Though severely dated and, at times, hammy in its execution, more than forty years later Westworld, the movie still has yet to lose its charm and stunning re-watchability factor.
The 1973 film version of the Westward story follows a down-on-his luck man named Peter (Richard Benjamin) and his friend John (James Brolin), who decide to visit the titular park of Westworld for the cathartic experience of their lives, where they can play cowboy, and kill and fornicate with any number of human-like androids as much as they please. However, as Peter finds his way through the raunchy, anything-goes nature of the park, things begin to go awry as a virus spreads through the android population, and what was once a dream vacation turns into a nightmare.
Written and directed by Michael Crichton, a man regarded as one of the greatest science fiction writers of his time, and the writer of mega hit Jurassic Park, Westworld is a strange, special movie. Seen through a modern lens, its a hammy 70s Sci-Fi with dated special effects, passable camerawork, and over used movie tropes we've seen done to death. However, change that lens with one from its own time, and Westworld becomes revolutionary.
Released during an era when the Western genre wasn't as popular as it was in decades prior, Crichton's premise of a scientifically-advanced park where everything goes wrong was something nobody had ever seen before. In Westworld, the genres of the Western, Sci-Fi, and even a medieval period piece are successfully fused into one coherent, satisfying, and thrilling narrative. It's difficult to not recognize the standard cinematic tropes present in the film. There's the killer android, the scientists miscalculating a cutting-edge attraction, and the explosive final showdown of man vs. machine to name but a few. But to reiterate again, this was 1973. The reason why this film is still remembered is due to how it masterfully executed those standard story devices used so frequently today.
Without this film, Crichton wouldn't go on to write Jurassic Park, where he lifted the premise of Westworld and retrofitted it to appeal to a larger demographic. The film's then relatively new anti-corporate tone sprang an entire movement in mainstream cinema that lasts to this day. That attitude, along with the concept of human-like robots, heavily influenced the premises of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and Paul Verhoeven's Robocop. The arrogance of a cold corporation uncaring about the cost of human life carries over into Scott's own Alien. Even John Carpenter has gone on record stating that the killer android in this film directly inspired the character of Michael Myers in his classic horror film, Halloween. An argument can be made that the same could be said for John McTiernan's Predator. And the titular character and entire ending set piece of James Cameron's The Terminator is ripped straight out of Westworld.
The list of movies and other media this film has influenced goes on and on, and if those films didn't exist, it'd be easier to accurately judge this one without condemning it as cheesy schlock. But then again, despite the hammy acting and cheese on its surface, Westworld isn't too hard to recognize as a good film because, even against the improved, vastly superior films that came in later years, Westworld is a legitimately entertaining film. We find ourselves a sympathetic character in Richard Benjamin's Peter. Through some subtle exposition we find that his character, like most of us, just wants to escape life for a few days, and have a real good time. When the joys of the park are presented to us, we enjoy it as much as the guests do. And although the camerawork isn't anything special, its wide takes and fun whip pans present a picture of people having a harmless good-time with no guilt attached, bolstered by silly, goofy Western music.
The pacing is fast, surprisingly so for a film with such a heavy intellectual payload as this one. It's apparent that Crichton is a writer first and foremost, and this is much to the film's benefit. He inserts the heavy themes of human morality against the cold edge of technology and other ponderings with a masterful subtlety, expertly contrasting the joyous carefree lives of the guests with the cold, calculating jobs of the scientists and gamemasters who are making sure the guests are all having their fun.
Then, when things go awry, the film is quick to turn itself from a Western/Sci-Fi hybrid into a thrilling Sci-Fi/Horror. The camerawork becomes more frantic. The score loses its gimmicky goofiness and exchanges itself for a heart-pounding, industrial beat. But even with this solid technical direction, the pulse-racing ending couldn't have been as exciting as it is without the chillingly excellent performance of Yul Brynner (The King and I, The Magnificent Seven) as a killer android.
This man was the Terminator more than a decade before that character even existed. Brynner has a terrifyingly cold aura as he pursues Peter, reflecting Crichton's now-restrained camerawork. The perspective even changes from our protagonist through the literal eyes of the killer android, as we look at the world as he sees it. Tension is excellently built in this finale until the explosive end, an ending that is altogether thrilling and as timeless as it is familiar.
Regardless of its dated nature and now-recognizable tropes, Westworld remains as thrilling and entertaining as it was almost half a century earlier. It's an important yet overlooked piece of cinematic history, one that was decades ahead of its time. And when stripped away of all its accolades and flashy embellishments, Westworld is a solid Western Sci-Fi.