Westworld (1973)

Kids play make-believe by pretending to be cowboys and medieval knights, but at Delos’s amusement park for adults, guests can actually become those things (for only $1,000 a day). The Delos state-of-the-art theme park consists of three separate worlds (Roman World, Medieval World, and West World), fully populated with robots indistinguishable from human beings. In these worlds you can be whoever you want and do whatever you wish, and the best part is guests cannot get hurt. As the advertisement says, nothing can go wrong… go wrong… go wrong…

Co-workers Peter (Richard Benjamin) and John (James Brolin) are visiting West World (interchangeably referred to throughout the film as Westernworld, West World, and Westworld) to escape their jobs and marital woes. It’s a return trip to the park for John, and Peter’s first time. Through his wide eyes, we discover the wonder of Westworld. Approximately twenty people arrive along with the pair to Delos before splitting and heading to their respective worlds of choice. The robots inhabiting each world follow pre-written scripts, but contain enough artificial intelligence to improvise. There are good guys and bad guys, evil knights that challenge guests to duels and sheriffs who arrest bank robbing guests. Plot holes notwithstanding, we learn that the weapons wielded by androids cannot harm guests. Should anything go wrong, technicians monitor every interaction between guests and robots and can disable them instantly should troubles arise.

The company behind the park thought of everything… except a computer virus. When the robots begin to malfunction they turn violent and attack the park’s guests. It’s up to John, Peter, and the rest of the park’s visitors and employees to try and survive.

I revisited Michael Crichton’s 1973 directorial debut after watching several episodes of the HBO’s recent reboot. In the real world, a whole lot has changed since 1973, a time when very few people dreamed of owning (or even being able to afford) a home computer. (In my home office, I count half a dozen.) Robots with artificial intelligence were fanciful thoughts relegated to works of science fiction in 1973, and while we don’t have androids quite as indistinguishable from humans as the ones in Westworld, in a world where most kids know how to use a smartphone before they enter kindergarten, the concept seems closer to science than science fiction today.

As artificial intelligence evolves, ethical questions are raised. Do non-living creations have rights? Do they think, or dream? These ideas are being explored in HBO’s modern take on the franchise, but the original is less about intellectual and moral issues and more focused on the action — what could possibly go wrong in a town full of semi-sentient robots? The first time an android rams a sword into a guest’s gut, we find out. It’s a topic that Crichton would discuss in more depth in Jurassic Park, and while being chased by a Tyrannosaurus Rex must certainly be terrifying, being relentlessly hunted by a humanoid gunslinger in black (portrayed by Yul Brynner) is no less terrifying.

While the concept of Westworld is interesting, the film is far from perfect. There are plot holes galore when it comes to the park’s technology, from how the guns work to the safety of the guests, but even the film’s structure has some major issues. The movie is front loaded with exposition as the concept of humanoid robots had to be slowly explained to audiences in 1973, and in direct juxtaposition, the film’s third act (a solid 30 minutes) contains no dialogue at all as one character desperately tries to flee from another. Without a sidekick or inner monologues I understand the dilemma, but modern viewers used to explosions and action may find something lacking from the tension.

Fortunately the robotic revolt portrayed in Westworld has not come to fruition, and we haven’t (yet) had our creations turn on us en masse’. Everything from gas pumps to amusement park rides even modern weapons systems contain kill switches and manual overrides, giving human beings ultimate control and ensuring that nothing can go wrong.

Go wrong… go wrong… go wrong…

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