Westworld, James Brolin, Michael Crichton, HBO, Ed Harris, cowboys, movie, review

Revisiting: Westworld (1973)

With HBO’s Westworld finally hitting our TV screens with a cracking and ambitious opening episode (which was also the network’s biggest premiere in 3 years), I thought it would be a good time to revisit Michael Crichton’s seminal film on which the series is based.

We open with two men, played by James Brolin and Richard Benjamin, aboard a distinctly 1970s version of a futuristic train on its way to the eponymous adult-themed amusement park, where, for $1000 a day, people can pretend to be cowboys and girls in a simulated environment in which the town’s residents are enacted by humanoid robots. Christian Bale lookalike Brolin’s been there before; Benjamin’s an excited newbie who can’t wait to sling some guns and strut into saloons. Before long, things begin to go awry when the scientists behind the scenes can’t figure out why so many robots are malfunctioning.

Now I was returning to the film for the first time in several years, for what was also just my second viewing, and one thing which I really hadn’t expected was for my opinion to slip down so far from my initial impression way back when (a phenomenon about which I’ve written to some extent). Whether that diminished view of the film was down to having just watched the excellent opening episode of HBO’s latest, potentially flagship show that very day, or that I was simply tuned in more keenly than the first time, I’m not sure – though I suspect it was a little of both.

When it comes down to it, Westworld is just Jurassic Park with cowboys in place of dinosaurs (there’s a cool premise). This makes perfect sense, of course, considering Michael Crichton also wrote Jurassic Park. Only in 1973 he didn’t have the budget or name to make it as massive a hit as Spielberg’s monster picture – or, more pressingly, the panache. You see, as cool as that premise sounds, what Westworld ultimately lacks is a bit of swagger in its execution. It just isn’t as fun as it needs to be.

Never is that more evident than in the third act’s cat-and-mouse chase in which a malfunctioning robot is hell-bent on terminating one of the guests; what should be a thrilling and tense sequence is instead very labored. Crichton’s direction restricts the characters to meandering from one location to the next in a way that suggests one doesn’t really want to catch up and the other doesn’t really want to get away. There’s just no pace or urgency.

The film also makes the decision to focus on the technical and logistical problems of running such an amusement park in favor of asking the provocative questions about playing God and digging into the morally ambiguous territory with which the idea is so laden (which is what Jonathan Nolan appears to be doing with HBO). That’s the stuff I’m really interested in; like my favourite line in Jurassic Park: “You spent so long thinking about whether you could do it that you never stopped to think about whether you should do it”. I suppose that’s okay, but I suspect it would feel like less of an issue if the rest of the film just had more spark.


Verdict: 

Westworld is at times an interesting watch, and at 85 minutes doesn’t require much of a commitment (it’s just 15 minutes longer than the opening episode!), but it needs more meat on its bones. It needs to pose more questions and generally have more fun.

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