There are certain films that become personal favourites – not necessarily because of their quality or entertainment value but because they left a favourable impression when seen at a young age and always bring back positive feelings when seen again over the years. Personally speaking, one of those films is the 1973 sci-fi film ‘Westworld’.
I first saw Westworld as a young child on TV and its unusual and vivid nature made it a standout. It was one of the first films our family purchased on VHS back in the 1990s. I went to the Astor Cinema during the 2000s to experience it on the big screen as part of a double bill with Soylent Green and it clearly played better to the audience of the two films. And currently I’ve had the chance to view it on Blu-Ray which has made me think about its attributes and why it works so well.
The film – novelist Michael Critchon’s debut feature as writer & and director – is about a futuristic holiday resort where middle-class and upper-class types like central characters Peter (Richard Benjamin) and John (James Brolin) spend thousands of dollars a day at resorts in various historic settings. The main gimmick of the resort is that it’s populated by robots realistically made up to be human so that a guest can participate in debauchery or gunplay or swordsmanship without any real danger. At least in theory.
The film has a great basic concept but it can only work without skilful excecution and thanks to a deft debut effort from Michael Crichton as writer/director, it hits most of its targets.
Westworld is very smartly structured. It begins with a pre-credits sequence of a marvellously cheesy promo for the resort. This works in multiple ways as it is narratively efficient in that it outlines what the resort is about (and who it’s aimed at). As well, the ad has a delicious kicker during the film’s finale, revealing the horror beneath the gaudiness of the advertisement.
Crichton’s directorial style is fairly mundane and slow-paced but it actually compliments the film well because this isn’t a film iabout heroes and villains where fast pacing and action are paramount (at least of the human variety). The film is about building tension and dread through an elaborate technical system beginning to malfunction.
Notably, the technicians and scientists behind running the resort aren’t presented as villains. They’re perhaps guilty of complacency in not shutting down the resort immediately at the first sign of rising robot malfunctions, but no more than most people would have. They’ve just under-estimated the possibilities (both good and bad) that creating such advanced, sophisticated robots entails.
What does the film have to say about technology? It doesn’t seem to be concerned so much about advanced technology and its possibilities but moreso the purpose behind them and is more critical of using them for frivolous purposes. It has to be said that the film’s rather hazy view on technology isn’t particularly well-defined or substantial and that is one reason the film doesn’t quite reach greatness.
If the film casts a critical eye on anyone, it’s the guests themselves. It paints the guests as rather desperately and dismally trying to get some thrills out of interaction with mechanical machines, even having sexual intercourse with them; the film’s mundane style underlines this. There’s a brief but significant conversation between John and Peter where they talk about Peter’s recent divorce but the issue is quickly discarded. Clearly, going to Westworld is about avoiding such issues.
The main reason why Westworld has always been such a vivid film in my memory is the film’s chief antagonist, a robot gunslinger played by Yul Brynner. He barely has any dialogue but he is one of the most distinctive villains any film has had. It is the personification of everything that’s wrong with the technology on display and how it’s been used and he is truly terrifying in his remorseless nature.
The finale of Byrnner’s gunslinger chasing down Peter is a great example of extracting maximum tension out of a lengthy chase. The film doesn’t rely on action or ferocious pacing for its tension and excitement, but the concept of a robot being totally relentless in its desire to chase down and kill a human being. There are many terrific highpoints of excitement during this finale with one shock appearance that is genuinely unforgettable.
The film isn’t perfect. Some of the rules on the resort which prevent humans getting injured seem rather unlikely. And there’s a barroom brawl scene (which Peter and John partake in) which is self-indulgently long and whose atypically boisterous nature is rather jarring in the context of the film. Also, it is so spectacularly violent that it’s hard to believe that humans wouldn’t get injured.
But probably Westworld’s biggest problem is its lack of a specific point of view with regards to the technology on display. While it seems to be rather hostile to advanced technology being used for such frivolous amusement purposes, it’s hard to ascertain one way or other. The lack of a perspective on these questions means that the film doesn’t elevate itself to something profound and classic and instead just settles for being a really good piece of entertainment.
But these are only minor issues. Westworld remains a personal favourite film of mine over the years and will continue to be in whatever new format I see it in over the coming years.