Sunday, June 26, 2016

Robo-Watch: Westworld (1973)



It had been some time since I'd watched the 1973 sci-fi classic, Westworld.  I'd rented it with Jason some time back in the late 80's, and I think we both really liked it (but, if memory serves, he'd seen it before).    I've only seen it again once in college somewhere along the line, enjoyed it, but not watched it again anytime in the last 16 years at least.  I've tried to watch the sequel, Futureworld, but just couldn't watch the 1976 film.  Something about the pacing lost me the one time I tried to give it a whirl.

It seems HBO is launching a TV series also titled Westworld which will greatly expand on the ideas presented in the movie.  It's got an all-star cast and looks to be the sort of thing I find interesting in science fiction.*  I'll be checking it out, certainly, and have high hopes.  Anyway, it got me fired up to review the original film once again.



The 1973 film of Westworld takes place in a non-specific near future where engineers have perfected lifelike robots that can pass the Turing Test with ease.  And used them to create an amusement park for adults to live out their fantasies.  And, yes, we mean all of their fantasies.  The park is broken up into three areas - Medieval World, Roman World, and (of course) Westworld, fully immersive environments where the patrons are deeply in the minority.  So, unlike, say, Disneyland where you consider it pretty great when you see Goofy walk by, you're one of the very few actual humans, and the illusion can remain mostly unbroken.

Guests are encouraged to do whatever they want, and are informed that there are no rules.  The robots won't harm them (that includes robot snakes, horses, etc...), and will fall to their seductions and always lose a gun/ sword/ what-have-you battle to them.

As interesting as that premise might be, of course the robots go crazy and start killing everyone.

If this sounds familiar in any way, Westworld was written and directed by Michael Crichton, the gentleman who wrote the novel of Jurassic Park.  So, this is the point where we point out that the Pirates of the Caribbean came to life and ate the customers.

What was a bit of Futureshock in 1973 has some interesting questions underlaying the film, and it's those questions that I suspect the HBO series will explore.  We're never exactly told what is happening with the robots and why.  I suppose that in the mid-1970's, a TI calculator coming alive and killing a middle-aged accounting executive was all the movie-going public needed to know (though I suspect many wanted more information at the time).  Technology was moving quickly and on the periphery rather than landing in the public's hands, and with you can see how the Imagineering at Disneyland with attractions like The Hall of Presidents could get the creative wheels turning.

Of course there's an angle to all of this that just kind of ran off me like water off a duck when I saw this as a kid - that adults are paying to indulge their every fantasy, and those fantasies include the murder and abuse of robots over and over.  That the robots are programmed for joyless sex and to fulfill the desires of every well-heeled tourist who shows up.  So what does it mean that the robots are starting to develop issues in their central systems?  That the rebellious acts are springing up like a virus through the computer systems?

All of this taking place in worlds where, of course, there is no ramifications for indulging in whatever behavior the patrons choose, and living out fantasies created less by history than by movies and books.  Violence may be doled out and someone just sweeps in to clean up the victims before breakfast.

The movie doesn't waste time pondering cause and effect.  "Humidity" is blamed as much as anything, but I suspect Crichton had some other motives in mind somewhere in there.

The cast is interesting.  Yul Brynner was well established as a star by 1973, so its odd to see him take a largely non-speaking role as a Terminator-like character.  The star is Richard Benjamin, an actor with sporadic appearances, and a quick rundown of his IMDB profile informs me that I've likely never seen him in anything else other than, it seems, Love at First Bite, which I don't remember.  James Brolin plays "the best friend", and then the next most familair names might be Majel Barrett and Dick Van Patten (who's fate we never see).

And, really, Brynner is the most memorable character.  Brolin may be having a good time and Benjamin may be a good stand in for the everyman, but Brynner's relentless robot pursuer sets the standard and makes me want to check him out in the same role in Futureworld.

It's a decent movie, briskly paced, and if a viewing leaves you with more questions than answers, I suppose the HBO series might fill in gaps for current sensibilities.

One interesting little bit - I'd always thought Ridley Scott rather clever for his "pin lights" in the irises of the replicants in Blade Runner.  But, no, there's the same effect in Westworld, and done in broad daylight.  And, of course, modern technology would provide a hundred updates to much of what occurs in Westworld with the same effect - I doubt they'd suggest that guns work only on "cold" things, but via RFID or some such.  It'll be interesting to see how they work all of this out.


*robots!

5 comments:

mcsteans said...

One question I had (that may have also occurred to me when you first showed it to me years ago but I can't remember) was - wouldn't it be disturbingly easy to hurt or even kill a fellow guest? It would be one thing if you were in the park by yourself and knew EVERYTHING else was robot, but there were a number of guests participating at once. If the robots are so realistic you couldn't tell the difference, it would be almost inevitable to accidentally kill another human. This especially stood out during the bar fight where people are just throwing punches (and furniture) left and right.

Anyway, it's something I hope the HBO series addresses (I honestly can't imagine it wouldn't come up).

p.s. I found it hilarious the last thing I did before hitting publish was to verify I'm not a robot. Heh heh. You'll have to take my word on that....

Ryan Steans said...

Yeah. That's where I started thinking "well, this is working on a negative rather than a positive". Like, the guns work in the absence of heat. Which means you can also shoot lamps, walls, or randomly. But what you'd want is for the gun to sense "I am now pointed at a robot", and, ideally, the gun would kick and make noise, but the robot would have squibs that would explode from inside like a gunshot rather than bullets tearing up your robot. That may mean the customer can't shoot out everything they want, but I am pretty sure you could rig the place to have some things that shoot out.

As per the bar fight - I had the same idea. You'd assume patrons would wear a badge or something to identify themselves so there aren't misunderstandings and lawsuits. With "seduction" assumed to work, you could see how that would get very tricky very fast unless the customers could spot each other.

RHPT said...

You should check out the tv series "Humans", it hits a lot of things you write about. It's a co-production between AMC and BBC. It might be streaming on Amazon.

J.S. said...

I liked the idea of Westworld so much as a kid that I wanted to go visit it- even after seeing the robots get nasty. Killing a few people with a glitch every once in a while with a minor glitch seemed a minor price to pay for all of the fun that the other guests were having.
I hope they do a good job with the show.

Ryan Steans said...

Lot of room for things to go wrong on the show, but I'm giving it a go. Because there's also room for things to go very right.