Before the emergence of the hit sci-fi-drama series of the same name, 1973’s Westworld was a pillar of the science fiction genre. With an engaging story, imaginative concepts and a terrific performance from Yul Brynner as a lethal, automated gunslinger, the original Westworld is a delightful sci-fi-western hybrid that puts its clever gimmicks to creative use, rarely getting bogged down by pretentious statements regarding the creation of artificial life (unlike its contemporary television counterpart), to instead concentrate on its visceral style of storytelling and filmmaking.
Plot Summary: In the near future, the Delos Corporation offers the perfect getaway with the entertainment destinations; Medievalworld, Romanworld and Westernworld, where guests can experience life in the time period of their choosing, indulging in their wildest fantasies while interacting with the attendant androids that populate them. But, when Westworld undergoes a system-wide malfunction, causing the androids’ built-in safety features to fail, the safety of the guests is put into question…
Written and directed by Michael Crichton (Coma, Looker, Physical Evidence), author of many celebrated novels, including Jurassic Park. Crichton became inspired to write Westworld following his trip to Disneyland, where he rode the water-based attraction, Pirates of the Caribbean, and was impressed by the animatronic pirates. This is also why the iconic attraction is mentioned in the 1993 adaptation of Jurassic Park when Malcolm states: “When the Pirates of the Caribbean Breaks Down, the Pirates Don’t Eat the Tourists.” Crichton effectively utilises this inspiration by playing upon humanity’s fears of artificial intelligence one day overthrowing us. Furthermore, through the characters, Crichton’s screenplay retains a solid amount of satire, with the guests hungry for danger and adventure quickly turning spineless once Westworld becomes truly dangerous, much like the real Wild West that inspired it.
Regarding the characters, the screenplay largely depicts them as if they are the audience themselves, with the protagonist, Peter Martin, portrayed by Richard Benjamin, being a recently-divorced Westworld newcomer, whilst his friend, John Blane, portrayed by James Brolin, is a returning guest eager to jump back into the ways of the Old West. As a result, we get to see how Westworld functions from a guest and staff perspective before the chaos begins. And while neither of the central duo is given a lot of development, both characters serve an important purpose within the narrative as wealthy guests who are visiting Westworld to indulge their desires for pampering and daring escapades, whether that a bank robbery, a bar-room brawl or merely taking sexual advantage of a coy-serving wench. Then, on the android side of things, there’s the Gunslinger, portrayed by Yul Brynner, who truly steals the show, becoming fixated on the pair following their confrontation in the first act. The Gunslinger acts as a forbidding embodiment of the widespread malfunction, relentlessly hunting his target(s) with a cold, calculating demeanour and a continually menacing presence.
From the vast desert-set Westworld to Medievalworld, a mead and chicken-leg heaven, to the flowery gardens and toga parties that is Romanworld, the set design throughout Westworld is excellent, excluding a few barren hallways, here and there. The cinematography by Gene Polito isn’t as remarkable, however, overly depending on close-ups and mid-shots, which becomes rather repetitive, despite appearing reminiscent of the camerawork in classic westerns. In addition to the three entertainment destinations, all of the period-set areas are connected by a web of subterranean passageways and an eerily prescient CCTV system, both of which help provide enticing snippets into the unfolding horror once Westworld collapses, furnishing the film with a healthy amount of edge instead of relying on unwarranted bloody violence for its final act.
An efficacious blend of sci-fi and western, Westworld‘s original score frequently alleviates the atmosphere of scenes that could otherwise appear quite sinister, as the score varies from lively, Wild West-era tracks like The Western Warble and Stagecoach Arrival to scratchy, ominous tones and percussions with tracks like Robot Repair. This switch from passé to futuristic pieces never feels out of place, though, as the distinctive tracks lean into the idea of merging multiple time periods via the entertainment destinations.
Intriguingly, Westworld actually marked the first-ever use of computer-digitised images in a feature film (not merely monitor graphics) with the shots from the Gunslinger’s point-of-view. After the technical process was sufficiently developed to produce satisfactory results, it only took around eight hours to produce every ten seconds of footage for the Gunslinger’s pixelated P.O.V., which is monumental for 1970s filmmaking. However, this praise could be applied to almost all of the film’s effects, which have held up well since the ’70s. That is, aside from the fake blood, which looks closer to bright red paint whenever a guest or android is shot dead.
In summary, in an era of pessimism, it’s refreshing to see a sci-fi flick like Westworld that depicts the future as not dystopian, but an affluent and joyous time with merely detrimental forms of recreation, adding a level of appeal to the world-building that many science fiction releases seem to miss out. As such, Westworld comes across as an innovative sci-fi-western, harbouring an appropriate amount of satire along with an abundance of apprehension regarding the evolution of artificial intelligence, keeping the audience captivated throughout its moderate runtime, even in spite of its occasional time-worn aspects. Rating: high 7/10.