FILM REVIEW: Westworld (1973)

Westworld (USA, 1973)
Directed by Michael Crichton
Starring Yul Brynner, Richard Benjamin, James Brolin, Alan Oppenheimer

People always complain about film adaptations of books never living up to the source material, and yet when novelists turn to filmmaking the results are hardly extraordinary. The problem is often that novelists are so attentive to verbal content that they neglect the visual characteristics of great cinema. Stephen King's adaptation of The Shining may follow the original story more closely, but it isn't half as scary or discomforting as the Stanley Kubrick version.With Westworld, the task is made doubly difficult by the sheer number of genres involved. Michael Crichton's first film contains elements of pretty much every genre apart from rom-com, musical and gothic horror. It's an odd little number, shifting rapidly from western and action-adventure elements into conspiracy thriller territory, borrowing from horror as it goes along. While it never quite comes through with the goods in the way that we would like, it remains an interesting debut effort and a decent 1970s cult film.

The first thing in Westworld's favour is its achievements on a technical level. It was famously the first film to utilise pixelated graphics, showing certain short sections of the action from the androids' point of view. Original footage shot on celluloid was scanned into a computer and processed digitally, creating a blurred and distorted image which makes Yul Brynner's killings seem all the more merciless.The old-fashioned effects are pretty good as well. To create the effect of acid being thrown into Brynner's face, the production team mixed ground-up indigestion tablets into his make-up; when water was thrown at it, it would fizz to give the impression of skin being dissolved. The make-up and prop-making in general is impressive, particularly when it comes to the robots themselves. Brynner's face mask is very life-like, and seeing his charred body stagger into close-up without a face is quite creepy.Westworld's chief significance, however, is in its influence on subsequent thrillers. Crichton would rework the central premise of an elaborate amusement park gone wrong for Jurassic Park, one of Steven Spielberg's biggest and best blockbusters. Yul Brynner's Gunslinger was the Terminator of its day, with the same jerky, mechanical posture and relentless desire to kill. And there is some discussion about robots being indistinguishable from humans and being used as "sex models", subjects which would later be tackled in Blade Runner.

The various worlds of the Delos complex allow Westworld to dip in and out of various genres, picking and choosing as it sees fit. It only becomes a conspiracy thriller in its third act, with the duel between Yul Brynner and Richard Benjamin becoming the driving force of the plot against a background of total chaos. In fact, one of the weaknesses of Westworld is that it dabbles a little too much. It gets so distracted by the various sub-plots - for instance, the knights duelling in Mediaeval World - that when all hell breaks loose, you don't feel quite so threatened by it.The film attempts to address a number of ideas which have become archetypal of low-budget 1970s cinema. Most obviously, it deals with the idea of a perfect machine going wrong, and by extension how mankind's increasing dependence upon technology will eventually come back to haunt them. But whereas Kubrick approached this idea from a conceptual or philosophical platform in both Dr. Strangelove and 2001, Crichton is more interested in the mechanics of such a rebellion. It is not so much a case of discussing morality as predicting the course of destruction that would occur, with Crichton steering closer to the work of Arthur C. Clarke in his matter-of-fact treatment of technology.

The Delos complex functions like the robots which populate it. On the surface it may appear incredibly sophisticated and refined, but it is ultimately a very fragile creature, reliant on constant input and highly sensitive to changes in its surroundings. Long sections of the film focus on the scientists surrounded by computer banks, endlessly checking temperatures and humidity levels, tweaking the system to respond to individual needs and weeding out any renegades. The repair sessions which take place at night resemble the A&E ward of a hospital, with doctors working against the clock just to maintain the status quo.Westworld also tackles the idea of mankind's nostalgia for the past. Like Deliverance a year earlier, its characters make the trip to experience an alternative to their carefully ordered, incredibly dull lives. There is the same desire to 'be at one with nature' or live in the past, while at the same time romanticising it. If, as Alfred Hitchcock said, drama is reality with all the dull bits cut out, then Westworld contains all that is fun and jolly about the American West without any of the drawbacks - disease, death, boredom or hard work.Within this there is also a comment about the compartmentalisation of violence, and the difference between the simulated world and the reality. Part of what attracts our heroes to Westworld is the ability to get away with murder on a daily basis. They can go around firing off guns without fear of getting killed or being thrown out; when Richard Benjamin is thrown in jail, it is merely the set-up for the jokey stunt that gets him out. Yet when things turn nasty and reality intervenes, Benjamin runs instead of confronting Brynner; even though the latter is still a robot, our hero cannot bring himself to practice what he has preached up until that point.

While all of these ideas are enticing, they are somewhat undercut by the film's execution. Crichton, for all his skill as a writer, is not a brilliant director, at least when it comes to sustaining and building tension. Because the film was shot using anamorphic lenses on MGM's sound stages, it looks a lot more professional than something equally ideas-driven like The Clonus Horror. But the tone remains uneven, so that even when it works really well you can't help wishing the whole film had been as good. This is exemplified by Fred Karlin's erratic soundtrack, which dithers between subtle underplay and energetic bursts in the manner of Bernard Hermann.The performances in Westworld vary from the intensely memorable to the completely forgettable. Brynner is great, sending up his role in The Magnificent Seven right down to wearing the same costume. He exudes menace and tenacity, and his delivery manages to sound stilted without tipping over into comedy. His co-stars, however, fare less well. James Brolin - father of Josh - is decent but has little in the way of character development, and Peter Morgan is not charismatic enough to carry the final section on his own. Without the Gunslinger constantly hunting him, the film would fall completely flat.Westworld is an entertaining and insightful film hamstrung only by its uneven execution. Its campy visual style may have dated, and it isn't constructed half as consistently as many would have liked. But when it does pull itself together, it meets all the requirements of a decent 90-minute thriller, giving us enough in the way of both ideas and suspense to sustain our attention. A decent start to Crichton's career in film, which would culminate twenty years later.

Verdict: Uneven but influential


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