Michael Crichton died in early November at age 66. While his last books left something to be desired, the works of his middle years still fascinate today. One often overlooked piece is Crichton’s film directing debut, Westworld, a film that seems in many ways ahead of its time.
Westworld is a film that predates the plot of Jurassic Park by over a decade. It centers around a theme park filled with incredibly lifelike robots. You can do whatever you want, and the robots won’t harm you. That is, until they go haywire… Hapless humans chased by science amok became the central theme of Crichton’s later works, and may be seen as a response to the tech fixes of the 1950s and 1960s and growing fears and unease regarding nuclear technology.
The film covers many themes that Crichton explored throughout his novels. Science, thought to be the savior of mankind, is apt to fail. Scientists’ blind faith in technology and failure to see its negative aspects and failures contains dire results for humans.
As such, technology plays a star role in the film. The low-resolution (ultra-cool) images of ‘Gunslinger-vision’ may seem incredibly poor by today’s standards, but still possess a haunting retro quality. These images were produced through computerized special effects, and according to Wikipedia, some images took more than 8 hours to render. Massive walls of supercomputers and low-res monitors fill the sets in a 1970s CNC feel, and the distorted images from the security monitors produce a feel of early television. Likewise, the special effects of the human torch and fizzing electronics are fantastic low-fi solutions. It certainly feels like a film that can provide some fascinating analysis for new media theory, particularly a McLuhan reading.
However, Westworld’s technology provides its own loophole (at least in Western World): the guns are supposed to be unable to fire at a human due to an infrared sensor. The gun is unable to fire at hot targets, specifically people. These are the guns given to the visitors, and the robots have been equipped with the same guns. By all means, this should have made it impossible for a robot to kill a human (a sword, however, is a completely different matter). Such a failsafe makes the premise of the film impossible, unless some explanation is given to why the guns failed to operate.
The gunslinger, played by Yul Brinner (of Magnificent Seven fame), is fantastic, and central to the film. Garbed all in black, with shining white eyes and with the cold calculations of a robot, he simply dominates the film through his excellent acting. This seemingly unstoppable robot, complete with computer vision, predates 1984’s The Terminator by over a decade, and is unfortunately overlooked, but undoubtedly an influence.
The overall construction of the film is sparse, and in many ways artistic. The dialogue is often pretty terrible, and in some places the music is obnoxious. However, in many places, the film is without background music, and in other cases, Fred Karlin’s experimental score is downright amazing. Likewise, camera shots are in some places spartan, with camera angles and set design, particularly in the labs and in the night cleanup crew, demonstrating some fascinating cinematography.
Westworld spawned two sequels; Futureworld (1976) and the TV series Beyond Westworld (1980). Both could be avoided. Westworld, on the other hand, provides a fascinating look into Crichton’s style of storytelling before his more famous works. The film was nominated for three science fiction awards in 1974.