EMPIRE ESSAY: Westworld Review

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A amusement park for rich vacationers. The park provides its customers a way to live out their fantasies through the use of robots that provide anything they want. Two of the vacationers choose a wild west adventure. However, after a computer breakdown, they find that they are now being stalked by a rogue robot gun-slinger.


"When somebody tells me they're interested in directing," Michael Crichton informed the Sunday Express back in 1979, "I usually offer to take the day off and tell them how to do it. Orson Welles said you could learn all you need to know about film directing in four hours. But I think he was exaggerating a bit. I'd say a day was about right."

The remarkable thing about this quote is not that Crichton genuinely seemed to believe what he was saying but that anyone should have asked his advice on being a director in the first place. For, while the Harvard-educated doctor is without peer as a writer of techno-thriller blockbusters, his reputation as a filmmaker remains less impressive. Indeed, most of the films he had directed before offering this quote (Coma, The First Great Train Robbery) are largely forgotten while the highlight of his subsequent work was to team Tom Selleck and KISS bassist Gene Simmons in the risible robots-go-mad Runaway.

In fact, Crichton's reputation as a filmmaker, such as it is, rests almost entirely on Westworld — an earlier robots-go-mad effort, albeit one vastly superior to Runaway despite not featuring the natural special effect that is Mr Simmons' tongue. Yet even Westworld is hardly without fault and certainly those early 70s viewers who left the cinema after an hour would not have regarded it as a classic. Nor could anyone really blame them.

Even the pre-credit sequence — in which a wooden interviewer asks returning holiday makers about their trip to the world's first robot-assisted resort — is stunningly dull. From there the "action" switches to our nominal heroes, Richard Benjamin and James Brolin, who are just starting their own holiday at Delos, a theme park divided into three separate areas (West-, Roman- and Medievalworld) where for $1,000 a day visitors can enact their wildest fantasies thanks to the fact that everyone they shove, shoot or, indeed, shag is a robot.

After some initial reluctance from the uptight Benjamin, our faux cowpokes get into the swing of things, drinking, whoring and shooting town robo-gunslinger Yul Bryner like there's no tomorrow. Unfortunately, for them, there is a tomorrow. A tomorrow in which the robots will malfunction and slaughter everyone they can get their indestructible hands on. The ensuing mayhem gives as much relief to the viewer as it does distress to the dwindling numbers of onscreen humans. Upon its release one critic was moved to write that the film was "An idea in search of a director" and, on the whole, it's difficult not to agree.

What makes Westworld such a great movie, however, is that in the climactic 20 minutes the "idea" takes over completely as Bryner first shoots Brolin dead and then relentlessly pursues Benjamin across the entire theme park until finally being burned into oblivion (an early script suggestion which had the robot "literally pulled apart" on a medieval rack was nixed at the last moment). It is a nightmarish, hallucinogenic, sequence in which Crichton's hamfisted scriptwriting matters not one jot because essentially there is no script — simply a helpless victim being pursued by an unreasoning angel of destruction.

Before Westworld "baddies" nearly always had some motivation. The brilliance of Crichton's concept — subsequently aped in films such as
Halloween, Friday The 13th and, most obviously The Terminator — was to construct a situation in which death could neither be exhausted nor distracted by any amount of badinage. But despite the admitted genius of Crichton's idea, the film ultimately belongs to Bryner who, like Henry Fonda in Once Upon A Time In The West, was deliberately cast against type, an about-turn made more dramatic by Bryner somehow imbuing the role with a definite personality.

"At the beginning of every film I've taken on I've always said it was a walkover," the actor explained while publicising the film. "And by the time I get to the first day of shooting my part has become the most complex structure ever. It's my nature — I complicate my work." While Bryner's cyborg may be both monstrous and motiveless it is also strangely human — a modern day Frankenstein's monster driven insane — something Crichton seems to be suggesting, by the inhumanity of the park's customers. He may not the biggest or the baddest "terminator" ever seen. But he remains among the best.

No masterpiece, granted, but an exhilarating final 20 minutes and a Terminator-inspiring idea elevate Westworld above the sci-fi Average Joe.