Review by Elizabeth Kingsley, from the film blog And You Call Yourself a Scientist! Reprinted by permission.
I love Westworld. I want to state that quite plainly at the outset because, while I do love it, I also have a lot of very serious reservations about it. This was the first film directed by Michael Crichton, made back in the early days of his career, before he was seduced by The Dark Side; and as with most of his early work, Westworld is a warning about the perils of mankind placing too much faith in technology. However, the film fails as a message picture because its central premise is utterly untenable.
Now, it may be argued that in contrast to The Andromeda Strain, which was successfully filmed as a taut science fiction thriller, Westworld was intended as a satire; and unquestionably, parts of the story are intentionally funny. However, there is also the sense that we are supposed to be wowed by the technology on display here, and disturbed by the notion of that very technology taking on a life of its own and turning on its creators. In other words, Westworld tries to be too many different things at once, and ends up afflicted by a distinct uncertainty of tone. Given the screentime granted to the behind-the-scenes running of Delos, and the reaction of the resort’s staff to the disaster confronting them, I think that in spite of the humour in the early scenes, we are supposed to take the film seriously, and that is precisely what’s wrong with it. No matter from which angle you choose to look at it, the whole concept of the Delos resort is farcical. First of all, who could afford to build a place like this, let alone run it, even if they were charging their guests a thousand dollars a day?
Consider the staff required to keep things running smoothly – supervisors who must monitor each and every robot every second the resort is operational, in order to ensure their appropriate interaction with the guests; electronics experts who can fix any problem within a couple of hours – all of whom must presumably be fed, clothed and housed on site (not to mention their families – where do they live?). Then there are the robots themselves. Granted, the idea of a confrontation between humans and almost humans remains an intellectually exciting one, but Westworld takes it well beyond the realm of the credible. We are asked to believe in robots that can talk, act, react with perfect spontaneity; that never sustain irreparable damage despite being repeatedly blasted with bullets; that cannot be distinguished from the real humans by anything other than a tiny design flaw; and that – at least in the case of the “female” robots – are physiologically perfect as well. And as if all this is not quite enough for the audience to swallow, on top of it we are then asked to accept the “rules” of Delos, despite their being violated every time the story requires it. For instance, the script harps continuously on the “authenticity” of the three worlds, then presents us with an immaculately clean 13thcentury Europe populated by individuals with impeccable personal hygiene. John Blane tells Peter Martin that the guns in Westworld won’t fire at anything with a body temperature, yet when the men have sex with the prostitute robots, we are led to infer that the experience is, ah, authentic. And speaking of those guns – what faith the owners of Delos must have in the prowess of their guests! Sure, perhaps the guns won’t fire when pointed at the guests, but doesn’t anyone ever miss? Don’t bullets ricochet in Westworld? And what happens when they pass through a robot, as happens when Peter shoots the Gunslinger? And while we know how the guns are supposed to be controlled, what of the swords in Medievalworld?
Questions such as these accumulate in the viewer’s mind until it is simply impossible to take the story seriously. And just to add insult to injury, the events behind the scenes at Delos are even less credible than those happening within the resort itself. Would you believe that the creators of Delos designed a control room with electronically operated, airtight doors? That they didn’t think to include a manual control (i.e. a door handle)? That when they cut the power to try and stop the malfunctioning robots (needless to say, it doesn’t work), they then find themselves trapped in an airlock with no way of escape!? As we watch these alleged geniuses suffocating to death, we can only wonder how Delos was created in the first place – certainly, nothing in these scenes impresses us with the intelligence of the people in charge. In fairness, there is one genuinely interesting plot thread in this section of the film, and that is Crichton’s prediction (or use? I’m not sure of my history) of the computer virus, when the Supervisor describes the increase in robot malfunction as mimicking “the infectious disease process”. (Amusingly, one of his superiors responds, “I find it difficult to believe in a disease of machinery.”) However, even this is undercut by Crichton being unable to find any credible explanation for the actual transmission of the “disease”. It just happens, and that’s that.
Apart from the technological impossibility of it all, the other major problem with the Delos concept is – who would really want this kind of holiday? (Admittedly, I’m probably not the best person to answer that question. I like my creature comforts too much – hot running water, indoor plumbing, that sort of thing. Now, if the creators of Delos had included Loungeroomworld, and furnished it with The World’s Comfiest Armchair, The World’s Best Television, The World’s Biggest Collection Of Movies, and The World’s Most Bottomless Cup Of Coffee, well, then we might have done business.) The opening scenes of the film consist of an advertisement for Delos, in which your standard talking head with a microphone interviews people returning from the resort. One man, having visited Medievalworld, reports that “I’ve had a couple of swordfights and three jousts – and I married a beautiful princess!” “Is that something you always dreamed of doing?” asks the interviewer gravely. “All my life!” responds the guest enthusiastically. Hmm….well, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never numbered “jousting” amongst my unfulfilled dreams. In fact, nothing on display at Delos appeals to me in the slightest – and that is exactly the problem: why on earth would any woman want to go there? Now, I’m not saying that a woman’s life today – or even in 1973 – is perfect, but I can’t think of a single point in history I’d swap it for. And the more Delos insists on its “authenticity”, the less desirable the whole experience becomes.
In the unjustly little-known western Hellfire, Marie Windsor plays the female outlaw Doll Brown, who explains her career choice in grim terms. “This is a man’s country – girl earnin’ a livin’ ain’t got much choice.” She further reveals that she was once a “saloon girl”. If we take that expression for the euphemism it undoubtedly was, we put our finger on one of Westworld’s major flaws. Try as I might, I can’t think of a single reason why a woman might want to have an “authentic” western experience – unless she’s always had some bizarre desire to be either a schoolmarm or a prostitute (and if the latter, why not just do it? – earn a thousand dollars a day, don’t pay for the privilege!). And yet when Peter and John are transported to Westworld, we see as many women going there as men. So difficult is this to believe that it really comes as no surprise when the question of what the female guests do in Westworld is never even touched upon, let alone answered. Indeed, after the arrival scene, we don’t see any of the vacationing women again until the final sequence of the film, when disaster has struck. This scene takes place in Romanworld; and the overall inference of the film is that this is the resort that most women will choose to visit. Why? Well, the orientation spiel describes it as “a lusty treat for the senses” while the opening ad sequence has a female guest breathlessly praising Romanworld for “the men!” and further describing it as “a warm, glowing place to be”. (Granted, it’s been some time since I read any Edward Gibbon, but I don’t recall him describing the Roman Empire like that….) In other words, women go to Delos for the S-E-X. Frankly, this strikes me as less a realistic viewpoint (who’d pay a thousand dollars a day to have sex with robots!?), and more your typical early seventies nervous reaction to the implications of the burgeoning women’s movement; and indeed, the script is so unsure of itself here that we spend no time at Romanworld at all.
Westworld is on firmer ground with its inferences of why men find Delos an attractive destination. In contrast to the “lusty treat for the senses” of Romanworld, Medievalworld and Westworld – the two predominantly male destinations – promise, respectively, “chivalry and combat” and “lawlessness, a society of guns and action”. The attraction, then, is violence – but safe violence, where no-one can really get hurt, including, most importantly, the perpetrators. (Mysteriously, the sex dichotomy implied here seems to extend to the robots: when Delos goes berserk, only the male robots commit acts of violence.) Initially, Delos seems like nothing more than an elaborate and expensive paintball arena – a place where, as one guest puts it, you can play “Cowboys and Indians – only for real!” But as the film progresses, a more sinister feeling begins to emerge, due principally to the swiftness with which Delos’s guests immerse themselves in a culture of killing. It is significant that most of Delos’s visitors are what might loosely be described as “civilised” men – lawyers, bankers, stock brokers. It is possible to see the relationship between the resort and its guests as a positive one, inasmuch as it allows these people to rid themselves of any anti-social urges in non-harmful way; or alternatively, it can be read as an implicit criticism of “the real world”, a society that has no place for such “natural” impulses as fighting and killing. But a third interpretation is possible, and it is here that Westworld becomes most intriguing; for after a time, it seems that the real attraction of Delos is not just violence without danger, but violence without consequences. This theme is present from the opening scene, where a guest, asked to describe his Delos experience, exults, “I shot six men!” As the film progresses, the acts of violence perpetrated by the guests escalate in both frequency and intensity: gun fights, bank robberies, and jail breaks, all resulting in streets strewn with “bodies”. A wild, drunken brawl breaks out in the saloon, and our “heroes”, Peter and John, throw themselves into it without hesitation. (Another gaping hole in the “authenticity” of Delos: what we have here is not so much an authentic fight as an authentic movie fight – after getting punched in the face repeatedly and having chairs and bottles broken over their heads, Peter and John emerge with nothing worse than hangovers.) Watching how eagerly these apparently civilised and law-abiding men take to a life of constant violence, it is hard not to wonder just what their conduct in the “real world” might be if they were as free from reprisal there as they are at Delos. And there is yet another, still more disturbing implication lurking within Westworld‘s scenario, one conjured up by the repeated insistence that Delos is a place where “all your dreams can come true” – namely, the rather dismal suggestion that the dreams of your average man rarely extend past a life spent brawling, fucking and killing.
The manner in which the psyches of Peter Martin and John Blane are revealed to the viewer is one of Westworld‘s major strengths. The opening scenes of the film sketch our protagonists for us with praiseworthy economy. Peter is a lawyer, a city-dweller, an urbanised individual who has lost contact with his manhood. John, on the other hand (whose profession we never learn), is a man’s man, comfortable with guns and hard liquor (Peter chokes on the Westworld whiskey) and scenes of violence. John has brought his friend to Westworld to help him get back in touch with his masculine side – and, incidentally, to get over his divorce, in which, modern wimp that he is, he allowed his ex-wife to “take him for a ride”. First complaining about the standard of the accommodation, then ordering a martini at the saloon, Peter completes his shame by hesitating when confronted by the Gunslinger. John, however, has no such qualms: “Kill him!” he hisses, forcing his friend to take action. Peter finally does, putting three bloody holes in his adversary. He then celebrates his first “kill” by visiting the local brothel. After this violence/sex double-header, Peter is clearly a “new man”, announcing triumphantly, “This place is really fun!” Meanwhile, the other male guests whom the story chooses to follow have also made the most of their opportunities: one has become the lover of the “queen” of Medievalworld, while the other (seen removing his wedding-ring while getting outfitted) wakes up in Westworld with a prostitute in his bed and a smirk on his face. Ahh – real men!
Yet surprisingly, having set up this scenario, Westworld then cuts the ground out from beneath itself, becoming increasingly more interesting with its examination of what exactly a “real man” is. If I can be permitted another cinematic digression here, while I was watching Westworld, I kept being put in mind of another early seventies movie: Deliverance. While at first glance you might think that there could hardly be two films with less in common, in fact they do have certain thematic similarities; namely, their investigations into what type of man is best able to deal with a crisis. Fascinatingly, both Deliverance and Westworld give the same answer to this question, and it is not at all the one you might expect. Both films centre around a pair of male protagonists, one of whom is the act first, think-later-if-at-all type (Burt Reynolds in the former, James Brolin in the latter), the other the more intellectual type (Jon Voigt, Richard Benjamin), clearly unused to the outdoors and with no taste for roughing it, and who is – initially at least – appalled by the prospect of violence. Of course, in both films disaster strikes – and amazingly, it is not the “rugged individualist” who survives and triumphs, but the thinker – the one who proves capable not just of resorting to violence once it is necessary, but who can keep his head under pressure and plan his course of action. Conversely, it is the “action man” who is the first one taken down in each story. This implicit celebration of the cerebral man is almost startling when viewed across nearly three decades of what are generally referred to as “mindless action movies”. I can’t help feeling that if either Deliverance or Westworld had been made a few years later, or if, God forbid, they were to be re-made today (not that Deliverance would be made today, but that’s another story), the reverse situation would be well in evidence, with anyone hesitating over whether or not to use violence blown away before the opening titles had even finished rolling.
I started out by saying I loved Westworld, and then I dumped all over it for several paragraphs. Well, I’m going to say it again – “I love Westworld!” – and now I’m going to tell you why: because it’s fun! In fact, it’s so much fun that I’m actually able to shut down that pesky rational side of my brain and just enjoy it – at least until after the end credits. If the film does go off the rails with its attempt to be a “warning” picture, there are still enough funny moments and inventive visuals scattered throughout to keep it thoroughly entertaining. Scenes that stand out include our introduction to a couple having separate Delos vacations, he in Medievalworld, she in Romanworld. He reacts to the thought of the various pleasures in store for him with a leering smile, which is abruptly wiped from his face when he hears what’s in store for his wife. Another memorable snippet comes when our Medievalworld visitor tries to seduce one of the castle “wenches”. Instead of complying, she slaps his face. (You go, girl!) Two watching Delos technicians are suitably horrified. “She is a sex model!” protests one. “She certainly is!” sniggers his companion. (Given that Delos is entirely staffed by men, I’m tempted to inquire how the male “sex models” were tested!) Other charmingly absurd moments include scenes of robots interacting when there are no humans around; the sight of a deactivated horse lying as stiff as a board in a Delos workroom; and my personal favourite, half a dozen grim-faced technicians peering with desperate seriousness into the workings of a mechanical snake. Richard Benjamin and James Brolin are both good as our supposed identification characters, but of course, the highlight of Westworld, and the one thing that nobody who sees it ever forgets, is the performance of Yul Brynner as the Gunslinger; a contribution that, by some cinematic miracle, allowed the actor to parody and enhance his image all at the same time. The final third of the film consists of the relentless pursuit of Peter Martin by his black-clad adversary, an extended sequence that is chilling, funny and suspenseful – and which also functions as an interesting personality test. Who do you cheer for, when the robots revolt? Whether you sympathise with the newly terrorised humans or the perpetually put-upon robots may well depend upon your own life experience. For me, one of the supreme pleasures of Westworld is watching the human characters learn what, sadly, far too few real life bullies ever do: that violence is no fun at all when it’s directed at you. Given Westworld‘s overall attitude, it comes as no surprise that John Blane is amongst the first of Delos’s real victims, first having a robot rattlesnake strike at him successfully (“That’s not supposed to happen!”), and then, when he and Peter find themselves facing the Gunslinger for the third – and in John’s case, last – time, choosing precisely the wrong moment to show off his gun-handling skills. This fatal confrontation is a beautifully choreographed scene, with time almost standing still as both men stare blankly at the blood pouring from the hole in John’s body. “I’m shot,” John says, so numb with astonishment that he seems oblivious to his own pain. “I’m shot.” They are the last words he will ever speak. Following hard as it does upon the casual divvying up of who is going to “kill” the robot this time (“Oh, not you again.” “Let me do it this time.”), the Gunslinger’s supreme act of rebellion is one of those jaw-droppingly wonderful moments that can turn a simple film watcher into a dedicated cinephile for life. –– Elizabeth Kingsley
WESTWORLD screens Sunday, January 1 at 3:00, and Monday and Tuesday, January 2 and 3, at 7:00 and 8:45. Tickets are $8.00, and can be purchased here.