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Entry updated 3 October 2023. Tagged: Film.

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Film (1973). Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Directed and written by Michael Crichton. Cast includes Richard Benjamin, James Brolin, Yul Brynner, Alan Oppenheimer, Linda Gaye Scott. 88 minutes. Colour.

Westworld is set in a Near Future enclave somewhere in the western deserts of America, where the Delos corporation has recently constructed a trio of interconnected theme parks, each inspired by a popular film genre: "WesternWorld" (only later in the film is this shortened to Westworld), "MedievalWorld" and "RomanWorld". Some sequences in Westworld may seem consciously to Parody a range of false cultural memories of the Old West, a tangled and mutually contradictory nest of topoi confabulated almost entirely out of whole cloth in the nineteenth century (see Dime Novel SF; Imperialism; Westerns), and later integrated into Hollywood Cinema's false-news narrative of the dream of America. It is true that, partially due to standard budget constraints, most of the action seems mockingly to have been filmed in dejected false-frontage backlots on Metrocolor stock; and that the Robot/Android amalgams, who serve as victimizable hosts for affluent tourists immersing themselves in adult-themed Westworld, are deliberately indistinguishable from the quasi-nonfantastic human-like figures one might have encountered in any B Western from long ago (none were still being made in 1973). But that is all.

A humourlessly facetious aura of recursiveness does suffuse Westworld through these shout-outs, but any sense that its makers might be conscious of the implications of making a movie built on the explicit transformation of fake versions of fake history into product are nowhere articulated in Michael Crichton's first theatrical release, which is in fact not an sf Western at all but a horror film (see Horror in SF). Westworld's simplistic narrative sweep and dreamlike obliteration of any hint of diachrony – even B Westerns were always about the story of the West – are typical of a Television series like The Twilight Zone, with its decorticated affect-horror focus on sensation without tense or frame. Any sf-like elements in the film are woollily defanged in a manner consistent with the brand of Technofantasy which Crichton had already mastered, where the Machine – which is to say science – is inherently monstrous, guilty before charged, like original sin. There are no Conceptual Breakthroughs in Westworld.

The story itself therefore lacks anything of the visual and thematic echolalia which marks its only significant successor – the television series Westworld (2016-2022) – though it fills its 88-minute duration without too many premonitory hints of morally vacuous comeuppance around the corner. It is 1983. In a garish reception area outside the park (it is Crichton's only attempt at Satire), Delos representatives pump departing guests for quotes usable in future commercials (see Advertising). Focus then shifts inwards to the two protagonists of the film, Peter Martin (Benjamin) and John Blane (Brolin), the only characters ever given full names, who now immerse themselves in the park. Having visited before, Blane immediately begins to use Westworld as it is intended he should: raping crypto-animatronic female simulacra (who cannot fight back) and outdrawing the local Gunslinger (Brynner), a Robot programmed to be killed in these encounters. The Gunslinger's programming prevents him/it from killing humans, though hosts are allowed to "kill" each other; any dis-ease on the part of visitors (or for that matter viewers of Westworld) is allayed by frequent shots of humanoid flesh being peeled back to reveal the robot armature within: as these creatures are not human (see Race in SF; Slavery; Women in SF), they can be freely tortured, whipped, raped, killed. Enjoy! Blane urges Martin, who resists at first (his querulously lassitudinous niceness at this point may be explained extradiegetically by Richard Benjamin's then-marriage to Paula Prentiss), but is soon demurely seduced (mostly off-screen) by a whore with a heart of gold.

But very soon it turns out there is a virus in Eden; the androids are beginning either to break down or to ignore their Computer programming. A fake snake bites Blane. In Medievalworld a Black Knight kills a tourist. Delos technicians in their Underground redoubt, terrified by this malfunctioning, attempt to turn the robots off, but inadvertently shut down all power to the entire three worlds, and asphyxiate in their sealed chambers. Inexplicably, however, the Golem-like Gunslinger only seems to gain energy, and suddenly – it is the only coup de theatre in the film – he shoots Blane dead. It is in retrospect foolish to think that at this point Westworld might have unveiled itself as an sf film about the consequences to the world of this act of apparent revolt; and swift recourse to horror Clichés ensures a safe ending: after a somnifacient succession of chase sequences (some of them seemingly so dreadful Crichton cut them before release), Martin manages to terminate the Monster, and is left alone, subvocalizing pettishly a slogan he and Blane had been assaulted with by Delos staff back at the reception centre: "Have we got a vacation for you!". We are perhaps to assume he will be given a refund.

Nature abhors a denial, and it may seem surprising that the absence in Westworld of any narrative suggestion that Delos has been guilty of much more than false advertising did not elicit some gust of demurral sooner than in fact happened. The film sequel Futureworld (1976), and the abortive spinoff Television series Beyond Westworld (1980), were equally supine. Only with the intensively self-analytical Westworld (2016-2022) – technically a reboot of the original film which in the event negatively interrogates its source – does Westworld finally stand trial for its compliant silence about the horrors within, a silence most incriminatingly in the presentation of the Gunslinger, for which Yul Brynner is fitted into the same conspicuous Man-in-Black costume he wore as Chris in The Magnificent Seven (1960).

If this is a joke, it is toxic, because Chris is a hero, explicitly modelled on Kambei, the extraordinary culture-Hero head-samurai in Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954), as radiantly embodied by Takashi Shimura; in The Magnificent Seven Chris honours his great model by taking a similar if Hollywoodish stand against the forces of the world in order to save his people, and succeeds, if only for a moment in the beat of time. To link Crichton's monster-movie Gunslinger to Chris is precisely toxic: a transmogrification of the earlier film's passable imitation of heroic responsibility into a joke that poisons the well of topos, with Brynner's role reduced here to demeaning cartoonish vacancy: not Spartacus but The Gunslinger from the Black Lagoon. Michael Crichton's Gunslinger presages Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator (1984). Crichton novelized his film as Westworld (1974). [JC]

see also: Virtual Reality.


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