Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Westworld

It's been a while since my last entry, and I'm forced to conclude that I have now written about almost everything in science fiction that has piqued my interest in the past. It kind of amazes me that it actually took some 90 entries to reach this point. This entire excursion has exposed me to a lot of science fiction material that I would have never heard of or would have passed over, and so I find myself beginning to follow these many leads to see what is "out there". In some ways, it is like trying to find tiny diamonds in a giant pile of coal, but it can be fun. And I have pledged to myself, and to any readers, not to write about anything that I would not want to read myself. Any suggestions, of course, are welcome.

So after several pass overs I finally came across a 1973 film called Westworld. The first thing that caught my interest was that it was written directly for the screen by one of my favorite authors of the genre, Michael Crichton. Not only that, but it was directed by Crichton too, his first Hollywood film! So we already have some historical significance there, but was it any good? I would say yes, quite good, thus exhibiting Crichton's natural ability for both screenplay writing and film directing very early on in his career.



Westworld is about an expensive amusement park which promises an experience like nothing you've seen before, but then something goes terribly wrong and causes all sorts of mayhem. Sound familiar? Yes, it is the exact same story structure as Crichton's much later novel Jurassic Park (1990). In Jurassic, he explored the possible dangers of an emerging technology of the day: genetic engineering. In Westworld, he explores the possible dangers of an emerging technology of that time: computers. In 1973, personal computers were still a few years away, so Westworld was run by a fully staffed underground central computer facility. That facility controlled three fantasy lands: an ancient Roman city, a medieval castle, and an old American Western frontier town. These were populated with lifelike robots that guests could interact with in whatever ways pleased their fancy, all for $1000 per day (this was before the hyperinflation of the late 70's). It's not a very complex plotline, but it contains enough originality and enough well timed suspense to keep it moving along. Although it is strange to see Yul Brenner as the menacing robot, he plays it almost perfectly - not too human, but not too robotic either.

The special effects look dated but most of them still hold up rather well even today. I particularly liked the low flying shuttle jet that transports our protagonists in the opening scenes. It has a really unique design and reminds you right off the bat that the film is set in the future. Also a neat transitional shot where they remove Brenner's face to reveal his circuitry. The new technology concepts, however, often leave you puzzled. I don't know if it is because of the lack of computer knowledge in the 70's, but there's so many things in the film that just make you think "Why are they doing it that way?" and "Wouldn't it be easier to do this". For example, Brenner's character ends up being a bigger problem because he just went through an "upgrade" service to give him infrared vision and ultra-sensitive hearing. What possible added value does that provide to the guests? Another big problem is that the scientists end up trapped in the control room because the power goes out and they can't open the electronic doors or keep the oxygen flowing. Huh? What happened to fire escapes and general building safety? And I still can't figure out why is it that, if the guns can't shoot anything with a heat signature to prevent human shooting human, the robots have no problem using them to shoot and kill real people? Someone explained to me that this was part of the malfunction too. That seems like an awfully convenient coincidence to help out the narrative.

But the central cause of all the mayhem turns out to actually be the most prescient of all. They never use the term virus, but they postulate the problem is some type of malfunction that is spreading from one machine to the next, like a "disease of machinery". Until the 1980's, the computer virus was only an idea in the mind John Von Neumann. That just about makes up for all the other silly concepts. Either way, I think Westworld still works for both sci-fi lovers and general audiences.

2 comments:

  1. It's a fantastic film. I watched it for the first time when I was 10 - in 1983. It was another 10 years before I saw this film again and I got as scared as when I was a kid. Yul Brynner, the uncanny cowboy. Of course it's dated, but as is Star Trek, Barbarella or The Day The Earth Stood Still (the 1951 original, not the stupid remake). It is still a classic of the 70s sci-fi genre.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well said Mr. nanoubix! Thanks for reading. I must say though, do you really place Barbarella in the "classics" category like the others you mentioned?

      Delete