Why the movie HBO's 'Westworld' is based on was way ahead of its time

Westworld 4 MGMMGM‘Westworld.’

I was around 9 or 10 when I first saw Michael Crichton’s 1973 “Westworld.” The movie was on TV one night and though I didn’t understand what was going on, the ending scared the hell out of me and gave me nightmares for days.

From time to time since, I’ve remembered that visual of a robotic Yul Brynner roaming around the futuristic amusement park going on a killing spree. But watching the movie again on iTunes earlier this week, I pinpointed what my major fear was back then: helpless isolation.

The main character, Peter Martin (played by Richard Benjamin), after surviving the robot attack, sits by himself as the screen goes to black. What the hell does he do now?

With HBO’s sci-fi hit “Westworld” in full gear, I decided to rewatch the 1973 movie that inspired the show’s creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy along with executive producers J.J. Abrams and Bryan Burk (maybe a few of them had nightmares watching the movie, too?) to go deeper into the story than the movie’s writer/director Michael Crichton ever could.

Michael Crichton Keith Bedford GettyKeith Bedford/GettyMichael Crichton.

Though the movie does not hold up well at all, there are still some groundbreaking elements to it that certainly inspired many filmmakers/authors who would go on to thrive in the sci-fi genre.

“Westworld” was Crichton’s first feature film and was kind of doomed from the start. The script was turned down by most studios when the author shopped it around, and he finally found a taker in MGM. But the studio squeezed Crichton on the budget and his lead actors, Richard Benjamin and James Brolin, weren’t signed on to the movie until 48 hours before principal photography began. Brynner was so strapped for cash he took the gig for $75,000 and showed up on set wearing the all-black costume he wore in “The Magnificent Seven.” 

Despite all that, the movie, which was made for around $1.5 million, earned $4 million at the box office and was MGM’s biggest release of that year

What has drawn viewers to the HBO series likely is the same thing that grabbed the attention of audiences in 1973: the desire to see a thrilling experience that we the viewers will never be able to have ourselves.

Westworld 2 MGMMGM(L-R) Richard Benjamin as Peter Martin and James Brolin as John Blane in ‘Westworld.’

Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin) and John Blane (James Brolin) are friends who are on board a hovercraft en route to an amusement park called Delos when “Westworld” begins. For $1,000 a day, Delos provides the experience of a lifetime, as you have your choice of three worlds to immerse yourself in: Westworld, Medieval World, or Rome World. All are inhabited by robots who look and act like humans, except their hands are not humanlike (with all that detail, you think they would have mastered the hands).

John is the more confident of the two and has been to Delos before. Peter is shy and reserved. We are basically going through the whole experience from his perspective.

If this sounds familiar to a pair of characters from the HBO series, I’m with you. Though TV’s “Westworld” is far more ambitious than the movie, one thing that certainly feels taken from the movie is the duo William (Jimmi Simpson) and Logan (Ben Barnes), though Logan is a lot more of a jerk than John.

Westworld HBOHBO(L-R) Ben Barnes as Logan and Jimmi Simpson as William in HBO’s ‘Westworld.’

Once Peter and John get settled into Westworld, it’s then an hour of cliche after cliche in all the worlds. Peter and John get into bar fights, have sex with the town whores, and shoot people, like the dressed-in-black Gunslinger (Brynner).

There’s also a subplot in Medieval World where a guest has a tryst with the queen and must prepare to fight the Black Knight.

But then things start to go haywire. John gets bitten by a robotic rattle snake (none of the robots is supposed to harm the guests) and a beautiful maiden doesn’t give into the advances of the Medieval World guest (sex robots were created to, well, have sex).

This introduces us to the most comical part of the movie: the staff behind the scenes running Delos. All dressed in white lab coats, they spend their time staring at monitors showing the park, griping about nothing ever working, and fixing robots who have been shot.

Westworld 5 MGMMGMThe idiots behind ‘Westworld.’

One of the most fascinating parts of TV’s “Westworld” is watching the characters who pull the strings at the park, but Crichton didn’t seem to worry about that too much. The biggest moment for the staff in white coats is after the rattlesnake bite when they converge and wonder if they should close down the park. It doesn’t take them long to decide to push through and keep it open.

The last 20 minutes or so comprise the best part of the movie. The Gunslinger is back in town and he’s new and improved, now with heightened heat censers for sight. He confronts Peter and John again but when John draws, the Gunslinger shoots and kills him. This begins a cat-and-mouse game between the Gunslinger and Peter throughout all the worlds.

Westworld POVMGMGunslinger POV.

Behind the scenes, the dimwitted staff are confused by what has happened to their creations as all the robots in all the words are killing the guests (yes, the Medieval World guest is killed by the Black Knight). In a panic, the staff shuts down the power to the park. But that also causes all the doors in their control room to automatically lock as well. And I guess those doors were pretty tightly sealed because they all suffocate to death.

Meanwhile, Peter is running from the Gunslinger, who can track his footprints thanks to his heat sensor-powered sight.

Finding his way into the control area of the park, Peter gets the drop on the Gunslinger and after throwing acid on him, the Gunslinger finally stops operating.

Peter ends up in Medieval World, hearing the cries of a woman locked in a dungeon. When he unlocks the chains and tries to give her water she begins to spark. She’s a robot, too.

Peter is alive, but alone (let the nightmares begin).

Yes, “Westworld” sounds cheesy, but there are some very important takeaways.

Once the Gunslinger is given the heat sensor, the movie suddenly has a lot of POV shots from the perspective of the Gunslinger, a pixelated view that was a groundbreaking work of visual effects for the early 1970s.

Then there’s the unstoppable Gunslinger played by Brynner, who today you can’t help but compare to James Cameron’s Terminator.

Jurassic parkUniversal Pictures‘Jurassic Park.’

And then there’s Crichton himself. “Westworld” is in many ways a test balloon for the 1990 novel in which he once more highlights a unique amusement park that goes awry, “Jurassic Park.”

But this time, without the restrictions of a Hollywood budget, through the written word, Crichton creates a world that he could have only dreamed while making “Westworld.”

His work once more became responsible for elevating VFX, as Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the book in 1993 proved that Hollywood had caught up to Crichton’s imagination.

Because of the success of “Westworld,” a sequel was made, “Futureworld,” in 1976. Crichton had no involvement and Brynner makes a small cameo. It’s awful.

There was also a short-lived TV series, “Beyond Westworld,” on CBS. It’s awful, too.

It took over 40 years, but a worthy companion to “Westworld” has finally been made with the HBO series. I highly doubt the series will end with Dr. Ford and Bernard suffocating in a control room. But it is important to recognise the significance the movie has had on the sci-fi genre, and in many ways the work of Crichton.

Would he have written “Jurassic Park” if he made “Westworld” the way he wanted to?

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