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"Boy, have we got a vacation for you!": 'Westworld' (1973) Review

"Boy, have we got a vacation for you!": 'Westworld' (1973) Review

Before 2016's fantastic re-imagining one would have been hard-pressed to find anyone under 25 who had heard of Westworld. Thanks to J.J. Abrams and Jonathan Nolan however, it has become HBO's hottest property next to the rating juggernaut Game of Thrones. But before Evan Rachel Wood was learning the truth about the Westworld park, Yul Brynner was hunting down frightened guests in the original 1973 film written and directed by one of technoscience fiction's greatest writers Michael Crichton. The film would not only launch the mainstream career of Crichton but also sow the seeds for a future work of fiction that would become his magnum opus.

The film stars Richard Benjamin and James Brolin as two guests who travel to the Delos amusement park so that they can experience one of the three "worlds" that they company has created. For $1000 a day, guests can choose a Medieval World, Roman World, or Westworld as their playground, able to screw, kill, or do as they please with a menagerie of life-like robots. It's an adults-only amusement park that aims to replicate these worlds down to the cutlery used and attire. However, things go awry when the robots begin to act out against their programming and start to attack and even kill the guests, creating havoc within the park.

If the premise behind Westworld sounds eerily similar to Jurassic Park, that's because it laid the groundwork for what would end up being Crichton's most well-known work. It created an idea that Crichton was able to build upon and refine with Park nearly twenty years later. The "attractions" running wild, the management refusing to shut down in the face of massive problems, and guests being thrown into the mix; all of the general ideas are there. With Westworld however, there is a single villainous force that stalks our heroes, unlike Jurassic Park which features an entire park full of hungry dinos looking for a meal. That villain, in classic Western tradition, is the nameless Gunslinger.

Without Yul Brynner as the Gunslinger, Westworld would be but an interesting footnote in the career of Crichton since he refined the formula nearly twenty years later. Similar to Anton Chigurh of No Country For Old Men, Brynner is an omnipresent force that stalks Brolin and Benjamin with reckless abandon throughout the badlands of Westworld and laboratories of the Delos. He stalks his prey with cold-hearted menace, drawing comparisons to the Chigurh as mentioned earlier and Schwarzenegger in the original Terminator. There is even a scene reminiscent of the Terminator's HUD towards the end of the film with Brynner scanning a pixelated landscape for his prey. Coupled with his bald head, all black attire, and silvered eyes, he is a vision of mechanical death. His emotionless face and blank eyes allow the viewer to wonder whether the Gunslinger is aware of the mayhem it is causing or whether it is following its programming. While not explicitly explored in the original film, the question of the robot's actual purpose and ability to process their feelings is analyzed more in the 2016 show.

Outside of Yul Brynner's iconic performance, Westworld leaves much to be desired, especially with the rest of the cast. Brolin and Benjamin are suitable as their respective characters, but there is never any depth given to them outside of core character tropes. It's unfortunate since James Brolin is one of the '70s most recognizable leading men but is given little do outside of being Benjamin's guide to the ways of Westworld. Benjamin plays the part of nebbish newcomer that is unimaginative and generic in its portrayal. Outside of the two leads, there is little else in the way of memorable performances outside of Dick Van Patten attempting to act tough as Westworld's new sheriff. 

Along with lacking memorable characters, the film does not have a focused narrative. There is more interest given to showing off novel concepts rather than exploring big picture ideas about corporate greed and technology run afoul. The leads wander aimlessly from one Western trope to another, getting into trouble with the robots and other guests. Ultimately, everything that happens before the robots go haywire, which is only about the last 1/4 of the film, is forgettable. It's unfortunate but to be expected as the film clocks in at barely an hour thirty. Would it have worked better as a novel? Yes, but it did since its mostly Jurassic Park with Yul Brynner instead of scaly velociraptors.

Westworld is not only a one trick pony but a base layer for what would later become Crichton's obsession with the proliferation of technology into our lives with a decided sci-fi angle. Brynner's performance elevates the film from mediocre '70s sci-fi to a worthwhile watch, but only barely. So much else of the movie does its best to negate everything that Brynner does so well. It's a masterclass in villain acting and a role that seems to have influenced many performances through today. Crichton was onto something with Westworld, it would just take some time, a couple of mosquitoes stuck in amber, and a full-length novel to fully explore. 

Final Verdict: 3 out of 5

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