[Originally published in Movietone News 28, December 1973]
Stanley Kubrick has staked out as his special territory the study of the diverse and frequently perverse liaisons between man and machine. In films like Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey Kubrick obsessively examines all the accoutrements of a technological environment in which sophisticated hardware continually threatens to become autonomous, even humanized, while man is recreated in the image not of an anthropomorphic deity but of deus ex machina. Michael Crichton (author of The Andromeda Strain and The Terminal Man, director of Extreme Closeup) is equally preoccupied with scientific paraphernalia and what it portends for the future of mankind. But whereas Kubrick is an artist who makes the machinery serve the myth, Crichton displays only a facile cleverness, a slick talent for coming up with a grabby idea upon which to hang the full weight of a novel or a film. The best contemporary sci-fi writers have turned true novelists in their concern with characterization and style, as well as the need to present in-depth analyses of the ethical, moral, even metaphysical fallout resulting from current technological advances. Crichton’s work has more in common with the oldfashioned sci-fi adventure/suspense thriller genre. For instance, The Terminal Man begins as potentially “modern” science fiction: a man given to extreme violence during epileptic seizures is “cured” by the implantation of a miniature computer in his brain; this cybernetic therapy is complicated by his increasingly psychotic belief that machines are taking control of humans. But Crichton dodges the rich possibilities of this material and ultimately settles for mere chase melodrama. Still, The Terminal Man is as close as he’s come to real achievement in the genre of serious sci-fi.
Westworld doesn’t even come close. To his shortcomings as a writer, his inability to get beyond the mere positing of a clever idea, must be added his lack of discernible talent as a visual artist. The idea is this: Sometime in the future a high-powered company called Delos offers the acme of vacation therapy. For $1,000 a day the vacationer can visit recreations of his favorite historical period and live out his fondest fantasies without consequence. The choices include the Old West, medieval England, and Rome at its height; and each “world” is equipped with an expendable population of robots upon which any libidinous outrage may be perpetrated. After the festivities, Delos sends out a maintenance crew to clear up the carnage, the robots are repaired and reprogrammed, and the fun—which never transcends the most lowbrow and physical of fantasies—begins anew. Problem is—as a bevy of scientists carefully explain to one another—some kind of “disease” has begun to affect the robots so that they malfunction oddly: a rattlesnake actually strikes, rather than simply menacing picturesquely; a serving wench subverts a matter-of-fact seduction by smartly slapping a lecherous vacationer; the Black Knight reverses a planned duel for the Queen’s favors by impaling his human opponent.
Though the film’s basic premise is riddled with inconsistencies and improbabilities, and marred by crudeness of conception, the ingredients are there for a respectable, if not profound, work of science fiction. Consider the paradox: Men kill, maim, and sexually use robots that they, by their own delighted admissions, cannot readily distinguish from human beings—they certainly bleed and die in a most human manner. As the vacationers discharge energy traditionally grounded or controlled in more civilized contact, they become progressively dehumanized, more mechanical in their pleasures. At one point, two royally hungover visitors to Westworld are confronted by a gunfighter one of them has “killed” twice before: weary glances are exchanged, one of them offers “to do it this time” and automatically reaches for his gun (equipped with special heat sensors so that it will fire only at robots). On the other hand, Delos’s machines are radicalized in a very human way by their oppression and develop an appetite for revenge against those who use them so inhumanely. Kubrick dealt brilliantly with this near exchange of identity between man and machine in 2001. His space-age people came on with the vivacity of short-circuited zombies while HAL the super-computer went very humanly mad and regressed to poignant childhood memories as Keir Dullea methodically disconnected his mind. But Crichton—as is his wont—goes for the surface glitter, the easy laughs and cheap effects, rather than mining his tale for any richness of paradox or irony. He spends his directorial time milking the initial quirkiness of grownup men and women dressing up for and playing out adolescent daydreams, not to mention gratuitously cutting between “worlds” so we can get hack Hollywood vignettes of vacationers gormandizing in Medievalworld, orgying in Romeworld, gunslinging, fist-fighting, and whoring in Westworld. No ironic comment here, no satirical assessment of the limited and puerile fantasy lives being nourished by Delos’s banks of computers. The director’s repetitious cutting is particularly unfortunate since Westworld‘s sets are so few and cheaply dressed—perhaps due to an extremely tight budget.
Characterization is nil: James Brolin and Dick Benjamin are the film’s stars simply by virtue of being onscreen a lot. Crichton isn’t playing with the notion of their one-dimensional personalities being the result of dehumanizing behavior or environment, as Kubrick did in 2001; he simply hasn’t got the talent, or the inclination, to do more than elicit wooden walk-throughs from his performers. Yul Brynner is equally one-dimensional, but brings considerable physical charisma to his role as a robot refugee from The Magnificent Seven. Crichton fails to enlighten us in any way as to what’s the real crux of the robots’ sudden rebellion; the closest we come to getting inside Brynner’s head are glimpses through the robot’s computerized eyes during his interminable pursuit of Benjamin through various worlds and their underpinnings.
And that’s really too bad: the director of Westworld is so very pleased with his clever concept that he can’t take his (or our) eyes off it long enough to develop the fully realized film one might have hoped for. So, like the Delos vacationers, one can only indulge one’s fantasies about what really went wrong in Westworld.
Screenplay and Direction: Michael Crichton. Cinematography: Gene Polito.
The Players: Richard Benjamin, James Brolin, Yul Brynner.
Copyright © 1973 Kathleen Murphy