Westworld was Michael Crichton’s very first foray into directing, a box office success that has retained its cult status over the years due to sharp casting (Yul Brynner is unforgettable everywhere, but even moreso here) and a slow burn premise that leaves its audience in a perpetual state of dread. It’s about to become HBO’s latest tentpole television series, and though the pacing of such a story will undoubtedly be different in a serialized format, it’s hard to dispute mining the tale for its subject matter.
To a modern audience, the ideas posed by Westworld are bound to be more relevant now than they ever were. And more importantly, they could use an update.
A cautionary tale through and through, Westworld was a sparse film, but an effective one. Much like Crichton’s later (and larger) success, Jurassic Park, Westworld told the story of an advanced theme park gone wrong; the visitors at Delos have the ability to pick between three themed historical settings, and robots fulfill their every desire in these worlds. Guests enjoy their stay in an alternate history of sorts for the price of one-thousand dollars a day, until the whole circus goes very very (predictably) wrong, and the robots start picking off the clientele due to some strange virus that’s corrupting their programming.
The chief antagonist of all of these proceedings is Yul Brynner’s “Gunslinger” robot, whose costume is modeled exactly on the character he played in The Magnificent Seven. The clever meta nod works just as well as Brynner’s unrelenting stride, carrying the character forward with a focus and inevitability that gives the film a horror-movie sheen.
Later on, Michael Crichton would bemoan the audience for focusing on that aspect of the story—the gunslinger’s quest, his mission to destroy the guest who previously shot him for sport. In an interview with Compute! back in 1985, Crichton explained that he doesn’t consider technology to be the enemy in his stories at all:
Everyone remembers the scene in Westworld where Yul Brynner is a robot that runs amok. But there is a very specific scene where people discuss whether or not to shut down the resort. I think the movie was as much about that decision as anything. They just didn’t think it was going to happen.
I don’t see technology as being out there, doing bad things to us people, like we’re inside the circle of covered wagons and technology is out there firing arrows at us. We’re making the technology and it is a manifestation of how we think. To the extent that we think egotistically and irrationally and paranoically and foolishly, then we have technology that will give us nuclear winters or cars that won’t brake. But that’s because people didn’t design them right.
With that in mind, Westworld is not meant to be cautionary tale about the terror of technology. It’s a cautionary tale about humanity’s failure to recognize its own fallible nature, our tendency to believe that all innovation is good innovation, and our inability to see past the monetary value of progress. All of these themes are commonly present in Michael Crichton’s work, and Westworld offers another fascinating backdrop to consider these foibles.
Unfortunately, Crichton’s usual pitfalls are present in the story as well. His characters are thin on the ground, offering very few defining characteristics or opinions on much of anything. The scientists do science and the two focal guests, Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin) and John Blane (James Brolin) are rote masculine cutouts, the former being the “sensitive” man who misses his ex-wife and is unsure about the whole experience, and the latter being your standard “man’s man” who is into the idea of barroom brawls and cigars and saloon girls. Atmosphere becomes the key factor because it is difficult to form an attachment to anyone on the screen. (Except for Yul Brynner. Because he’s Yul Brynner. …Did I mention that I really love Yul Brynner?)
There are plotholes aplenty in the tale, from confusion over why a room created to repair robots would also contain large bottles of acid (which Martin helpfully uses on the Gunslinger) to how Delos could possibly fulfill the desires of every client when there are so many vacationers who might wish for similar adventures. Why are the robots’ guns not programmed the same as the guests’, so that they cannot fire at anything with a high body temperature? For that matter, why would the robots get weapons with live rounds in the first place…
All of these are prime places to begin deconstructing what makes Westworld such a riveting framework, and how it might be expanded to really chew over its own themes. The upcoming television series has new technology to contend with, as well as questions of morality that the film chose to step back from. And the Gunslinger is fixated on Peter Martin—but we don’t really know why. The suggested “virus” that the park scientists come across is never examined in detail, nor the question of whether the virus is simply the emergence of sentience. We get a simple throwaway line about how some of the more advanced robots in the park were built by machines rather than humans, that their inner workings are basically beyond people. All of these ideas could be better explored, resulting in pseudoscience that reads with a little more plausibility.
Virtual reality might be an aspect of the television show, if the previews are anything to go by, which is a natural development given our current level of technology. (Though the robots themselves are definitely physical beings.) The question of class systems are highly relevant if the show chooses to make the current version of Westworld equally expensive—one thousand dollars per day/per person in the year 2016 is still incredibly pricey, and it’s more likely that the admission would be higher today. (Just adjusting for inflation makes one day at Delos a cool $5,565, and that’s presuming the show doesn’t take place in the future.) In all likelihood, Delos would only cater to rich guests, prompting questions of who benefits from the immersive environment.
And then there’s the question of sentience in the robots (or perhaps AI?) that service the park. It’s discomfiting enough to know that guests can murder or solicit the robot population of the park without throwing their awareness into the mix. If the workers of Westworld are truly their own form of sentient life, then the morality of the environment is altered entirely, introducing issues of slave labor and the autonomy of created life. The premise of the show is rife with these possibilities, places where the film could not go in depth on its own subject matter.
Remakes of the movie were considered over and over, but it’s no surprise that Westworld was eventually punted to the small screen. There’s a rich universe in the original concept that was ready to be mined—and perhaps the fact that it contains fewer details than Crichton’s other popular titles works to its advantage. We live in a world where we are constantly asking the question of how great a role technology should play in our lives. We also live in a world where the desire for more immersive storytelling continues to grow. Westworld is a natural culmination of those ideas, and will hopefully offer its audience more than simple sensationalism to mull over.
But if you really just want to watch an effective villain-stalking sequence, you can’t beat the original.
Emily Asher-Perrin really loves Yul Brynner a lot because he imprinted on her in childhood and also because he’s the best. You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.