These days the late Michael Crichton is best known for Jurassic Park, having written the original bestselling novel before Steven Spielberg turned it into a monster movie hit in the summer of 1993. But twenty years earlier, Crichton was the writer and director of Westworld, a science fiction movie that had the same basic theme as JP, that of a high-tech amusement park that goes awry. I first saw Westworld as a kid on TV, where it was heavily edited and had its image cropped to fit the square screens of the TVs of that era. The only thing that I vividly remember from this viewing was being impressed at how one of the Westworld techs could order breakfast while sitting right at his console.
What with Westworld coming back as a TV series (???) in 2016, I figured it was time to re-watch this film. Richard Benjamin stars as a tourist who goes with his friend John (James Brolin) to Westworld, which is a theme park that presents the experience of living in an 1880s old west town. Guests at this resort can go full cowboy by shooting up whoever and whatever they want without facing any consequences. The secret is that the inhabitants of the town are extremely sophisticated robots. If they get shot up, it’s no big deal because they’re fixed up and sent back out the next day.
Yul Brenner gives a nicely understated performance as a robot gunslinger that’s modeled heavily after his part in the Magnificent Seven. When Benjamin’s character guns him down, Brenner goes looking for revenge the following day–only to be gunned down again. It’s all in good fun, until everything goes haywire and the robots start hunting down and killing the guests. Earlier in the film, Alan Oppenheimer, best known as Rudy from the Six Million Dollar Man, plays a scientific supervisor who tries to track down a strange glitch that seems to bounce from robot to robot.
But when he brings this up at a meeting, Oppenheimer’s colleagues laugh off the concept of a robot disease. But knowing what we now know about computer viruses, I can’t help but wonder if Crichton was being prescient here. It should be noted that there’s also a Medieval World, as well as a Roman World, but the bulk of the action takes place in Westworld. Dick Van Patten also stars as the newly minted sheriff of Westworld. Majel Barret, the wife of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, also has a small part as the madam of a brothel.
Watching Yul Brenner’s unrelenting pursuit of Benjamin at the climax reminds me very much of the same merciless quality of the Terminator robots, the first film in that series would premiere some eleven years later. While Westworld has some plot holes (why would they upgrade Brenner’s robot with heat vision? Granted, he later used it to pursue Benjamin, but what was the in-world reasoning behind making a gunslinger robot used at an amusement park even more lethal than it already is?), it’s surprising how well the film holds up, even with its outdated concepts. It just goes to show that some ideas still stand the test of time, and it’s heartening to see that, eight years after his death, Michael Crichton’s vision is still entertaining people. –SF