Next year, HBO will be airing a new television series, a genre-bending western about killer robots. Said series is called Westworld, and if “western” plus “killer robots” wasn’t enough to excite you (you clearly unexcitable heathen), it’s also got an interesting cast (Ben Barnes, Ed Harris, Anthony Hopkins, James Marsden, Thandie Newton, Jimmi Simpson, Evan Rachel Wood, etc.) and is being helmed by Jonathan Nolan, who, yes, is related to Christopher Nolan, and is also the dude who created the pretty fantastic Person of Interest. So, yeah, I’m definitely hopeful.
But this isn’t a review of that show. This is a review of the source material its adapted from: Westworld, the 1973 western about killer robots.
The pacing is a little rough sometimes and there are some damn silly things about it, but ultimately I enjoyed watching this movie.
Peter (Richard Benjamin) and John (James Brolin) are two rich dudes on vacation in Westworld, an Old West theme park populated by robots. Attendees get the whole gunslinger experience: bar fights, shootouts, visits to brothels, all without the risk of getting injured or killed. But when the robots malfunction and start killing off all the humans, well. The authenticity becomes a little less fun.
1. Okay, so that summary is a little bit of a lie because Westworld, itself, isn’t a theme park. The actual amusement park is called Delos. Westworld is only one of three lands that tourists at Delos can visit. There’s also Medieval World and Roman World right next door. (This is really not a spoiler. You find out in the first two minutes.)
Most of the women tourists seem to be going to Roman World for the hot Roman robot men, which is kind of awesome — but also makes me wish we’d seen at least one woman who went to, say, Westworld so she could be the Sheriff or something. You know, something action-y. This isn’t really a movie for action-y women, or for women with interesting characters, or even for women with more than five lines of dialogue apiece.
My big problem with Medieval and Roman World is that they feel off balance with the rest of the story. We keep checking in with them to see how the Quickly Worsening Robot Situation is going, but since the two main characters we actually care about (well, sorta) are in Westworld, it’s hard to work up much interest in Obnoxious and Obviously Minor Character Dude in Medieval World. I’m not convinced we need to spend so much time in these lands. Or even any, TBH.
2. Also, as a woman? While I suppose feeling up muscly robots in Roman World could be fun, here’s a list of other Imaginary Worlds I’d personally rather go to:
Super Mario World
Wow, “world” really stops looking like a word after you type it enough times. Moving on.
3. Honestly, I can absolutely see the appeal of going to a place like Westworld. And if it was a real place (and didn’t cost a thousand dollars a day) I would absolutely sign up . . . but I’d have a lot of questions first, questions that this movie does not, in my mind, answer satisfactorily (or in some cases, even pose). Like . . .
A. How do you keep the tourists from dying even when the robots are functioning properly?
So the movie at least does answer my immediate question: what’s to stop the tourists (with their very real guns and bullets) from shooting the other tourists? Well, apparently, the guns only work when fired at robots. (At least, until everything goes all to hell.) So, okay, that’s good.
However, getting shot is far from the only way to get hurt in Westworld.
What keeps one dude from killing another dude with his bare hands? I know Security is watching the tourists’ every move, but it doesn’t take all that long to to fatally injure someone in a bar fight, whether accidentally or on purpose. “Ha-ha, I’m flying across the bar, but I hit my head wrong on the corner of this table and now I’m dead, whoops.” Just how many liability forms do you have to sign to get into this place, anyway?
For that matter, what happens if a man tries to rape a human woman, thinking she’s a pleasure robot, not, say, a tourist in a princess dress or serving wench costume? What if he doesn’t stop even after he finds out, and just pretends he never understood? (“Oh no, Officer, I thought saying, ‘No,’ over and over again was part of her programming! I didn’t even think to look at her hands, I was all in the moment.”) I just feel like there’s a lot of safety concerns here that this place isn’t addressing, besides Killer Robot Problems. (On the upside, Killer Robot Problems is absolutely my newest imaginary band name.)
B. How do you always fulfill your customers’ dream fantasies if two of them have simultaneously opposing desires?
At one point in the movie, Peter and John want to run roughshod over the lawless western town. At the same time, this banker dude (Dick Van Patten) decides to become the Sheriff there. The plot turns so that Killer Robots become the more serious concern here, but say the robots had behaved themselves: what happens when it’s Peter and John versus the Banker Dude? (Or even two dudes who want to be Sheriff at the same time?)
Teaming up with or against the other tourists sounds like it’d be part of the fun, but without an official storyline to keep things moving in an organized fashion, what’s to stop, say, Peter and John from taking over and throwing Banker Dude in a shack for their two weeks? (Or vice versa.) Westworld’s whole premise seems to be “anything goes,” but if anything really does go, how does everyone end up being happy with their experience — because nobody is gonna be like, “Well, I spent a little over ten grand to get locked in a shed, but hey, that’s authenticity right there!” Are there mechanisms in play to keep opposing forces from having the upper hand for too long? Are the robots programmed to join sides?
C. Seriously, just how authentic is too authentic?
And by that I mean is there indoor plumbing? Because I can tell you right now, I’m not paying fourteen thousand dollars to shit in a bucket for two weeks.
I know, I know. I’m not hardcore. This comes up with camping all the time, where I am decidedly middle ground. It doesn’t really seem like camping to me if you’re sleeping in an RV, but if the camping facility doesn’t have running water, dudes, I am OUT. A vacation without a functioning toilet is, in my opinion, a failure of a vacation. I’m aware other people are of different minds about this. I’m just saying. I could forego my strawberry margaritas for some shitty whiskey. I could give up my dream mattress for a lumpy little bed. But I would never willingly sign up for any trip that’s like, “Toilets are for whiners. Be gritty. Be REAL.”
4. At the same time, though . . . Westworld is weirdly, like, not authentic enough? Like, okay, part of the thrill of going to play in the Old West is, undoubtedly, getting into gunfights. I totally get that. But Peter’s first gunfight is so stilted and artificial, I don’t really get how you’d feel any thrill from it.
With mild spoilers, here’s basically how this goes: our chief antagonist, the robot Gunslinger (Yul Brynner) rudely knocks into Peter at a bar, and while Peter’s initially all for letting this slide, John keeps nudging him to get into the spirit of things and shoot that motherfucker. Helpfully, the Gunslinger keeps cueing Peter with barbed one-liners, and Peter eventually decides to (awkwardly) go with it. And while it’s obviously good that the robots are programmed to never actually hit you, the Gunslinger draws his gun at roughly the same speed as a 97-year-old great-grandfather whose holster also happens to be full of viscous honey.
There’s just, there’s no challenge to this at all, like not even the illusion of challenge. Peter shoots the robot dead, and I’m like . . . uh, yay? Where’s the experience in that? The whole thing takes place in under two minutes, and then it’s just done. Peter, at least, seems to get into it (you know, he learns the WILL TO KILL), but I’m like, Dude, if I’m paying so much money for all this, I’d want my true CYOA experience, you know? I want, like, actual plot consequences and whatnot, like, a whole story built around my choices, not just some 3D target practice.
(In the interest of being fair, I should note that Peter’s actions on Day 2 do actually have some – very brief – story consequences, so that’s cool at least. It just doesn’t seem very consistent, and I think the bigwigs at Delos could learn something from checking out, I don’t know, a point-and-click or text adventure game or something.)
5. Let’s talk briefly about our heroes: Peter and John.
Here’s what I find interesting about them: when we first meet P&J, I really thought John was the protagonist of the piece, and not just because I’m more familiar with James Brolin than Richard Benjamin. It seemed like John had that whole stoic cowboy thing going on, while Peter seemed far more like the nerdy comic relief who was all excited about the big guns but clearly didn’t know a thing about them.
Once they arrive at Westworld, however, the two friends immediately switch roles. Peter never really becomes stoic, but he does clearly shift from neurotic sidekick to Protagonist with a Moral Compass. John, meanwhile, suddenly turns into the obnoxious frat boy BFF type, not totally awful, but with way more confidence than actual competence. To be clear: this isn’t really a complaint, I just find it interesting, particularly because I doubt it was intentional.
6. Yul Brynner is also kind of interesting here.
Not because he actually displays any real sort of character — he’s pretty much Killer Robot and nothing else — but because of how he moves. There’s a very slow, deliberate pace to all of his movements that immediately reminded me of slasher killers like Michael Myers. Also: the Terminator. And according to IMDb trivia, anyway, both John Carpenter and Arnold Schwarzenegger were influenced by Brynner’s performance, which is pretty cool. I love shit like that.
Also kind of a cool little homage for Western buffs: Yul Brynner is wearing pretty much the exact same thing he wore in The Magnificant Seven. Considering he’s actually a bad guy in this one, the black hat seems particularly fitting.
7. While we’re on the subject of fashion, though, let’s talk about the laughable costumes from Medieval World.
Look, I don’t know a damn thing about historical accuracy when it comes to period piece costumes. If I ever watched Reign, I’d probably be nodding my head and going, “Sure, that looks legit.” But these clothes . . . they’re so colorful and ridiculous. I know this movie was made in the 70’s, but damn. It’s like they’re trying to adapt a Disney cartoon.
8. Also hilarious: bright red blood.
Oh, 70’s. Your pacing sometimes drives me crazy, but your super vibrant blood that pretty much just looks like red paint will always make me smile.
9. As far as pacing goes . . . eh, it’s okay, I guess. A little slow, which isn’t exactly unusual for the decade, but the setup could work (an hour of build, a half-hour of BLOODY ACTION) if I really cared about any of the characters. Unfortunately, my investment in them is so-so at best, so occasionally the story feels like it’s dragging a bit.
There’s a lot of potential in Westworld, though, and the concept’s so enjoyable that I’m really curious to see where a TV show goes with it. Hopefully, they’ll do something with robots’ rights? There are definitely some uncomfortable things in this movie, like when the pleasure robot refuses to have sex with one dude, and the Delos Staff are basically like, “That’s not supposed to happen! Fix that robot bitch immediately!” and I’m like, “Oh-ho, do we have some things to talk about, men.”
10. I’m also hoping they go into this Robot Disease a little more. Generally speaking, I don’t usually want or need a lot of details about why something is happening, like, I rarely care why the zombies have come — the zombies are here. Let’s just deal with them. But in this particular instance, this barely touched upon robot disease felt pretty groundbreaking, like I’m not sure it’s the first computer virus in film, but it’s certainly the first one I can think of — but the movie really only spends about half a minute on it. I’m not usually much for technobabble, but this could have been pretty interesting stuff.
11. And of course I assume that special effects will be significantly better in 2016 than they were in 1973. Actually, some of the effects here are kind of cool, like when they remove the Gunslinger’s face at one point for repairs? That seemed pretty awesome.
Considerably less awesome was Robot Vision:
Apparently, this was a really big deal, like it actually was the first instance of Robot Vision in movies. Which, normally, would be pretty awesome, but all I could think while watching this was, Dude, how does this motherfucker see SHIT if this is his worldview? Everything’s just hideously blurry, like a drunk watching static on an old television screen.
12. Finally, before Spoilers, I just have to mention one cameo:
Her character really only has a couple of short scenes, but my fondness for Lwaxana Troi means that I am pretty much always happy when I find Majel Barrett in something. Here she plays a madam who later gets into a bar fight, and I would happily have watched more scenes with her.
Alas, we spent most of that time in Medieval World instead. Boo, hiss.
First: does Peter really break out of jail with explosive tea? Okay, then.
That settled, let me go ahead and skip to the good stuff: John bites the big one.
It’s actually a pretty decent scene. The robots have been on an overnight killing spree, only Peter and John don’t know anything about it because they’ve been passed out in a bar. (I’m fine with this, though I wish we got to see more violence while they were sleeping. In general, I wish John and Peter weren’t the only real characters to care about, at least if we have to watch Roman and Medieval World. Alternatively, it might be better to just hear about Roman and Medieval World but not actually see either until Peter runs there after escaping Westworld.)
Anyway, Peter and John run into the Gunslinger. Hilariously, they both groan because they’re hungover and too tired for their third encounter with this guy. Since the Gunslinger refuses to leave them alone out of common decency, John decides he’ll kill him this time around. Unfortunately, he basically tells the Gunslinger he can have the first draw (it’s a line the Gunslinger himself says earlier) and the Gunslinger, of course, shoots him dead. Then he turns to Peter.
And the chase is on.
Peter runs for his life through Westworld into Roman and Medieval World. But he must not care very much about his life because he runs like a girl in high heels in a slasher movie. Dude, no. I get that you’re tired and all, but this is entirely unacceptable. Part of the problem, I’m sure, is that the actor never really manages to sell exhausted. Mostly, he just seems like he can’t be bothered to bust out of a light jog, like he’s auditioning for slow motion Baywatch or something. It’s ridiculous.
While Peter’s warm-up jogging for his life, all the scientists at Delos are suffocating/getting boiled to death in the Control Room. Frankly, this feels a little convenient to me, especially since we only see one employee outside of that room in all of the Worlds. (He’s killed by the Gunslinger.) And yeah, I just don’t buy it. Three worlds, and those are really the only employees around? One roaming tech and, like, thirteen dead guys in a room? I call bullshit.
Eventually, Peter manages to make it to the Employees Only section of the park, where he throws acid (handily labelled) at the Gunslinger’s face. He acts like this has 100% killed the robot for sure, even though this dude is still visibly shuffling to the sink. Meanwhile, Peter decides to mosey on out of the room and stand around this hallway for a while. Such an asshole.
Well, of course the Gunslinger isn’t dead and he comes back to life, like, maybe three times or something for One Last Scare — the last of which is totally hysterical.
Mek and I cracked up so hard.
Despite his best efforts, though, Peter continues not to die, even when he decides to untie a woman in a dungeon without checking her fucking palms. (That’s how you tell if a person’s a human or a robot. Robots have, like, wrinkled palms. It’s weird.) The movie ends with Peter walking through Medieval World, presumably the only man left alive, but it should really end with him dead, like, five times over because this dude does not deserve to live.
You are the very worst survivor girl, Peter.
Fun concept and enjoyable enough movie, though I can’t help but think of, like, sixteen different ways I’d like to improve it. Still, it’s a pretty decent little SF western. I’d love to see more in that sub genre.
Amusement parks are death, at least if Michael Crichton is to believed. I’m trying to decide just how much the Pirates of the Caribbean ride must have traumatized him to have come up with both Westworld AND Jurassic Park.
Also, you need not run screaming from killer robots. A light stroll, apparently, will do just fine.