Thursday, November 24, 2016

Westworld (1973)

Director: Michael Crichton                              Writer: Michael Crichton
Film Score: Fred Karlin                                  Cinematography: Gene Polito
Starring: Yul Brynner, James Brolin, Richard Benjamin and Dick Van Patten

For all his popular success, Michael Crichton was never a great writer. Most of the time it’s not that evident in his film productions, when someone else is adapting screenplays from his novels. But Crichton wrote and directed Westworld, and it shows. It was his first original screenplay and none of the studios wanted to go near it. But he finally was able to strike a deal with MGM, and filmed it primarily on their back lot. Even compensating for the fact that it was filmed in the early seventies, the film still looks like a television production rather than a feature. The sets are clearly TV sets rather than anything remotely realistic, and much of the crew was from television as well. The cheapness of the sets can be explained away by the premise of the film in which a sort of computerized theme park gives guests a realistic experience of being able to kill or sexually dominate robots, allowing visitors to experience the illicit without the illegality. So it stands to reason that the park wouldn’t be that realistic. Still, while the premise is intriguing, the execution leaves a lot to be desired. The special effects, especially the shots out of the windows of the futuristic plane in the beginning, might have been advanced for the day but they are hopelessly phony here. The practical effects, on the other hand, are well done. Even so, the production was never going to be able to rise above its obvious artistic deficiencies.

The film begins with television reporter Robert Hogan interviewing people who have finished vacationing at a futuristic resort that allows visitors a full immersion experience in either Roman times, the Middle Ages, or the American West. All of the interviewees are gushing in their praise. Then the scene shifts to James Brolin and Richard Benjamin who are on their way to Westworld. After landing and being outfitted they wander down to the saloon where Yul Brynner verbally abuses Benjamin at the bar. Brolin, who has been there before, urges Benjamin to confront him. When he finally does, the two draw and Benjamin kills him with three shots to the chest. Brynner is dragged away soon after and back in their room Benjamin wonders aloud if Brynner might have been a guest rather than the realistic robots that inhabit the theme park. Brolin suggests he try to shoot him, but the gun won’t work when aimed at a warm target. Later the two go to a whorehouse and have sex with robot prostitutes, and all the while a bank robbery is going on across the street. In a somber scene that night, workers come out and remove the robot bodies that litter the street. They are taken behind the scenes and repaired, with head “doctor” Alan Oppenheimer in charge of the operation. He notices that there has been an increasing rate of central mechanism breakdowns in the robots in all three worlds and, most disturbing, it’s acting like a virus that threatens to infect all of the robots.

Eventually a series of minor mishaps leads to the death of one of the guests in the Medieval World, and though the technicians try to turn off the power in the complex it does no good and the robots begin to go rogue, especially Yul Brynner in Westworld. Brynner, who earned his western bona fides in The Magnificent Seven in 1960 and Invitation to a Gunfighter four years later, is the perfect relentless robot in the film. The look of his character was even based on that from the earlier movie. Barrel chested, with pale eyes and a hard face, he shows no signs of stopping as he pursues Richard Benjamin. But there are a number of things that strain credulity, chief among them the fact that the entire complex was apparently designed so that the technicians will be locked in if the power goes out. Of course they shut down the power and then can’t get it back on, trapping themselves inside, powerless to do anything as the robots go on their rampage. Also, for no apparent reason, they upgrade Brynner’s optical and audio systems, enabling him to chase down Benjamin with even greater efficiency. This was also one of the first films to use pixelated imaging to suggest the robot’s point of view. But that is sort of negated by the bulk of the computer screens in the control room displaying nothing but meaningless computer art of the kind found on early screensavers.

One of the things Crichten is able to do well early on in the film is to inject the repair scene with a lot of pathos. The technicians are dressed like doctors, and computer readouts look and sound like medical machines in a hospital. The effect--as intended--is jarring. There’s also no denying the influence of the Brynner character on the Terminator films. But overall the film is little more than a string of clichés, from the TV sets, the corny music by Fred Karlin, the costuming, right down to the acting. Yul Brynner is the best actor of the bunch and he’s playing a robot. While James Brolin and Richard Benjamin made a lot of feature films in the seventies, they are primarily associated with television as well, and for good reason: they’re just not that convincing. Add to that Dick Van Patton as the new sheriff in town, as well as a host of low-level television talent rounding out the rest of the cast and it was always going to look like a TV movie. Nevertheless, fans at the time made it a huge hit, but to Crichton’s dismay it was more because of its camp value than for the cautionary tale he had tried to tell. The film spawned a sequel, Futureworld, that starred Brynner again but that Crichton had nothing to do with, and quite naturally a television series called Beyond Westworld. And it has been recently revived by HBO as a series as well. The concept of Westworld is intriguing, and there is much that could have been done with it, but it never really rises above its television pedigree and remains a missed opportunity.

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