1973’s “Westworld:” sci-fi horror meets western pulp

“Westworld”’s closest comparison is the infinitely more popular film franchise of “Jurassic Park”, and for more reasons than their notably similar premises. Both follow the dangers and moral dilemmas of running theme parks that exploit manufactured life for the cheap thrills of a few enamored tourists. Both were, in one form or another, made by Michael Crichton, a pulpy sci-fi author and occasional director whose work was often more surface-level than it was profound.

Finally, both recently saw their series’ revitalized in the form of soft-reboots, newer, darker, higher-budget films, both acknowledging their predecessors with throwaway lines about previous crises in the parks.

The long and short of it is that I prefer “Westworld’s” campy approach to its narrative, but can’t help but admit that its presentation and execution fails to fulfill the story’s potential.

The original “Westworld” is a 1973 film set in a distinctly 70s view of the future, one in which robots can mimic humans flawlessly, save the skin on their palms, yet TV broadcasts are still grainy, ascots are in style, and the vacation of a lifetime costs no more than $1000 a day.

Our protagonists are decidedly average men, and this works well in a film about a theme park meant to make average men feel like adventurous gunslingers. One is new to the attraction, the other is experienced, and guides him through the machismo roleplay, helping him order whiskey, shoot down his first opponent, and hire escorts at the local saloon. The movie is dominated by these experiences, alternating with intentionally immersion-breaking scenes of the technicians that work behind the scenes.

The contrast between the boring tasks of running the park and the scripted larger-than-life experiences that occur within make even the most stunning feat of our protagonists seem ultimately underwhelming. It isn’t until the end of the film that the two arcs seem to have any real impact on one another.

‘Spoilers’ for the original “Westworld” follow, but the only real spoiler I can tell you is that the conflict you went into the film expecting doesn’t actually occur until the last half hour. Sure enough, the park becomes fatally dangerous for both its guests and its staff, with the safeguards put in place to prevent the robots from harming the tourists suddenly vanishing. Yul Brynner plays the unnamed ‘Gunslinger’, a robot usually built to be killed to the content of the guests, but outfitted with superior firepower and aiming capabilities nonetheless. I’d be surprised to hear that Brynner’s performance did not, in part, inspire the character of the Terminator, but that’s pure speculation.

The final act has a few neat visual gags, as the protagonist ventures so far out of his designated slice of the park that he finds himself racing through the neighboring ‘Romanworld’ and facing his pursuer in ‘Medievalworld’.

“Westworld” ends with an unexpectedly hard-hitting moment, but through the credits I couldn’t think of the film as being so successful of a think-piece as it was a campy science-fiction.

Starting the new HBO series, I was worried about everything one should be reasonably worried about when seeing a remake or ‘re-imagining’ these days. That it would be needlessly darker in tone (and often actual lighting), grittier, and more explicitly violent, trading in its charm for some shallow semblance of maturity.

Thankfully, the pilot episode seems to have taken my predictions and turned them on their heads in a few effective ways, mostly because the story does the same. The new series, to say the least, seems to be especially more interested in the technicians and robots than it is the guests. The plot’s fairly original, and while I doubt it will ever be as amusing a watch as the 1973 original, it seems a worthy revival of the franchise.

Post Author: tucollegian

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