If you caught the premiere for HBO’s Westworld, then you know why critics are raving. Our very own Danielle Ryan called the premiere “an incredible hour of television.” The sci-fi series is set in a theme park where the wealthy can live out their fantasies. The park is a model of the American Old West, populated by robotic “hosts” designed for pleasure. But this is not a new idea. Westworld draws inspiration from a 1973 film of the same name, written and directed by Jurassic Park‘s Michael Crichton. But for fans of the new series, is this cult sci-fi film worth a revisit?
Crichton’s Westworld opens on a weird note — we’re watching what appears to be a news segment. A well-dressed man with a microphone interviews tourists about their vacations at a resort called Delos. The interviews are so wacky that the scene comes across like the news segments from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. I suspect that’s intentional, though. Crichton shows a knack for comedy and satire here that seems uncharacteristic of his novels. But here, in this premise, Crichton knew there was goofy fun to be had.
Delos offers tourists “the vacation of the future today,” and the setup of their facility isn’t very different from the premise of HBO’s new show. But the film is a little more ambitious with its setting. Delos isn’t just Westworld. Guests can choose to visit Medieval World or Roman World, as well. Each area appeals to some hedonistic ideal. Medieval World is for the romantics — one of the movie’s subplots follows a middle-aged couple trying to rekindle their romance through a damsel in distress fantasy. Roman World is a decadent toga party. But with its gunfights, bank robberies, saloons, and whorehouses, Westworld is all about hyper-masculine wish fulfillment. Want to be the sheriff? Just ask!
The film’s main plot sticks with two friends, Peter (Richard Benjamin) and John (James Brolin). John’s been to Westworld before, but it’s Peter’s first time. The guy is a wimpy bundle of nerves — he’s anxious about what kind of gun holsters he’ll wear. But when the two men arrive in the costuming area to don their gear, I had a moment of déja vu. There’s a brilliant scene in Eli Roth’s (underrated) Hostel: Part II that plays out almost identically. The character dynamic — two rich men, one cool-headed, one nervous — is almost eerily similar. Frankly, I’m kind of shocked I didn’t see the parallels between Westworld and the Hostel films until I saw the former.
Peter and John, fresh off the guest tram and dressed in their period garb, explore Westworld. Here’s where the movie sinks a bit. For all the build-up, there is no big reveal. There is no moment where Peter and John step out of the sterile hallways of Delos and into the Old West. No Willy Wonka opening the door to The Chocolate Room to reveal paradise. It fails, on a very basic level, to sell the idea of Delos. The movie skips that critical moment, if only because the theme park doesn’t look particularly impressive. It’s no John Ford vista. It’s a corny backlot, the same kind of Western town set audiences had already seen in countless Westerns. Hence, there isn’t much incentive to sell it to us as anything more.
So because the film can’t execute the gravitas and grandeur necessary to be self-serious, it revels in being corny. It embraces its look in much the same way Star Trek did, back when it had to reuse alien costumes from other TV shows. Instead of creating an atmosphere of authenticity, interiors are bright and flimsy-looking, creating almost a studio sitcom look. Peter and John talk a lot about authenticity, and how Delos assembles their worlds and programs their robots to provide authentic interactions. But when everything else screams “fake”, you can see how Crichton used that to his advantage.
That’s the saving grace of this movie, really. Because for a full hour, there isn’t much of a plot. The conflict is mostly superficial because there are no stakes, no risk for our characters. Peter and John have gunfights, bar brawls, and sleep with robotic women. If it weren’t so funny, it’d be a real slog. All the while, Delos’s scientists notice an increase in errors in the park systems. But it’s never so bad that they evacuate the park. At the hour mark, all hell breaks loose. Robots are killing people left and right. The Gunslinger, a dueling robot played by Yul Brynner, stalks Peter and John. Brynner is the film’s most enduring element, and it’s easy to see why. He plays the Gunslinger as proto-Terminator, a determined killer with a battery-powered revolver.
But when the film doesn’t seem terribly concerned with building a complex conflict for its protagonists, all the smart ideas Crichton poured into Westworld feel blunted. A basic horror story about a wimpy guy who must learn to be not-so-wimpy undercuts much of the commentary about the American pursuit of hedonism and the quest for authenticity in luxury. Despite its shortcomings, the original Westworld is most definitely worth a watch.
It entertains even when the plot isn’t moving forward, and that’s a rare thing. It’s hokey, but Michael Crichton was very aware of that, and the film is better for it. But Westworld is a much better premise than a movie. It’s a brilliant premise, really, and that’s why Westworld has quietly endured as a franchise. After a 1976 sequel called Futureworld and a failed 1980 TV Show, Westworld is back. Will fans of the HBO show enjoy the original? I can’t be certain, but I’d recommend you give it a shot.
If Westworld’s unusual genre mash-up has piqued your interest, check out our list of some of the best sci-fi Western movies.