Tuesday, March 10, 2015

#1,667. Westworld (1973)

Directed By: Michael Crichton

Starring: Yul Brynner, Richard Benjamin, James Brolin

Tag line: "Boy, have we got a vacation for you..."

Trivia: This movie was filmed in several locations, including the Mojave Desert, the gardens of the Harold Lloyd Estate, and several sound stages at MGM

Man, did this movie make an impression on me back in the day! As I sat watching it one lazy Saturday afternoon on local TV, I was blown away by the notion of a theme park designed to look like a western town, one populated almost entirely by androids. Despite the film’s somewhat glib ending, I remember hoping beyond hope that someone… anyone… was out there, working diligently to turn this bit of fantasy known as Westworld into a reality.

Delos is a state-of-the-art resort, charging visitors $1,000 a day for the ultimate vacation. With three different scenarios to choose from: Roman World (set in the era of the Roman Empire), Medieval World (the age of Chivalry), and Westworld (the 19th Century Wild West), visitors step into the past, living life as if they were really in that particular period of history. Newcomer Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin) and his pal John Blane (James Brolin) are living it up in Westworld, getting into gunfights with outlaws and spending their nights at the local saloon, but what they don’t know is that some of the resort’s robots have been malfunctioning as of late. Fearing they can no longer guarantee their guest’s safety, Delos’ Chief Engineer (Alan Oppenheimer) recommends that they shut down all three worlds in order to run a full diagnostic on every android. His associates, however, believe the problem can be contained, and decide to carry on with business as usual. Then, disaster strikes; the robots suddenly develop a mind of their own, and turn on both the guests and the park’s employees. As the Chief Engineer and his team attempt to regain control, Peter and John find themselves being pursued by a vicious gunman (Yul Brynner, looking a lot like his character in The Magnificent Seven), who’s bound and determined to shoot both of them dead.

The movie does occasionally visit both Roman World (the scenes for which were shot on a Beverly Hills Estate that once belonged to silent star Harold Lloyd) and Medieval World, where we meet a guest (Michael Bartold) whose affair with the Queen (Victoria Shaw) results in a showdown with the dreaded Black Knight (Michael T. Mikler). For the most part, though, Westworld follows Peter and John as they experience all that the American West has to offer, everything from barroom brawls to jail breaks. Another guest, played by Dick Van Patten, even gets to be Sheriff for a day. In these scenes, Westworld has the look and feel of an authentic Hollywood western, and at times we actually forget we’re watching a science fiction film.

That changes, however, when the sun goes down, at which point Westworld takes us underground to Delos’ command center, where the various androids that have been “shot” or otherwise damaged throughout the day are repaired. It’s during these sequences that we discover something’s amiss, that a “virus” of some sort is spreading from one robot to another, causing them to occasionally ignore their programming. We join in on the high-level meetings to discuss the issue, and, later on, watch as the crew does everything it can to prevent the inevitable from happening. As Peter, John, and the other guests are fighting for their lives up on the surface, Delos’ engineers are locked underground, their air supply quickly running out as they try in vain to stop the androids in their tracks.

Westworld marked the directorial debut of Michael Crichton, a writer whose novels inspired a number of films, most notably 1993's Jurassic Park. Much like that Spielberg classic, Westworld introduces us to an amazing theme park that falls apart before our eyes, and it’s to Crichton’s credit that, even as all hell’s breaking loose in these two movies, we’re still amazed by the worlds he’s created, and, in spite of all the turmoil, we even kinda wish we were there to see it all go down.

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