“Draw,” says Yul Brynner.
“Whatever,” says a tourist who has spent a lot of money to spend their vacation at the Delos amusement park.
BANG! Down goes the tourist, as the robot revolution of 1983 begins.
Recently, TCM broadcast the 1973 science fiction thriller, Westworld. Since I am absolutely obsessed with the more recent HBO revival, there was no way I could resist watching the original film. It was an interesting experience. While the film is far more simpler and straight-forward than the television series, they both essentially tell the same story. A bunch of rich humans pay a lot of money to pretend to be either cowboys or knights or Roman citizens for a week. Everyone has a great time until, eventually, the robots stop doing what they were supposed to do and instead, begin to fight back.
One thing that the movie and the series definitely shared is a less-than-positive view of humanity. The movie focuses on two businessmen. Peter (Richard Benjamin) is the nerdy one. John (James Brolin) is the hypermasculine one. Peter is visiting Westworld for the first time. John is a frequent guest who loves gunning down any robots who looks at him the wrong way. Neither one of these characters is particularly likable. Peter starts out as a self-righteous hypocrite who ends up sleeping with a sexbot, despite being married. John brags about how easy it is to kill the robots, mostly because the robot’s are programmed to not fight back.
Meanwhile, the human engineers who work behind-the-scenes and keep Delos running are all blandly incompetent. When the robots start to malfunction, the engineers can only shrug and wonder why. They’re so ineffective that, halfway through the movie, they get sealed up in their own control room, slowly suffocating to death while the park collapses around them.
As opposed to the TV series, the robots in Westworld never achieve any sort of real consciousness. Even when they malfunction, it doesn’t lead to a true rebellion as much as it just causes them to ignore any previous directives about killing the guests. When the Gunslinger (Yul Brynner) starts stalking Peter and John across the park, it’s not an act of ideology or, for that matter, even revenge. It’s simply that the Gunslinger has been programmed to be a killer and this is what a killer does.
It all leads to an extended chase sequence involving the Gunslinger and Peter and, despite the fact that it doesn’t have much of a personality, it’s hard not to be on The Gunslinger’s side. If nothing else, the Gunslinger is at least good at what it does. Peter, on the other hand, is perhaps one of the most incompetent heroes to ever show up in a movie. After spending the first half of the movie being smug and dealing with robots programmed not to fight back, Peter now has to try to win on an even playing field.
Westworld was the directorial debut of writer Michael Crichton. The film’s flaws are largely the flaws that you would expect from a first-time director. Occasionally, the pacing falters and the first half of the film sometimes moves a bit too slowly. (There’s one saloon fight that seems to go on forever.) During the first half of the film, there’s several scenes involving another tourist (played by Dick Van Patten) who seems like he’s going to play a major role in the film but, after the first hour, the character literally vanishes from the film.
Despite those flaws, Westworld remains an exciting mix of suspense and science fiction. Though his actual screentime is rather limited, Yul Brynner easily dominates the entire film. In the role of the Gunslinger, Brynner is a relentless killing machine. What makes the character especially disturbing is that Brynner plays him without a hint of emotion or expression. The Gunslinger gets no pleasure out of killing nor does he seek to accomplish any sort of identifiable goal. The Gunslinger simply kills because that’s what he was programmed to do.
While I prefer the HBO series, the original Westworld is still an exciting and entertaining film, one that probably seems a lot more plausible today than when it was first released 46 years ago. Watch it the next time your home robot gets bored.