Westworld (1973)

westworld_ver2With the arrival of the Westworld TV series, I came across the original film, the quintessentially 70’s sci-fi gem that inspired it. I must lament the proclivity of our times for flashy, big budget reboots. After all, the Westworld TV series has barely even started, and the mainstream press treats it like the best thing since sliced bread, all while barely any credit is given where it’s due, which is such a shame because this film was one of the most innovative films in sci-fi before the genre give way to big budget braggadocio.

The premise is familiar, but nonetheless a curious one. The film is set in an adult-oriented luxury amusement park named Delos, known for its hyper-realistic simulation of themed environments – Roman World, Medieval World, and of course Westworld. Each world is populated by androids that bear an uncanny resemblance to humans, and are programmed to cater to the whims of Delos patrons. However, a computer virus begins to spread throughout the system, and the robots begin acting against their programming, and some even start killing patrons. All the while, two patrons find themselves being stalked by a robotic gunslinger (unofficially the film’s mascot).

At first the story seemed vapid and sluggish in pace, perhaps an apt representation of a Delos patron wallowing in a fantasy that comprises principally of chasing animatronic prostitutes aimlessly. Of course, this is just building suspense up to the point when things start going wrong in the park. Among a number of themes, the story addresses the kind of comfort humans have gotten used to thanks to advances in technology, and how that dependence will eventually come back to haunt them. That’s the most obvious theme, but also the most prevalent in Westworld, whose slowly paced yet multi-faceted plot seem to allow for the blending of elements from Western, sci-fi and thriller films.

The acting and characters aren’t necessarily the best part, but in a way the two patrons serving as the film’s two main protagonists illustrate the vapidity of instant leisure. One of them, played by James Brolin, seems chiefly concerned with satiating his own lusts, to the point where he would rather stay in a hotel than partake in a simulated gunfight, which I would argue would be more fun. The other one, played by Richard Benjamin, doesn’t seem at all fazed by the sex, and is more interested in the more hands-on pleasures that hyper-realistic simulation has to offer. The character stealing the show, of course, is Yul Brynner’s gunslinger, based on Brynner’s character in The Magnificent Seven. You first see him in much the same way as a typical Western gunslinger, but as the virus spreads, the gunslinger’s true nature as a cold, efficient mechanical assassin is revealed, and it becomes the driving force of the rest of the story. As the Terminator of the 1970’s, Brynner’s performance was brilliant, and he barely even talked.

For its time, Westworld looked impressive, and in terms of atmosphere, it had the feel of a classically chilled 70’s sci-fi film Alongside the old-fashioned practical effects, the film also made use of digital image processing, where the gunslinger’s point of view is represented as a pixellated world, and this adds to the cold atmosphere that Westworld conveys. A lot of older sci-fi films from the early 70’s might seem cheesy today, but not Westworld, with its uncanny realism and chilling pace. The TV series may yet take the original concept to places it hadn’t been before, but it will never replace the original classic. No reboot can or ever will.

  • Score: 85%
  • Grade: A
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