Director: Michael Crichton
Cast: Yul Brynner, Richard Benjamin, James Brolin
Plot: A holiday resort offers its guests the chance to live out their dreams using robot replicants. Its perfect, until the robots start fighting back.
Westworld is one of those movies that modern audiences might argue whether it truly deserves that title of classic that it has ended up with. It is a perfectly solid movie with tension, humour and a moralistic message wrapped up in a bow. However, memory seems to have preserved Westworld better than the test of time.
Truthfully, this is an example of a strong premise overpowering the actual movie it resides in. This is one of the first great ‘robots go rogue’ movies, inspiring the likes of Terminator, Alien and all of those robot TV shows cropping up right now (it is fair to say that the TV series of Westworld was fairly influenced by the film Westworld). It is such a prevalent story that anywhere the concept was first devised or added to deserves a fair share of praise. Westworld is a fine story of robots turning on their creators. The creepy thing about Westworld’s version of robots uprising is that this is a story devoid of a motive. With Bladerunner, the Replicants are after equal rights and liberty. With Alien, the synthetic was being controlled by its true owner. Westworld’s robots are made more eerie due to the simplicity of their slaughtering spree: their inner workings have just gone wrong. It is every luddite’s worst fear, as the technology that we came to rely on so heavily slowly turns against us and becomes our undoing. But first, Crichton has to set in stone how important robotics are to us. The first half of the movie sets up a dream paradise, where robots are used to fulfil fantasies and make living easier. Westworld is one third of a giant robot amusement park. Imagine an Elitist Disneyland (edit: a more elitist Disneyland), where the paying guests get to live out their fantasies, treating the robots as puppets in their imaginary world. The two lead characters, Richard Benjamin and James Brolin, head over to Westworld, where they get to become the ultimate ‘men’, living their lives like outlaw cowboys, starting bar fights, drinking whisky and shooting people who cross them. Other sections of the resort have a Medieval land, where guests can pay to live like Kings. Or if your fantasies are of a more explicit nature, head over to the Roman resort where you can join in with robotic orgies. As seedy as the initial premise sounds, as we spend time with the two main characters acting out their dreams, there is a sense of ‘why not?’ The humans in this story aren’t depicted as bad people, merely ignorant dreamers. If you were convinced you could act anyway you wanted without consequence, wouldn’t you? By the time, the robots start fighting back, the characters are so wrapped up in this world, that they have walked unwittingly into a deadly trap?
So why have I accused Westworld of being an unworthy classic? Well, the main issue with the movie is that the story of robots going rogue is so compelling that the massive flaws are easy to overlook. Yet they are still there. The truth of the matter is that Westworld, for a long time, gets quite dull. The opening is fairly clunky, as Crichton piles exposition on us in bucketloads. Perhaps his tactic was to gamble a stodgy start and make it up to the audience later with a strong ending, but it makes for his movie to a top-heavy movie; it takes a half hour before you truly start enjoying it. Even then, it relies on you liking the principal characters. The movie spends most of its running time with Benjamin and Brolin slowly getting to grips with Westworld. Brolin is a park enthusiast, his time spent on the resort down to a fine art. He orchestrates break-outs with lazy efficiency, knows all the rules for starting shoot-outs and can direct his naïve friend to the best brothels. Benjamin is more naïve, wandering around as though this is all too good to be true. The slow explaining of the rules of Westworld is likely important, but it does start to drag, when the only thing this movie has going for it is how well you buy into Benjamin’s endearing innocence or Brolin’s carefree charm. The robots really only go rogue in the final third, seen as slightly malfunctioning droids throughout the build-up. There is no exciting pre-finale punch-up to give Westworld the jolt of energy the middle act desperately needs. In order to show the scale of the resort, the action jumps over to pointless supporting characters, enjoying their own holiday in the other resorts. Their only purpose is to show how wrong things can go before it happens to the leads. However, their story arcs are almost identical to the main two and nowhere near as interesting. A fat bloke’s affair with every medieval maid he can get his hands on is tiresome before it has even begun. When this is a movie often raved about, especially with a popular television reboot making its rounds, it is a shame that for a long time, Westworld is only ever OK.
Thank god for the ending then. While the build-up is painfully slow, when the robots finally do attack, we get a gripping cinematic experience. As robots slaughter humans across the parks, one particularly precise robot, Yul Brynner’s gunslinging cowboy, finds a sinister fascination with Benjamin and Brolin. He hunts the two characters across the devastated park, each set-piece squeezing more thrills out of the moment Brynner steals the show with this single scene, a terrifyingly dedicated killer. It is the slow, confident walk that is icy cold, yet there is a strange touch of humanity to this robot. Brynner doesn’t feel like a machine killer, but a character in the story. Again, it feels like this is something that the actor brought to the movie, rather than the directing, arguing that in many ways, this movie is only as good as it is, because of an utterly superb performance from the film’s villain. To win Crichton back some points, he does manage some chilling moments in his ending. The lack of score means that Brynner’s constant and methodical footsteps echoing around a dying amusement park add so much terror to the moment. Crichton slowly adds new rules to these robots that thrill in a way only a 70s thriller seems to be able to do. It is a lesson in film-making: if the tension is there, a movie’s ending doesn’t need to be covered in noisy CGI.
Final Verdict: Westworld deserves praise for such a compelling story and a great villain, but altogether, it isn’t quite worthy of its cult status.