or four pounds) What’s that thing where you slam the gun’s hammer a bunch of times? (fanning) John has answers for Peter. They have a cute relationship resembling a calm, seen-it-all father and young boy on his first camping outing.

Peter is not a boy though. He has boys. Or kids, anyway, that he’s just lost to his wife in their divorce six months ago. John is taking Peter to Western World to get away from his Chicago real world.

The first half of the movie guides Peter through Western World’s many delights. Shortly after they land, an airport tram delivers Peter, John, and another man to a changing facility, where the guests immediately shed their 20th-century clothes for ten gallon hats, holsters, spurs, and other western garb.

Peter has a hard time getting the feel of the place. He and John stroll (everybody strolls, nobody walks, in western clothing) into a bar. John, the old hand, orders a whiskey. Peter orders a dry vodka martini with a twist of lemon. “I feel silly,” he says. John negates this order and tosses back a whiskey, ordering one for Peter, who chokes one back.

In strolls the gunslinger (Yul Brynner). The gunslinger’s a robot, and he taunts Peter, telling him he needs his mama. John encourages Peter to kill him. Peter talks himself into taunting the gunslinger, and he delivers three shots to the robot’s gut.

Now Peter’s digging Western World. He and John visit a saloon. Peter gets laid. Later, there’s a bar fight that hardly phases them. It’s when the gunslinger shows up again that we see what change has come over Peter.

The morning after Peter and John arrive in Western World, they awaken in the Grand Hotel to some trouble. The gunslinger reappears, this time in John’s room. Peter, walking through the hall in a towel, overhears the robot’s hard voice. He kicks in the door and unloads his gun at the gunslinger, who crashes through the window. “Was he bothering you?” Peter asks, cool as a cucumber.

Of course, the robots go wrong. Peter becomes the final target of the gunslinger and flees across Delos Island to escape the robot scourge. Problem is, and I’ll discuss this later, he doesn’t think very hard.

Benjamin is a good actor for Peter’s character. He’s bean-pole skinny. You can see several ribs when he’s shiftlessly shooting at Yul Brynner. His mustache has more girth than his torso. Benjamin is the anti-Brynner, and that’s the point. Western World is a playground, and to believe it as a such we need lawyers from Chicago populating it.

Villain (9/10)

Yul Brynner excels as the gunslinger, chief antagonist of Western World. Brynner was the perfect actor to play a robot in 1973. Look at this guy. He looks like a robot. Somehow he played the king of Siam?

Brynner was playing a human in this photo.
Brynner was playing a human in this photo.

The gunslinger appears in few scenes, but Brynner is great enough to make an impact. His first appearance is in the bar where Peter and John take a drink. Peter, not used to the attributes of authentic frontier liquor, coughs some out and dribbles it down his shirt.

“Sloppy with your drink,” the gunslinger says. “Get this boy a bib. He needs his mama.” Brynner acts the part of robot perfectly. And I mean he nails it. There’s no fluidity to his body movements, yet he avoids “Doing the Robot.” [describe more] *** Peter shoots him to death.

Repaired, the gunslinger shows up the next day to get shot out of a window. On the third day the robot kills John. We don’t know on which of those two days the gunslinger turned murderous. Again, this is partly from Brynner’s excellent menace.

That a robot would come to a guest’s door and hold him up seems unusual, but he never shoots at John before crashing through that window. On day three, the gunslinger’s acquired a murderous grin. Brynner, in behind-the-scenes footage, claims that as the robot became more human (by smiling), he became murderous. The two are linked.

SO CREEPY
SO CREEPY

The gunslinger gets an upgrade before that third day, and that allows him to track Peter across Delos Island. He almost never runs, preferring a hard walk, with his thumbs hooked over his gun belt. The hard walk is the preferred menacing ambulatory method used by non-human villains from Michael Myers to T-100.

Action/Effects (2/10)

Westworld is a slow burn, a spare film. Much of the film’s time is spent establishing the fantasy worlds of Delos. Sure, establishing a world is important in all films, especially science fiction and fantasy films, but Westworld goes beyond.

The film opens with a commercial for Delos Island. The next scene is aboard the jet to Delos, where characters talk about the fantasy worlds and we watch an orientation video. Commercial, then orientation video. We get it, movie.

It’s not until the Western World participants start changing that any music is heard, in this case a strumming banjo. The men change and immediately head into the park, on a Wells Fargo stagecoach, to check into the Grand Hotel’s spare rooms and hard mattresses. “You wanted comfort,” John says to Peter, “You should have stayed in Chicago.”

Solid blood packet work as Peter shoots the gunslinger.
Solid blood packet work as Peter shoots the gunslinger.

It’s not until Yul Brynner’s gunslinger saunters into the bar that any shots are fired. Peter puts three slugs into the robot. Crichton goes slow motion for the gunfight. The gunslinger allows Peter first draw. Peter draws and plugs him. The blood packets are excellent; the stuff drools out of Brynner’s torso. The robot collapses on the sawdust floor, and pretty soon some techs come in to drag away the body.

That was fun. But we miss the good stuff. That evening, a huge bank robbery erupts, but we spend our time with Peter and John in the company of two sexy ladies for a different kind of action. The robbery lasts a long time, but we don’t see a second of it, only the aftermath.

As the guests sleep off their day in Western World, a group of employees drive a van into town to gather up the strewn robot corpses and feed them onto a conveyor belt leading to the repair chambers.

Later, as the robots are breaking down and killing, we watch, through a monitor in the Delos control room, the savagery occurring in Roman World. The place looks as if a group wrestling match has broken out. Roman World seems to have the most human guests, and they are all killed. But we see almost none of it.

Effects are minimal. The robots are conveniently meant to resemble humans exactly, save a weird series of bumps on their hands. The only times we see the robot parts are in the repair room, when techs fiddle with robot torsos.

Sidekicks (3/8)

James Brolin is the cool hand in Western World. He’s been before and ignores the orientation video. As mentioned above, John Blane nurtures Peter through Western World. He’s telling him all the rules, the most important one being to have fun.

John acts like he’s in a western movie, which is true, and tries to convince Peter to do the same. In the scene where the gunslinger enters John’s room, Peter kicks the door in to save him. John hid behind his bed, and when he pops up, with a smile on his face, that face is still covered in shaving cream.

James Brolin, as cool as a creamy shave
James Brolin, as cool as a creamy shave

Peter’s arrested for shooting the gunslinger, landing in jail for it. You can’t just go around shooting people anymore. John knows just what to do. He hires and Indian robot to deliver coffee and cake to Peter in jail. There’s also a note. The note tells him how to blow up the jail wall. Peter blows up the jail wall. John’s casually waiting outside with two horses to ride into the countryside after shooting the sheriff dead.

Brolin’s character provides a good metaphor for overtrusting technology, Westworld‘s main message. John is bit by a robot snake he confidently shot at. The snakes are programmed not to strike, and John knows it. “That’s not supposed to happen,” he laments several times. At least it wasn’t poisonous.

The next day, after a bar fight, they come upon the gunslinger. John rolls his eyes and says to Peter that he’ll handle it. This time the gunslinger draws first and shoots John. John smiles in shock and bleeds out in the street.

Henchmen (1/8)

Yul Brynner’s gunslinger has no backups. The Black Knight, who kills the philandering husband, menaces for a scene or two.

This seems like a good time to mention that Dick Van Patten appears as the third guest in Western World. He has a dandy time with a whore one night. After the robot sheriff is killed he takes the job, telling the robots of the town that he’s “the new law around here.”

DVP practices drawing his gun in the mirror and accidentally shoots the mirror. He gets two whiskey bottles broken in the bar fight. He’s good comic relief.

Stunts (4/6)

Westworld has barely enough story to flesh out a feature film, so Crichton pads it with the tale of the husband from the plane and the Black Knight.

The husband is in Medieval World, his wife in Roman World. Both are eager to get laid. The husband seduces the queen and is eventually challenged by the newly arrived Black Knight, who looks more Cossack than not.

The Black Knight challenges the husband to a fight in the banquet hall. Each has a sword and shield. The queen looks on. The two men hammer their swords at each other.

In the control room a techie eats a sandwich while watching the fight. The Black Knight calls the husband a “scurrilous knave,” the 13th century’s ultimate insult.

The husband knocks two weapons from the knight’s hands. But he tires first, then loses his shield and bent sword before being stabbed in the gut.

Another fight is an extended rumble in the saloon. The techies start this fight as Peter and John play cards. They sit idly by until a robot falls on their table. They toss their cards like, “Aw darn, we’ll have to punch some folks now.”

And they do. The whole saloon erupts. Chairs and bodies are thrown, bannisters and tables break. We don’t know if this is quite as it’s supposed to happen. John has said “You can’t get hurt here,” and the robots punch the guests. Are they designed to? We don’t know.

There’s little stunt work in Westworld, but all the points go to the guy in the flame-retardant suit who stumbled around for several seconds engulfed in flames. He couldn’t hear the calls of “cut” on set to fall down. That guy was committed.

Climax (2/6)

Once John is shot in the Western World street, Peter finally figures out the dangers of the place. He immediately runs from the gunslinger, runs daintily, as if he’s never done it before. He finds a horse and rides into the desert.

Now comes a lot of chasing. The gunslinger, the creepiest smile on his face, finds a horse and follows Peter. We get to see the gunslinger’s pixelated view of the world. He’s been upgraded with the latest infrared sight package and enhanced audio.

The techies have cut all power, but they have no control over the robots. Also, the doors in their control are electrically sealed for some reason.

Into the desert they go. Peter rides atop a ridge, in full view of the the gunslinger. The robot draws a shotgun and shoots Peter’s hat off. Is he taunting the human? We don’t know, and that’s the scariest part.

The techies watching the carnage unfold in Roman World explain that some robots will run down in an hour, but others can last 12. Most of the guests will be dead long before then.

Peter rides into a narrow corridor. He leaves his horse and lies down on some rocks, aiming his pistol toward the approach. He doesn’t know about the gunslinger’s enhanced audio, but we do. Again in gunslinger-vision, we can’t see Peter but we can hear his heavy breathing like it’s a Texas twister.

The gunslinger empties his shotgun at Peter, missing every time. Peter runs away, leaving his gun behind. That Brynner Smile creeps up again, and it is chilling.

There’s more riding. Back in the control room, it’s 98 degrees and rising. Oxygen is falling. Why did they design the room like it was an Apollo capsule in space?

Back in Western World, Peter finds a techie changing a flat on a service cart. This guy is losing it. “There’s nothing you can do,” the guy says after Peter tells him a gunslinger is chasing him. It’s a 406 model, one of the techie’s favorites. “You haven’t got a chance.”

“Yes, I do,” Peter responds. He’s fully become a Hero. The gunslinger rounds the bend and shoots the techie in the gut.

Peter rides to the edge of Western World, riding up a stream and into Roman World. The gunslinger can track the hoof prints even in running water.

Peter leaves his horse and jogs through Roman World. Dozens of bodies are strewn about the manicured lawn. One of those bodies is the lusty wife from the plane. How many others are human we don’t know.

Dead in Roman World, or sexed out?
Dead in Roman World, or sexed out?

Peter finds a service tunnel cover, removes it, and climbs down the ladder. He doesn’t put the cover back for some reason. The gunslinger uses his infrared to track footsteps, but Peter doesn’t know that.

Now the chase goes behind the scenes of Delos Island. Peter runs through the sterile halls beneath the parks, where the only sound is of clicking boot heels.

Park planners provided no markings on the labyrinthine halls, so Peter runs and runs until he finds the control room and the techies dead inside it.

Peter finds the robot repair room and some vials of acid. He hatches a plan. The gunslinger arrives in the repair room. He should have seen Peter immediately. We know he has infrared sensing, and all the robot bodies are cold. But he doesn’t see Peter lying on a repair table until right he’s beside him.

Peter pops up and throws acid in the robot’s face. A fantastic effect shows the skin melting off Brynner’s face. *** The robot turns away. Peter doesn’t finish the job, instead running away.

Soon he’s faced with the gunslinger again, but the villain’s gun battery is dead. Good for Peter, who runs into Medieval World.

The gunslinger can only see in the infrared spectrum now. Peter doesn’t yet know this. Several swords are strewn across the floor in the banquet hall. Does Peter pick one up? No. He just runs around.

The hall is lit by several torches. Peter backs under one. The robot has a confused look on his acid-marked face as he contemplates the fire. Peter is smart enough to figure out that the fire masks his body heat. The robot looks right at Peter but can’t see him. He adopts a defeated look.

Peter of course ruins this by stepping on armor left on the floor. He’s quick enough to grab the torch as the gunslinger attacks and set the robot on fire. The robot is on fire for a LONG time, stumbling around for several seconds before collapsing.

Peter AGAIN leaves without finishing the job. He AGAIN ignores the weapons lying around. Robots have killed everyone, dude, take a weapon!

Down in the dungeon comes the faint cry of a lass chained in the stocks. Peter goes to her, doesn’t check to see if she’s a murderous robot, and unlocks her. He gives her water, which she doesn’t want, and she short-circuits.

Peter turns around and finds a crispy gunslinger grabbing at him. The robot falls down, its face missing, and it combusts, finally dead. Peter stumbles to sit on a step. He recalls the voice of the Delos commercial. “Boy, have we got a vacation for you!” Roll credits.

Jokes (1/4)

The comedy is light in Westworld, so this seems like a good place to discuss the wretched planning of Delos Island’s creators. Now that I think about it, the place is kind of its own joke. I proceed.

Delos Island wants to immerse its guest in the pleasures–and dangers–of its three time periods. The chief supervisor of Delos is concerned with the systematic spread of a virus amongst the robots. He charts this progression in one scene, saying that they planned for 0.3 malfunctions per 24 hours across the three parks.

Six weeks ago they saw a sharp rise in malfunctions, and not peripheral malfunctions, but central ones, which are supposedly worse.

The supervisor goes on to state, oh so casually, that computers design many of the robots. “We don’t know exactly how they work.” That’s meant to scare you. The chief technician doesn’t know how his product works.

Brynne with exposed eye?
Brynner with exposed eye?

Some other, lesser questions arise. The guests are given real guns with sensors that only shoot at room temperature items. The robots are room temperature, supposedly. However, the robots seem to have real guns as well. Somehow, the gunslinger comes across a real gun that kills John. Either that or he figured out how to hack the gun to shoot at anything.

In Medieval world, the swords are real. When the Black Knight fights the guest husband, the two smash their steel weapons into each other. The metallic clangs ring throughout the banquet hall. And the points are sharp, we know, because the Black Knight drives one into the guest.

Another problem is the robot aversion to water. Peter forces one to drink water, which short-circuits her. So if a robot caught fire, possible in Medieval World with its open flames, you couldn’t put it out with water. Roman World courses with fountains and pools, which would make the robots break down, I guess. Seems dumb. And such a fact would surely be in the orientation video.

Beneath the park is the control room. The tunnels are space-station sterile, even the areas the guest see, and there are no markings on any halls. Employees are just supposed to memorize their ways around, from day one? Makes no sense.

Many problems at Delos Island, but the park’s malfunction is the point of Westworld, so we can overlook it.

Setting (3/4)

Delos Island has three worlds: Roman, Medieval, and Western. Peter and John head to Western, so of course most of the action is set there.

Western World has all the trappings of Hollywood westerns. Not the actual post-Civil War American frontier, but Hollywood’s decades-long depictions of that frontier. That’s the whole point of Delos Island. Guests aren’t living history, but the tidy parts of history. Westworld might as well have shown us the actual parts of its Hollywood set.

Look at those giant computers!
Look at those giant computers!

Peter complains of the lack of comfiness of his Grand Hotel bed. John chides him. The place is meant to be authentic to the period. Peter lifts a porcelain piece with the date “1874” emblazoned on it. The whiskey resembles orange piss.

Outside of town are the beautiful painted hills of the Mojave Desert. They ain’t quite John Ford’s beloved Monument Valley, but they resonate.

Roman World, which we barely see, consists mostly of manicured gardens, and Medieval World, of which we see more, is set inside a large castle dining hall. Spacious, under the (probably) Californian sun, and brimming with playful energy, these three worlds beckon. There’s a reason guests pay a K per day.

Commentary (2/2)

One interesting aspect of Westworld involves its treatment of middle-aged women. Forty years before Fifty Shades of Grey and Outlander (the TV show, since the books started rolling out in the ’90s), Westworld imagines the sexual fantasies of middle-aged women.

The film opens with a commercial for Delos Island. A man with a microphone interviews folks just returning from a trip to the island. (The interviewer pronounces Delos “Dulles,” which I really wanted to be a sly commentary on the brinkmanship and aggressive communist containment policies espoused by former Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, by equating the fantasy island with the fantastic policies of Dulles. But I don’t believe that.)

This interviewer speaks with several returnees. “I shot six people,” one man enthuses. Another guy is literally named Mann. But it’s the woman who has something to say. The interviewer asks to hear about her favorite aspect of Roman World. “The men!” she blushes.

Later, on the plane approaching Delos, the passenger watch an orientation video. Western World is a “society of guns and action.” Peter likes the sound of this. Sitting behind him is a married couple. The husband is excited about Medieval World’s promise of romance and fighting. His wife perks up when she watches images of Roman world’s lustiness. The husband is less than enthusiastic.

There you have it–ladies like sexy men as much as men like sexy ladies. Revolutionary? I’m guessing it perhaps was in 1973.

Westworld has another message for us, of course. Technology goes wrong. Complex machines and complex systems are always malfunctioning in Michael Crichton stories, and this movie is no different.

What astounds in Westworld is not so much that the robots killed nearly everyone, but the poor design and oversight of the amusement parks. The head supervisor (Alan Oppenheimer, another nameless character) gives board members evidence that “central malfunctions” are spreading from one world to the others. Like a virus. Like a computer virus. Dun dun DUN!

The board members don’t want to hear it. After a snake bites John, one scientist actually says, “Everything’s fine.” Not long after that, people die.

Offensiveness (0/-2)

One of the scientists on the Delos board was a black guy! The only ladies were in the robot repair areas.

It was funny that the repair techs cover the robots with sheets when repairing them, for decency.

Others

  • Why is the movie called Westworld but the amusement park called Western World?
  • Crichton tried Westworld as a novel but couldn’t make it work. The parks, especially Western World, are built to remind guests of cliches from those historical eras. In Western World, this means western films. Yul Brynner’s costume is nearly a carbon copy of Chris Adams’s from The Magnificent Seven. That wasn’t an accident.
  • The plane flying into Delos is about 20 feet off the ground. So dangerous.

Summary (32/68): 47%

It’s easy to trace a direct line from Westworld to Jurassic Park. Both are parks where the science went wrong. Which of the two parks are more frightening?

Tough call. Dinosaurs are less intelligent than robots, but they won’t lose power after a few hours and shut down. I give the edge to the robots of Western World. Guests believe that the robots cannot hurt them. Attendees of Jurassic Park know that the dinosaurs would eat them in a heartbeat.

Westworld presents an interesting concept that needs more fleshing out. This movie could have worked as an episode of The Twilight Zone as effectively. Brynner’s menacing behavior saves the film from total disaster.