Westworld (1973)

2016 #155
Michael Crichton | 89 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / PG

WestworldWhen writer-director Michael Crichton hit upon the notion of a theme park where the future-science star attractions broke free of their shackles and endangered the lives of the guests, it was so good it served him twice: he replaced the initial murderous AI-powered robot cowboys with rampaging genetically-engineered dinosaurs and sparked a multimedia franchise of enduring popularity. His first attempt hardly faded into obscurity, mind, bedding in as a minor sci-fi classic that HBO has now seen fit to reboot as a TV series, which premiered on Sunday in the US and debuts in the UK tonight. I think this new version may be most welcome, because Westworld has a great concept but, when it comes to the original film, that’s almost all it has.

Set in the near future, the film follows two friends (Richard Benjamin and James Brolin) as they visit an amusement park where you can live for a time in thorough recreations of either ancient Rome, medieval Europe, or the old West. It’s an immersive experience where you’re kitted out with era-appropriate clothing, stay in authentic lodgings, and the staff really believe it all — because they’re robots who’ve been programmed to do so, distinguishable from humans only by their imperfect hands. The film follow the chums through this process and the fun they have pretending to be gunslingers, though one of the robots (Yul Brynner, done up as the spit of his character from The Magnificent Seven) seems repeatedly antagonistic towards them, and, behind-the-scenes, the repair staff are baffled by some robots’ out-of-character actions.

Westworld doesn’t even reach the 90-minute mark, but even then there isn’t quite enough story to fill the running time. There’s a big dose of wish fulfilment in seeing Benjamin and Brolin getting to just enjoy the park — wouldn’t it be cool if this was real? Wouldn’t you want to go there? Though the price tag would put most people off: it’s $1,000 a day, which, factoring in inflation from 1973, means a two-week stay would now cost a little Face off, mk.1under $76,000, or about £58,200. The potential threat of the robots malfunctioning is built up gradually here and there, in asides from what our ostensible heroes are up to, and isn’t explained. There are nods to the fact the human staff don’t actually know how the robots work, but why should that be? Some of them were apparently designed by other robots, but how did the designing robots come about? Rather than explore any of its science fiction themes, the film just uses the basic idea to have the robots go on a killing spree right at the climax. This is something Crichton definitely turned around for Jurassic Park, where how it was done is explained and debated… and then the creations go on a rampage. Best of both worlds, that.

So this is where there’s space for HBO’s new version. I haven’t read too much about it (avoiding spoilers ‘n’ that), but given the long-form needs of TV I’m presuming it’s going to dig into the science a bit more. Co-creator Jonathan Nolan has already demonstrated an interest in the whys and wherefores of artificial intelligence through his last TV series, Person of Interest (which I’ve discussed in several of my monthly TV overviews), so I’m presuming it’s going to take Crichton’s broad idea but then be a little bit Ex Machina: The Series as well. Sounds good to me. Maybe this will be a reboot that pays off, because while the original film does offer Crichton’s superb concept, plus a few straightforward action/suspense thrills, it’s too slight to really deliver on the inherent promise.

3 out of 5

The new Westworld starts on Sky Atlantic at 9pm.

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12 thoughts on “Westworld (1973)

        • I haven’t watched it yet! Still making my way through Luke Cage… and then I was going to watch Stranger Things… and the new Ripper Street is out on the 12th… and Black Mirror in a couple of weeks… There’s far, far too much TV!

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        • I’ll be honest – I’m not sure I’m bothered about Westworld from the half hour I saw. I’m more interested in Black Mirror. And you gotta watch Stranger Things next for sure! : )

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        • Yeah, I’m mainly going to watch Westworld because it’s HBO and Jonathan Nolan, otherwise I haven’t been especially hyped for it. The new series of Black Mirror, on the other hand, looks awesome.

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        • Yeah, I never watched series 2… but that’s just because I’m me. Even just the first series is worth getting past The Pig One for, though — the second episode is alright, but the third is fantastic.

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        • Quality tv certainly seems to be outnumbering quality cinema, its on some other level regards number of hours and the level of quality itself. It just sucks those viewing hours up doesn’t it.

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        • It’s where all the quality that would be in those mid-budget movies they won’t fund anymore has gone, I think. Even the Marvel series (most of the Netflix ones, at any rate) operate on a more interesting level than their movie counterparts.

          I sometimes think I should count all that TV somehow. I mean, I effectively watched Luke Cage instead of 7 films. But then I’m well past 100 this year anyhow, so in that respect it doesn’t matter!

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  1. Yeah, this is definitely Jurassic Park with robots. Bit cheeky of him later rewriting Westworld with dinosaurs… or genius, as he certainly got away with it to far greater success.

    The HBO incarnation of Westworld looks to be something very special although it has something of the BSG reboot about it too.

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