Before Jurassic Park, author Michael Crichton had another idea for an amusement park gone wrong. Although the epic HBO series Westworld has arguably eclipsed the 1973 film of the same name, the original movie is a creepy proto-cyberpunk classic that is worth another look.
Here’s why you should binge the first version of Westworld before it gallops off HBO Max next week.
In the early seventies, the vibe of science fiction TV and movies was decidedly very different from how it was by the end of the decade. Some have argued that the success of Star Wars is tied to the fact that the majority of mainstream sci-fi offerings at the top of the seventies were dark, exceedingly so.
For better or for worse, there’s a “before and after” with mainstream science fiction films, and that dividing line is certainly 1977 — and certainly Star Wars. (As well as, to a lesser extent, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a scary alien abduction movie that actually ends up in a happy place.) Anything “dark” about Star Wars is only dark in comparison to a preceding brand of happy-go-lucky space opera.
It’s only really dark if you never saw Silent Running (1972) the original Planet of the Apes movies (1968-1973)... and the super-dark robot thriller, Westworld.
Directed and written by Crichton, the original Westworld has, more or less, the same premise as the HBO series. In the near future, a huge corporation makes an amusement park in which people can play out their various fantasies in pseudo-historical settings. “Westworld” is one of these parks, and visitors are invited to slaughter and sleep with robots to their heart's content.
The original film does something interesting here, though that’s absent from the reboot: The one human quality that is hard to duplicate in the robots of this Westworld has to do with their hands.
You can tell someone is a robot in this version of a Delos park by their utterly fake-looking (and very creepy) hands. That creative decision has a real-life parallel, as artists have historically found hands the most difficult part of the human body to paint or draw. By subtly suggesting that the creation of humanoid robots is like art, rather than science, the film allows the viewer to think about its premise more abstractly. All this makes the 1973 Westworld superior to its often-on-the-nose successor.
Whereas the contemporary Westworld features long speeches and digressions about the nature of free will and the meaning of memory, the film assumes its audience is smart enough to figure all that out. Instead, the original Westworld focuses on scaring the bejeesus out of you.
Famously, the villain in this movie is a robot version of the Man in Black (Yul Brynner) intent on picking off organic humans inside the park. In a way, he’s the Roy Batty of this proto-Blade Runner — a deranged replicant fighting for his freedom. But Westworld is more unsettling given the intentionally unrealistic nature of its environment. Westworld didn’t have the budget that the HBO series had access to more recently, and so its “Old West” is less convincing in a way that underlines its true artifice.
Westworld is more frightening than the more realistic new version because we know it's all make-believe. The idea that these are robots attacking humans is made a little more distinct, which amps up the horror. In the new show, the Delos “Hosts” are more like the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica. In the 1973 movie, they’re monsters.
For fans of the series, there’s an interesting bit of science fiction casting in the 1973 Westworld. In this film, the madame who owns the Saloon is played by Majel Barrett-Roddenberry, the wife of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. In the new series, this character becomes Maeve Millay (Thandiwe Newton), arguably the most powerful Host in the show (other than maybe Dolores).
The funny thing is, Barrett is known as the most prolific science fiction A.I. actor ever, having voiced every single computer in Star Trek from The Original Series through the 2009 reboot films. This makes her playing a robot in Westworld a hilarious stop-gap in her career as an intelligent computer.
Westworld was the first big sci-fi movie to show the audience what things might look like from the perspective of a robot, a trick that was used again for The Terminator and RoboCop. That detail is less trivia and more a philosophical point. This may have been a horror movie about a grotesque robots-gone-amok amusement park. But Westworld did, at least briefly, show us how the world looked from the robots’ point of view. Whatever they saw, it wasn’t pretty.