Westworld (the TV series) — a review

If you didn't want to sing some songs around the fire, you could have just said so....

If you didn’t want to sing some songs around the fire, you could have just said so….

Back when I wrote the review for Michael Crichton’s film Westworld, I mentioned that plans were in the works to turn it into a TV series on HBO. The first episode of this new series has premiered, and it’s produced by JJ Abrams and Jonathan Nolan, the brother of Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception). The main storyline of Westworld is similar to that of Jurassic Park, where a high tech theme park suffers a catastrophic break down that puts its visitors in serious danger (the late Michael Crichton, who wrote and directed Westworld, also wrote the novel that the Jurassic Park film was based on), and I was extremely curious to see how Jonathan Nolan (who co-wrote and directed the first episode) was going to adapt this story into a series.

After watching the first episode, all I can say is: so far, so good. It’s the same basic storyline, where a western town filled with human-looking robots serves as a resort for human visitors, In Westworld, the visitors–or Newcomers, as they are known in town–can do whatever they want, right up to murder, all within the safety of the resort. But the team running the theme park starts noticing some weird behavior on the part of some of the androids, and when it’s determined that this behavior is the result of an update that ten percent of the android population had received, it’s decided that these androids need to be dealt with.

What did I tell you about doing that creepy thing with the horse? Just quit it!

What did I tell you about doing that creepy thing with the horse? Just quit it!

How the park employees deal with the mass removal of some two hundred androids from the park, without disrupting the fun for their guests, is ingenious: they simply have an outlaw gang come in and wipe out only the “infected” androids. But another ingenious scene afterwards, showing the simple act of someone swatting a fly, reveals that there’s still a problem. This version of Westworld has some forty years of advanced technology behind it, and the way the tech is handled is very smart. Unlike the original Westworld, which also had Roman and Medieval theme parks, there only seems to be the old west park in the new series (at least from what I saw in the first episode).

The cast is as exceptional as the writing: Anthony Hopkins plays the creator and owner of the theme park, with the always good Jeffery Wright starring as the chief programmer. Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden and Thandie Newton are also all superb. And Ed Harris is exceptional as a character known only as The Man In Black. He’s a visitor to the theme park who needs to be watched carefully, because it’s made clear that he’s not there strictly for fun. I’m still not sure how this will play out. Will we see this Westworld collapse into chaos like the original did? Who knows? But it looks like it will be a fascinating ride finding that out. –SF

Westworld — a review

You hear what he called us? Are these robots programmed to say stuff like that?

You hear what he called us? Are these robots programmed to say stuff like that?

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.

Did you ever see this guy in the King and I? He's great. So be careful with his voice when you put him back together.

Did you ever see this guy in the King and I? He’s great. So be careful with his voice when you put him back together.

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.

I'm really supposed to be in Westworld, you know. But I really don't mind helping you out.

I’m really supposed to be in Westworld, you know. But I really don’t mind helping you out.

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