In the near future, a theme park has been created which lets visitors experience the past by interacting with living, breathing creatures. However, something goes wrong and before long the exhibits start killing the guests… If this sounds all too familiar, Michael Crichton’s film Westworld contains many of the same themes as his later novel Jurassic Park, except here the themed worlds (representing a Roman palace, a medieval castle and the Old West) are populated by androids rather than genetically engineered dinosaurs. In both cases, however, the moral of the story is the same – to quote Jurassic Park‘s character Ian Malcolm: ‘Scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should!’
Tighter, darker and more thought-provoking than Jurassic Park, Westworld predicted both the big android films of the 1980s – Blade Runner and of course, Android – as well as the endless cycle of ‘slasher’ movies from the late 70s onwards. Yul Brynner effectively reprises his character from The Magnificent Seven as a gunslinging android in the ‘Old West’ world, but here, instead of an enigmatic leader who hires half a dozen gunmen to protect a village from bandits, he’s an indestructible killer who keeps coming back from the ‘grave’. It is difficult to explain why his performance in this film has been forgotten and it is a shame that it is often only remembered for the first (and limited) use of CGI in a movie. As a serial killer who keeps coming back from the ‘dead’, Brynner’s character precedes Michael Myers in the endless Halloween saga by five years, and as a taciturn, indestructible cyborg who has to be stripped of his flesh before becoming vulnerable, he precedes Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Terminator franchise by a decade. By reprising an earlier character from his career who becomes an indestructible copy of his former self, dehumanised by reconstruction, he’s emblematic of the entire sci-fi/horror action genre, which keeps returning to its iconic characters and bringing them back from the dead/retirement over and over again.
The central idea of the film is how hedonism leads to barbarism: the three worlds of the theme park allow the visitors to murder and seduce the androids for entertainment with no moral repercussions, at least until the slaves inevitably rebel. In contrast with the dinosaur rebellion in his most famous work, Crichton doesn’t fall back on techno-babble about chaos theory and never tries to explain why the robots kill their creators and masters, and this ambiguity enhances the morality of the tale. The only survivor of the story is the one who has some guilt and reservations about shooting and shagging his way through the theme park. As the unlikely hero, the amiable comedy actor Richard Benjamin is well cast; the everyman who has to survive when tracked by a killing machine, he brings a playfulness to the humorous early scenes before the film turns into a thriller. In this film and his other movies of the 1970s such as Coma (1978) and The First Great Train Robbery (1979), Michael Crichton shows himself to be an excellent director before he gave up the craft for the more reliable paychecks of increasingly dumb airport novels. Benjamin became a good director himself in the 80s, giving fellow comedy actors Tom Hanks and Burt Reynolds the most underrated roles of their careers in The Money Pit and City Heat respectively.
Westworld was undermined by its terrible sequel Futureworld and the TV series Beyond Westworld, which was cancelled after three episodes, and this DVD release allows for a long overdue re-evaluation of the film as Crichton’s most successful combination of sci-fi, action and thriller, and as a pivotal genre movie that would provide a template for some of the most acclaimed films of the next quarter of a century.