What Kind of Park *is* This?

by Sonia Mitchell

Westworld sees a number of Sonia's interests colliding.
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Westworld is probably most famous as a forerunner to Jurassic Park - it's the other Michael Crichton film in which the attractions in a theme park go wild and begin killing the guests. However, while Jurassic Park foregrounds a tale of corporate negligence and ego, Westworld is more interested in the story of the everyman surviving adversity.
Also, Westworld is about robots.

The basic premise is that a theme park has been created with three separate zones - Romanworld, Medievalworld and Westworld. Each world is filled with robot inhabitants who act out their respective parts almost indistinguishably from real people. Guests then pay $1000 a day to join the worlds and play at being cowboys, knights, senators or whatever takes their fancy. It's a fun setting, and more than half the film simply focuses on the main characters having a blast fighting and having sex with the robots.

Gradually, of course, things start to go wrong. In the control room we see technicians worry about 'a disease of machines' causing problems with the robots' CPUs. They decide to close the park down as soon as the current batch of guests have left, confident that they can cope until then.
Spoiler:
they can't
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Central to the film is Richard Benjamin's everyman, Peter. Benjamin brings the perfect amount of likable naivety to his role, which has him as a first-time visitor to the park. His excitement about this holiday of a lifetime manifests in pestering his friend John (James Brolin) with questions in a very recognisable way. I would totally do the same - it's important to know which gunbelt is the best.

Peter's foil is Yul Brynner's robot gunslinger, programmed to start fights with guests. At his first appearance he could easily be a belligerent human - the only clue that he is a robot comes from his freakish shiny eyes. He picks a fight with Peter, who shoots and 'kills' him. The scene is fun, but shot with some tension that the gunslinger might be human, despite John's reassurances. It is only once the scene is over that John reveals that the guns are designed not to fire when pointed at anything with body-heat.

Fortunately for the viewer, Westworld wears its themes lightly. There's an obvious suggestion of abdication of responsibility in this first encounter with the gunslinger, but no attempt to hammer the point home. It's a theme park, and at this point it's working as designed. There's also not a lot of interrogation into the idea that the fantasies of the guests revolve around violence and sex, another point I'm thankful for. There is an undercurrent of sleaze, particularly around the guest in Medievalworld, magnified by the gaze of the technicians through the constant surveillance. However, at no point is it implied that the film is functioning as a morality tale, killing off the deserving sinful.

The first robot strike against a guest comes when John and Peter, having just blown up the bank and shot the sheriff, are relaxing in the desert revelling in being outlaws. John shoots at a robotic rattlesnake, which retaliates with a bite. From then on it's a fairly rapid progression to the moment that, in Medievalworld, the Black Knight stabs a guest and the technicians attempt to shutdown the park. Over in Westworld, the hungover Peter and John meet the gunslinger in the town. They aren't in the mood to fight, but John offers to have a go. And, to quote Matthew Reilly, Bam!1

The moments following John's death are at the heart of the film. Peter's plaintive "John?" is a perfectly judged moment of pathos that is followed by Brynner managing the most brilliantly joyless, inhuman smile possible. From this point the film condenses into a one-on-one chase, as Peter flees for his life. The gunslinger's pursuit is for the most part steady, unhurried and relentless - and all the more sinister for it. The occasional glimpses of the technicians and scientists trying to regain control serve Peter's narrative well, as it becomes increasingly apparent that help will not come from that quarter. The staff ultimately suffocate in their underground control centre, never threatened by the rampaging robots. Again, a light touch and a quick pace stop the film being bogged down by morals about power.

As the principle chase progresses the gunslinger become less and less human. He no longer speaks, we start to see a pixellated version of his vision (Westworld was apparently the first film to use digital image processing) and Peter's attacks on him target his face in particular. There's still enough of the human about him to evoke a little empathy when Peter throws acid in his face, but calmness of his reaction is yet another reminder of his inhumanity. For me, the film only mis-steps at the end, when it overplays the horror of a burnt and disfigured gunslinger with a cliched rapid succession of cuts between two views and a cacophony on the brass synthesiser. It's a shame because the build-up to this ending is consistently good, keeping the tension quiet and strained. However, it by no means ruins anything, and it did its job of scaring me when I first saw it, many years ago.

This film will be forty next year, and there are certainly times when this shows in the aesthetics. However, Westworld never pretends to be futuristic – it's set in the seventies, just a version in which they had robots. It therefore steers clear of covering the set in tin foil, and is unfussy in its portrayal of the control room full of big computers.

Where it has the chance to play a little more is in the technicians' areas, where the robot repair centre is set up like a giant operating theatre - all bright lights and lab coats. This is expanded upon in one of the more striking scenes of them film - night-time in Westworld, when the stage lights are brought out and the cleanup teams collect the robots from the street. It's a very effective portrayal of the film set nature of the park.

As far as Westworld itself goes, it straddles the line between town and film set. The Wild West began selling itself as entertainment before it was even finished, and as the film industry has developed so have the fashions for portraying the cowboy world. Westworld was made in a post-Spaghetti Western era (1973), but its aesthetics owe more to the John Wayne days than anything more contemporary. This is the Wild West of childhood fantasy, with swinging saloon doors and a honkytonk piano.

Of course, casting Yul Brynner as the robot gunslinger is a deliberate evocation of The Magnificent Seven, particularly as he wears the same costume. It's a reminder of just how much of our perception of the American West comes from film, and how artificial that is - but it's also a bit of casting with its tongue firmly in its cheek. If I was Brynner I'd have jumped at the chance to have 'Robot Gunslinger' on my list of credits.

Westworld raises questions if you're in a pensive mood, but it doesn't demand any answers. It's a fun film about Wild West robots that rattles along at a good pace, and is well worth ninety minutes of anyone's time. There's an added dimension of interest for anyone wanting to see a proto-Jurassic Park, but in a lot of areas Westworld is superior. It's pacier, wittier and takes a more interesting approach to the old theme of out-of-control technology. It's sadly lacking in dinosaurs, but robot gunmen are pretty awesome.




1. Bam! jokes are not getting old for me.
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Comments (go to latest)
Dan H at 22:32 on 2012-10-28
I don't have a lot to say about this apart from the fact that I haven't seen this film in *years*. Like a lot of classic movies, I saw this some time around my GCSE year (which spoiler: wasn't in this century) as part of a slightly pretentious BBC2 series called Moviedrome (and if you check the link you can see *exactly* when I saw this film, because it aired as part of the 1997-1998 season).

Back when I watched it, the series was presented by this guy called Mark Cousins who spoke really slowly in what I seem to remember was an Irish accent and who had a habit of saying things like "when I first saw this film ... asasmallboy ... the scene ... in the film ... where he stares ... at the brick ... was the turning point ... oftheentiremovie".

We now return you to your regularly scheduled nonsense.
Wardog at 22:32 on 2012-10-28
Personally I'm holding out for ROBOT DINOSAURS.
Arthur B at 23:11 on 2012-10-28
The first time I saw Westworld was when I was around Dan's age, the most recent time was ages back when the Phoenix cinema in Oxford did a sci-fi all-nighter which kicked off with the regional premier screening of 28 Days Later, which was quite an experience because a) nobody had any idea that 28 Days Later was a zombie film so we got totally taken by surprise and b) Westworld was the last film I saw so the combination of sleep deprivation and the already kind of fever dream tone the film had was kind of wild.
Wardog at 09:34 on 2012-10-29
I've actually never seen this - THIS CLEARLY NEEDS TO BE FIXED.
Arthur B at 10:55 on 2012-10-29
Do you mean Westworld or the Triassic Dinner Club?

The former's on Lovefilm but I fear the latter is only on the Isle of Wight. ;)
Wardog at 13:33 on 2012-10-29
I meant Westworld.

The dinosaur in black tie just made me feel like I'd taken SCARY DRUGS. I never want to see that again.
Sonia Mitchell at 21:43 on 2012-10-29
I revisited the Triassic Club this summer, and was rather mortified to see that I now qualify as a Main Meal on the weighing scales. One of those crashing realisations that I'm now allegedly a grown-up.

But yes, you need to see this film. Robot cowboys.
Melanie at 00:38 on 2012-10-30
...I kind of want to see this, now.
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