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Posts Tagged ‘Westworld’

It has become axiomatic that SF movies purporting to depict the future usually end up saying more about the time in which they were made – the fears and preoccupations that were prevalent at the time. To be honest, many of these don’t seem to have changed much down the decade: every generation seems worried about machinery going out of control, the threat of disaster and invasion, the dehumanising effect of technology – but every now and then you do come across something a bit more left-field. Michael Crichton’s 1973 Westworld is fuelled by a healthy dollop of techno-fear, but something which really marks it out as the product of its time is the presumption that, even in the future, the myth of the old west would still loom large in the American popular psyche.

Nearly forty years on, and the release of a major western is a newsworthy event – they’re just not made any more, at least not in anything like the quantities they once were. Westerns have been largely supplanted, ironically enough, by SF and fantasy. If you were to make a movie about popular fantasies these days, it would probably have to be called something like Tolkienworld, Zombieworld, or (even more ironically) Futureworld.

This does not stop Westworld being a classic movie, however. Set in the near future, the main characters are square-jawed alpha-male John Blane (James Brolin, looking uncannily like Christian Bale from some angles) and his rather less self-assured friend Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin). To help Martin get over a traumatic divorce, Blane is taking him to Delos, the world’s most advanced theme park. The three zones of the park recreate different historical periods in exacting detail, where the guests can live out their every fantasy.

Blane and Martin are visiting Westworld, the old west zone. Here there are robot horses to ride, robot townsfolk to interact with, robot prostitutes to – ah, you get the gist – and robot bad guys to gun down. Rather wonderfully, chief amongst these is a robot modelled after Yul Brynner’s character from The Magnificent Seven, who is therefore played (brilliantly) by Brynner himself, surely one of the most deft and inspired post-modern touches in mainstream cinema. However, while the two men enjoy their holiday, concerns are mounting behind the scenes at the park. For no apparent reason, the massively complex systems are slowly going out of the control of the technicians, and it’s only a matter of time before the fantasies the guests have paid for are being played out in deadly earnest…

Westworld is really a film in two parts. The first hour or so sets up the scenario and lays the foundations for the climax, and to be honest in the past I always found this section to be a little slow and lacking in focus. That said, watching it again, I can appreciate what a good job it does in establishing the characters of the two leads, and how many genuinely eerie moments it contains (for instance, Martin is disporting himself with a robotic prostitute, and – without him noticing – her eyes snap open to reveal a dead, metallic stare, even in the throes of simulated passion). It also says some interesting things, for those prepared to look for them – about how new technology is almost always initially employed to satisfy the most basic human desires (just cruise around the internet for a while and you’ll see what I mean), and about the unpleasant side of human nature generally: everyone at Delos is there to have their ‘dream holiday’, which for most of them seems to involve acts of violence, murder, and no-strings sex, all perpetrated upon the helpless park robots.

The techies at Delos can’t figure out why the breakdown rate at the park is inexorably increasing, but the film implies that the machines have acquired some form of unintended sentience and are gradually rebelling against their lot. This is slightly different from the usual ‘evil machines go on the offensive’ plot familiar from films like The Forbin Project or Demon Seed: it’s still a cautionary tale, but here the warning is not that technology itself is wrong, but the way in which we sometimes take it for granted. (It’s interesting to compare Westworld with its close relation Jurassic Park – another, rather similar Crichton story – in which the anti-technological message seems a bit more simplistic to me.)¬† Given the way most of the guests behave, one is almost inclined to start cheering the much-abused robots on as things go out of control in earnest in the final section of the film.

However, Richard Benjamin does such a good job of making Martin a likable, three-dimensional human being that you keep rooting for him to the end. There’s a moment when it suddenly dawns on him that the park has become ‘real’ and Brynner’s Gunslinger not only wants to kill him but is fully capable of doing it, and he carries it off without saying a word, just using his face and eyes.

From this point we’re into the climax of the film, which is a very different kind of animal, as Martin is relentlessly pursued by the Gunslinger around the park. This part was clearly a massive influence on the making of the original Terminator, but in some ways surpasses that film, partly due to its sheer simplicity, but also due to the quality of Yul Brynner’s performance. Brynner’s hardly in the film for the first hour or so, but he’s the making of the rest of it. Playing a killer robot double of yourself is not, you would have thought, the most engaging or demanding role, but Brynner appears to have completely invested himself in the part. SF cinema of the 70s and 80s is stuffed with people playing androids, robots, and other synthetic people, but few of them come anywhere close to Brynner in Westworld. Somehow he manages to drain all the humanity out of his performance, giving every movement and word a dulled, automatic quality. As a simple act of mime it’s remarkable: there’s a sequence near the end in which, accompanied by an unforgettably harsh and repetitive music cue, the camera follows Brynner as he stalks after Benjamin’s character – and it is like looking at a machine, Brynner’s movements are so mechanically precise and unvarying themselves.

And yet, even after all this, Brynner is still able to invest the Gunslinger with pathos as it tries to complete its objective even after being damaged. It’s a bit unexpected when this happens, given what has come before, but again Brynner is able to sell it. The film walks a fine line between keeping the audience sympathetic to Martin, and making them think the humans are getting what they deserve, but does so with notable success.

Westworld impresses me much more now than it did when I first saw it as a teenager. Back then I was rather dismissive of everything but the final chase, but looking at it again now I can see that this is a film with as many ideas and as much to say for itself as many other more intellectually celebrated SF movies. Good direction and terrific lead performances don’t hurt either. As usual with well-remembered old movies, we are threatened with a remake: but, again as usual, I really can’t see there being any point. This is a classic in the true sense of the word.

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