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Thursday, May 30, 2013

Westworld

MGM put out a modest sci-fi film in late 1973. Westworld (WW) turned out to be more influential than it seemed at its release. MGM allowed the production a pretty modest budget, so the results were greater than they seemed. WW was written and directed by Michael Crichton when he was only 30 (of later fame with Jurassic Park, but more on that below). WW starred Yul Bryner as the robot gone bad. Richard Benjamin stars as the hunted human. a bevy of other stars familiar to television productions lend WW an air of a made-for-tv movie. Dick Van Patten, James Brolin, Majel Barrett, etc. Crichton wrote The Andromeda Strain in '69 (film in '71). This time, instead of a space virus killing people, it will be a computer virus.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Delos is a luxury vacation destination for the wealthy. Three simulated "worlds" provide themed escapism. Roman World is apparently built around the orgy and not much else. Medieval World is a castle realm of knights and ladies. West World is a live-in western movie. John is showing his friend Peter around. Most of the "people" in Westworld are actually robots. Human guests can shoot and "kill" the bots (who are retrieved each night for repair and return to service) Robots cannot harm a guest. The staff of Delos, however, notice recurring flaws in the robots' programming. Thinking that they can manage the errors, they do not shut things down. Peter shoots a robot gunslinger (Bryner) per the theming, but the repaired Gunslinger remembers Peter and seeks revenge. Peter shoots the Gunslinger again. The technicians repair him, but upgrade his vision and audio equipment. Gunslinger 2.0 seeks out Peter again. This time, he kills Peter's friend John. The technicians cannot shut things down. In fact, they're trapped inside the control room without air. (they all die). The robots run amok in all three worlds, killing guests and each other. Peter flees the Gunslinger. Out in the desert, a hapless technician tells Peter he can't outperform the robots. His only hope is acid in the eyes or something to reduce the robot's performance. Gunslinger kills the tech. Peter flees further, eventually passing through Roman World (and all the dead bodies). He finds a manhole down to the tech level. Gunslinger follows him. Peter finds a bottle of acid in the repair room. He pretends to be a bot awaiting repair, then throws the acid in Gunslinger's face. Sizzle and smoke. Peter leaves to find Medieval World and more dead people. Acid-burned Gunslinger follows Peter there, but his acid-damaged eyes are befuddled by the fire-torches. Peter sets Gunslinger on fire. Peter thinks he's rescuing a pretty woman chained in a dungeon, but she was a bot too. Spark smoke fizz. The charred Gunslinger again goes for Peter, but falls off the stairs. He finally smokes, sparks and burns. Peter looks on, pensively, recalling the sales hype about the vacation of his dreams. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Yul Bryner steals the show. His portrayal of the obsessed robot is the highlight of the film. The fact that he is reprising (in a way) his character of Chris Adams from The Magnificent Seven ('60) is fun for Westerns fans. There are many tangents and food-for-thought woven into WW.

Cultural Connection
Technophobia: Since the Cold War was no longer the boogey man that it once was, cultural angst in the early 70s promoted a few other boogey men. Computers were becoming more and more a part of the culture. In the Cold War era, we had Gog ('54) with an enemy taking over our complex technology. The Last War ('60) and Fail Safe ('64) in which flawed systems destroy the world, or almost. For super computers running going rogue, we had The Invisible Boy ('57), then the HAL 9000 in 2001 ('68), then Colossus: The Forbin Project ('70), now Westworld. People were fascinated with technology, but beginning to see it as a subtle version of Frankenstein's monster -- created with good intentions (and hubris), but a penchant for turning on their creators.

Notes
Disney's Dark Side -- Author Michael Crichton visited Disneyland and was particularly impressed with Disney's animatronic Abraham Lincoln. He took the theme park idea, with simulated humans, to a natural extension. Crichton was fond of weaving cautionary tales about technology getting too complex for man to really keep tabs on it. The Delos resort is also a quietly biting commentary on the culture that seeks such themed escapism. Delos is the dark side of Disney.

Beyond Dodgeball -- The school board of Windham, NH, prohibited Dodgeball from being part of the physical education program. Why? Because they disapproved of games which made humans the targets. This is post-Columbine, et al, and certainly WW was very much PRE-Columbine, but how strange (nowadays) for a resort theme park's premise being that it was okay (even encouraged) to kill the almost-human robots. If playing violent video games is thought to cheapen life and train today's youth to be cold-hearted killers, what would a resort like that have done?

Precursor -- WW was Crichton's first theme-park-gone-wrong story. His more famous one will be Jurassic Park and its many sequels. The message is much the same. Man, in his hubris, tries to recreate another time or place for the amusement of "modern" man. This other place is dangerous, but in that hubris, men think they have everything under control. They do not, and the creation becomes their hunter. In Bryner's Gunslinger character can be seen the roots of Arnold's Terminator bot. The prostitute bots -- "sex units" -- are a precursor to the artificial wives in Stepford Wives. WW was a trend harbinger.

Virus Debut -- WW may be the first screen portrayal of a computer virus. Since, in 1973, the only computers were massive room-filling machines -- not desktop PCs -- the public had no experience with them. Yet, WW shows a very modern view of a computer virus. The systems were so complex that even their makers and handlers really did not fully understand them. The Chief Supervisor describes to his board how "something" infects systems in one area, and they can see the "infection" spreading. The Delos virus altered the Thou Shalt Not Kill program in the robots. Crichton was ahead of his time.

Computer Graphics -- Some hoopla was made at the release of WW about how it used digital technology. This was confined to the pixelated images that were the Gunslinger's point of view. In the era of digital cameras on almost everyone's phone, pixelated images have to "gee whiz" factor anymore. But in 1973, it was very cool.

Plot Holes? -- WW is not a perfectly told story. Some incongruities may be chocked up to the limitations of a feature-length film. Books get the luxury of omniscient narrators to explain things. Some plot holes mentioned by others include: If the robots are cold, so the heat-sensor guns will shoot them, the sex models would be discouragingly cold too. Not necessarily. The sex bots could be warm. No need to shoot them anyhow. Guns can be rigged to not shoot warm blooded guests, but swords? The "safety" there, would appear to be giving the knight-bot slower reflexes or making more mistakes so the human can win. The black knight was not making the programmed mistakes. The bots drank whiskey just fine, why did the girl bot spark and smoke when given water to drink? She could have been damaged (beaten?) such that the usual liquid containment was broken. Why would they build a sealed control room with no emergency escape door? Delos built the whole place on the hubris of relying on their technology. Electronic doors and ventilation? What could go wrong? The control room is a parallel set piece to the robots going wrong. If the Gunslinger can see heat, why didn't he spot Peter on the lab table right away? This actually seems to be a plot problem. Any reader input on why he might have not noticed him?

Bottom line? Westworld is a 70s classic. It's not perfect, but it raises many topics for conversation. As a technology cautionary tale, it is still relevant today. WW is also a forerunner to many other rogue-bots films. Viewers disturbed by on-screen gun violence should be warned. Beyond that, the pacing is very brisk once the Gunslinger is hunting Peter. WW is one of the must-see sci-fi of the 70s.

1 comment:

James Elfers said...

Actually Yul Brenner is wearing the VERY SAME outfit he wore in The Magnificent Seven! It is the best joke in the movie and a deliberate nod to the audience that West World is a fantasy old west and Not anything resembling reality. Terrific visual shorthand on the part of the director.