MPAA Rating: PG/Genre: Sci-Fi Western Thriller/Stars: Yul Brynner, Richard Benjamin, James Brolin, Alan Oppenheimer, Victoria Shaw, Dick Van Patten, Linda Scott, Steve Franken, Michael Mikler, Terry Wilson, Majel Barrett, Anne Randall, Nora Marlowe, Charles Seel/ Runtime: 88 minutes
When one thinks of the name Michael Crichton, the first thing I’m confident that pops into your mind is a little movie known as Jurassic Park which honestly makes sense (or at least more sense than say something like Congo). Indeed not only is the literary source material for that movie one of Crichton’s most highly regarded works, but it’s also one of his most electrifying as well. Yet did you know that, in addition to his other literary works that have received the big screen treatment including Rising Sun from 1993, the aforementioned Congo from 1995, Disclosure from 1996, and Sphere from 1998 among others that Jurassic Park was not the first time Crichton wrote about a theme park of the future going haywire much to the sadness of its guests and their various life expectancies? Indeed long before Jurassic Park brought dinosaurs back from extinction and human beings onto their menus, iconic studio MGM (yes that would be the one with a lion mascot) in the long gone year that is 1973 hired Crichton to pen an original screenplay for them that he also then decided to helm himself since he felt it was the only way a studio would let him helm a feature length motion picture. The result was a little slice of sci-fi cinematic pie known as Westworld (which you might know more so for the TV series it inspired that premiered in 2016 on HBO). Indeed here is a slice of cinematic pie that is quite distinct in that whilst the effects contained within in it might be slightly dated, they still do hold up fairly well as does both the story and performances (especially from Yul Brynner). Thus what could quite easily be looked at as yet another run of the mill sci-fi fable about how mankind’s hubris and desire to have their options for entertainment be continually upgraded may one day also lead to his downfall is transformed into a lean, mean, and quite well done cinematic ride that I promise you will want to embark on time and time again.
The plot is as follows: Set in what could be a possible future for mankind, Westworld sees that in this distinct future a company by the name of Delos has been established. Delos, we quickly learn, is what would happen if Disney decided to make a group of theme parks strictly for adults, charge more than they do right now (which is seriously saying something), and also fill it entirely with androids meant to serve every whim the guests could possibly come up with. Indeed within these parks mankind can live out their wildest fantasies in one of three separate eras: Ancient Rome, The Middle Ages, and (as you might have guessed from the title of the movie) the American Old West. It is that last one that the movie seems particularly set on guiding us through since it is the one our main characters, a man by the name of Peter Martin and his old pal John Blane are visiting for an indeterminate amount of time when our story opens proper. Yet while we see our intrepid heroes attempt to make the most of their stay in the rootin’ tootin’ Old West it also isn’t long before we start seeing that something is a little….off shall we say within the androids at the parks that is seeing them behave quite “strangely”. Of course it isn’t long before this tiny little hiccup has blossomed into a full-blown genuine crisis and when the staff try to set things right, they inadvertently set the stage for our heroes and others in the other 2 parks to transform what was supposed to be a relaxing vacation into a desperate battle of survival against the park androids that are not only now running amok, but also have developed quite the homicidal edge to them especially one in particular who resembles a dressed all in black gunslinger and who for whatever reason has decided it has a personal vendetta with our dynamic duo and will not stop until it has hunted them down and punched their ticket home the long way if you get my drift….
Now if you are the kind of viewer who is new to this movie and therefore have no idea what to expect, you might be surprised to learn that the first half of this movie literally feels like a buddy comedy in many respects as we witness the shenanigans of the dynamic duo at the heart of this in the forms of Benjamin and Blane respectively as they really get into the swing of things and embrace their new identities as make-believe cowpokes from the late 1800s. Of course this might seem like a detractor to the overall film, but it actually isn’t. I say this because by slowly but surely having things go awry rather than all at once, it places the audience in the point of view of the characters so you really don’t have any idea of what to expect thus when things do finally go completely and utterly amok you’re just as surprised and even to some degree frightened as they are. It’s also worth noting that although the sets in this might seem like something that is completely and utterly devoid of novelty that is the point. Not just because this really sells the idea that this theme park is by and large rooted in fantasy, but because Crichton, in his role as director, chose locales for this theme park that audiences already had an image of how they thought they actually were due to how often they appeared in film and television. As a result this is why this movie looks for the majority of its runtime, from a design and cinematography point of view, less like Deadwood and more like Gunsmoke. It’s also incidentally why the guys’ hijinks that they get involved in including brothel visits, whiskey drinking in the saloon, breaking out of jail, random gun fights, and horseback riding are all things we have seen occur in the Western genre a thousand times. Finally I have heard people say that by and large the effects in this seem to be quite dated. Honestly I get that, but at the same time I can’t deny that for 1970s cinema they are still quite impressive. Indeed not only do the androids themselves still seem quite frighteningly realistic, but this was also the first movie to utilize digital image processing for moments in the film where we are supposed to be seeing things from a particular android’s point of view and it is still quite the stunning technical achievement to watch unfold to say nothing of a wonderful prelude to the work that would be done by a director named James Cameron 11 years later in a little film called The Terminator.
Now the cast in this all manage to do a fairly good job at both playing their respective parts, but also really selling us on the premise of technology gone horrifically amok. This starts with Richard Benjamin who is fairly well cast as Peter Martin. Indeed the character of Peter is meant to really be the surrogate for the audience into this world and Benjamin does a fairly good job at playing not only the initial skepticism that I feel every one of us would have when first setting foot in this place, but also the eventual warming up to it as well as the inevitable horror when things finally go full-blown chaotic. I also like the work done in this by James Brolin as Martin’s friend John Blane. No it’s not the most three-dimensional role in the world acting more as both a guide for Martin to this distinct world as well as a catalyst for him to really come out of his shell and actually be his own person again, but at the same time Brolin is still charismatic enough that he’s able to make the role work and be enjoyable in it as well. I also really enjoyed the smaller yet just as pivotal roles played in this by such individuals as Alan Oppenheimer, Victoria Shaw, and Dick Van Patten among others. Indeed not only do these actors do wonderful work with their (albeit) significantly more limited material, but they also do great at making their characters organically fit into the overall narrative as well. Out of everyone in the whole cast though, there is one performance that is by far the best and that would be the one given by Yul Brynner as the android known only as the Gunslinger. Indeed he might only have 30-35 minutes of screen time tops and even less in the way of dialogue, but Brynner makes this character downright chilling through not only a stare that is just truly haunting, but also in its seemingly non-stop devotion to hunting these men down. Indeed it’s truly frightening to say, but it almost seems like on some level this humanoid machine is actually enjoying the pursuit a bit more than perhaps it was programmed to. Suffice it to say that not only is this guy one of the more frightening robotic antagonists ever put to film, but I can also honestly say that this is the character that James Cameron, more than any other, was thinking of when he came up with his own iconic menace in the form of The Terminator.
All in all despite a few hiccups in its path, I really enjoyed Westworld “73” and there’s a reason why this is still one of my favorite sci-fi movies from the 70s. Yes I’ll admit that beyond a doubt that a few moments from the effects department are dated, but the narrative is still (if not more so) as chilling and relevant as it must have back when this movie first came out, the performances are good (with the exception again of Brynner who is fantastic), and the work done behind the camera is fairly well done. Thus if you are in the mood for a subtly insightful slice of cinematic pie from the sci-fi genre of movie magic that is also just a good movie plain and simple then definitely check this out. I promise you could definitely do a lot worse. On a scale of 1-5 I give Westworld “73” a solid 3.5 out of 5.
Now I know this is normally where I would put the trailer for the movie; unfortunately I have seen the trailer for this movie and I can honestly say that it spoils way way too much. Therefore, out of respect to you, the reader and your enjoyment of the film I have elected not to put it up with this review. Have a great day everyone and I’ll see you guys….at the movies! Ag