WESTWORLD: A High Concept Showdown At The Bionic Corral

Michael Crichton was something of a triple-threat auteur, a man who found success in the worlds of publishing, cinema and television.  The secret to this success was a style that combined hard science with pop-storytelling hooks to create entertainment with a brainy edge for the mass audience.  Westworld was his first feature film as director, based upon his own original script, and it remains a great example of the Crichton style firing on all cylinders.  In fact, you could call it one of the first great “high concept” Hollywood films.

The storyline of Westworld revolves around Delos, a resort that uses complex technology to create a perfect fantasy experience for its patrons.  The resort is broken into three “worlds” – Medievalworld, Romanworld and Westworld – with each allowing patrons to revisit a past time and act out their own fantasies by interacting with lifelike androids who fulfill their whims.  These androids act as servants, easily-disposed villains, even sexual partners.

Audience identification figures provided in the forms of John (James Brolin), a macho vet of the resort, and Peter (Richard Benjamin), a nebbish-y friend who is visiting for the first time.  John teaches Peter the ropes, which include jailbreaks, visits to the local bordello and shootouts with a black-hatted android Gunslinger (Yul Brynner).  They have a blast, not knowing that there are problems behind the scenes: the Delos scientists ignore a slowly rising percentage of malfunctions with a mysterious virus-style spread through the androids until it’s too late.  Pretty soon, androids are killing guests and Peter and John have to face off with the Gunslinger for real.

As the synopsis reveals, Westworld has the kind of hook-filled premise that you could make into a successful popcorn movie today.  Crichton’s script doesn’t belabor the details: instead, it throws out enough conceptual frills to dazzle the audience as it quickly lays track for its premise to pay off as a thriller.  Some hardcore sci-fi types tend to get grouchy about this, namely the film’s refusal to give a definitive cause for the androids’ malfunctions, but a clear-eyed look at Westworld reveals it is clearly designed as a piece of entertainment, not a scientific treatise.

And if you approach it as a thriller with a sci-fi overlay, Westworld pays off in a big way.  Crichton only had one t.v. film to his credit as a director at this point but his work in the director’s chair is very confident here.  He uses the Cinemascope frame to impressive effect and handles the suspense and action scenes with panache.  Highlights of his work include Peter’s first showdown with the gunslinger and the third act, which is essentially one big, carefully calibrated chase sequence.  He deploys slow-motion with skill – there’s a funny barroom brawl that plays like a burlesque of Sam Peckinpah films – and also utilizes sound effects and echo to heighten the impact of these setpieces.  His work is aided throughout the film by sharp cinematography from t.v. vet Gene Polito and an excellent musical score by Fred Karlin that mixes western motifs with experimental electronics.

Crichton is also quite good with his actors.  The film relies on its leads to bring the audience into the film’s tech-driven premise and both Brolin and Benjamin do a great job of pulling this off.  Brolin shows an easy, leading-man sort of charm as the veteran of the duo, underplaying to sly comic effect in many scenes, and Benjamin uses a similar sense of understatement to establish his character’s fish-out-of-water qualities.  Also worthy of note are Alan Oppenheimer as the scientist who first notices the androids’ problems and comic actor Steve Franken in a dramatic cameo as a harried technician who gives Benjamin some important advice.

That said, its Brynner who is the big scene-stealer, sending up his look and style from The Magnificent Seven to create a robot character who transforms from a satirical punchline into a single-minded predator as scary as the shark from Jaws.  It was arguably his last great role and a subtle, impressive display of minimalist acting.

Simply put, Westworld remains a sharp example of pop filmmaking in a science fiction vein, one that uses its smarts in the service of bracing thrills.  If only today’s high concept fare was this crafty.

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