(Originally posted on Nov. 11, 2011)
Novelist Michael Crichton’s directorial debut “Westworld” encompasses his usual cautionary scientific doomsday scenario while satirically taking aim at America’s love affair with diversion; whether through theme park escapism or the movie-going experience itself, and how our dreams and expectations are born of a lifetime hypnotized by the increasingly manipulated, mindless pleasures of modern popular culture. How deftly he manages this simultaneously critical and humorous viewpoint is key to whether the film succeeds or not.
Crichton envisions a futuristic resort/amusement park for adults called Delos, which is comprised of three separate areas based on historic themes: Roman World, Medieval World and the aforementioned Westworld, the latter which commandeers the bulk of the film’s attention. The unique conceit of these parks is that they are each entirely populated by robots of impeccable sophistication, that are intended to be indistinguishable from the genuinely human guests. The obvious draw to the park is the ability of tourists to visit and enact their every fantasy , uninhibited by the legal or moral restraints of real-world society. The conflict of the film arises when, through an unexplained glitch in the system controlling the robots en masse, the automatons begin exacting violent retaliatory action against their tourist persecutors.
The film’s central objective is deceptive in its seeming lack of complexity, but it the affords the film rich opportunities to touch upon fascinating thematic implications: the mollifying nature of specifically designed experience in modern theme culture, the ease of moral abandonment with the introduction of an anarchic social structure, and the willingness to jettison reality as a course to self-gratification. Unfortunately, Crichton takes advantage of very few of these thematic opportunities; instead limiting the film to an ambling SF fantasy, which would suffice on an entertainment level were he as clever a director as scenarist, but this is not the case. Crichton’s film aspires to be a penetrating social statement (all pure science fiction has this as a central goal) in action-adventure trappings, when in fact it is a shallow escapist drama wrapped in the guise of grandiose SF concepts. Again, this would be acceptable were Crichton able to accentuate the suspense elements of the film with an expert facility, but he seems either intimidated by the stylistic finesse necessary for such an enterprise or perceives the action elements unworthy of his creative energies. Though a congenial entertainment, the film suffers immeasurably through Crichton’s unwillingness to push the edges of the genre envelope.
Fundamental problems in the notional structure of the film inherently prevent it from approaching its fullest realization. Given the ingeniousness of the initial idea, two critical flaws are readily evident. First, since the constitution of Delos is delineated as of a tripartite design, it would be expected that we would follow specific experiences within each individual historic theme as a natural set-up for compensatory retaliations by the robots. More attentive character exposition would intensify audience empathy, therefore heightening suspense. With the exception of a meager three characters, this never happens, severely hampering the inevitable depiction of the park’s breakdown outside of a few brief, generic shots of frantic activity. (Even in the instance of these three characters, they are so underwritten, it becomes the burden of each actor’s individual personality type to engage the audience in any meaningful way.) There is a damaging imbalance in the film’s narrative, focusing primarily on the Westworld section of Delos, with Medieval World receiving significantly less coverage and Roman World meriting virtually no attention at all. This is disappointing, especially through their very historically decadent nature both Roman and Medieval Worlds would contain more dramatic stimulus for manifestations of debauchery than the rather laconic Western village. Despite Westworld having a basis in American mythology, is there any reason the more prurient possibilities are ignored in favor of vanilla theme park blandness? And, if the enacted aberrations of social behavior are all similarly based in either sexual excess or violent action without retribution, why the expense of three parks when any one would satisfy the sociopathic appetite? It’s interesting to consider that in designing the park, all permutations of aberrant behavior would have had to have been considered and compensated for, a rather unsavory aspect of the conceptional stages of the park (Scientists as pimps and accessories to murder?) that screams for further illumination, but for which the film makes no time. Ultimately, Crichton’s initial concept is far too ambitious for a fledgling first-time director (no matter how scientifically astute his capabilities) to handle, nor is the film helped by the obviously corner-cutting budgetary considerations which were understandable at the time as MGM President James Aubreywas busy channeling all studio resources to fund construction of the Las Vegas MGM Grand Hotel and Casino. (Is there a cosmic irony there?)
Secondly, there is the matter of a fair sexual balance. Whereas the entire roster of tourist protagonists are adults, (This is one film fantasy blissfully free of the obnoxious presence of children. One can only imagine what a cringe fest this would have been under Steven Spielberg’s infantile tutelage.) it seems haphazard to ignore critical participation by women; who after all fill many of the seats in the shuttle approach to Delos, but after being introduced are completely forgotten about. The nature of the fantasies enacted by the tourists seem to have their basis in the primal realms of sex and violence, (Pauline Kael’s “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” analogy finally reaching explicit realization?) or more accurately hedonism and sadism. Would it not be imperative to see individual examples of women’s attraction to this aberrant environment? In the opening scene, a mock commercial advertising the wonders of Delos with lauditory testimonials from returning guests, features the presence of several women, yet we are never specifically privy to the specifics of what women might enjoy as well as men. For all intents, women (“human” women, that is) are completely forgotten in this narrative. On this point, Crichton’s prudishness shines forth and not to the betterment of the film. Surely it wasn’t his intention to surrender his conception as strictly a male fantasy? Are we to assume women would not have the same urges to satisfy? Or for that matter…any? Otherwise, why pay the exorbitant admission to get into the park in the first place?
In this regard, there are also several questions that go unanswered: how, for instance, does the unleashed fantasy world collide with reality when another person encountered might be a “real” guest and not a robot? And if the only thing to do in “Westworld” is gun fighting and whoring, just how is this a cost effective enterprise, to have the entire environment and its robot population destroyed on a daily basis; especially a large section of Delos which, as depicted, has no visible draw for the female participant? (And whose unlucky job is it to maintain and sanitize the robot whores? Just asking.) Crichton would have been better served in using the three part park to his narrative advantage, portraying a male-based fantasy in the Westworld section, while courting the feminine perspective in the Medieval and/or Roman section(s), where the foundations of gallantry and sweeping romantic escapism might find a substantive expression. (Instead we get a rather tired quota of scenes with NormanBartoldplaying a leering tourist whose amorous pursuit of any female robot in a skirt ultimately sets off the chain of fatalistic events.) A gender balance may have also given the turnabout retaliation more of an emotional charge to the audience, whereas with the majority of the revenge depicted is against the male tourists who have proven themselves as reckless bullies. (A brief, scary incident with a terrified park technician shows the impact this film really could have had with a bit of adjustment. Only on screen a brief minute, his terror feels genuine and his loss sticks with you more than that of most of the major players in the film; his violent end seems particularly undeserved.)
The desire for artifice is at the center of the key to the film’s themes, and the back lot cheapness of the surroundings serves to enhance the theme of the banality of modern culture and the trivial expectations that emerge from its influence. Crichtoncertainly benefits from the budgetary limitations in this instance, though it does not excuse his stinginess with the psychological ramifications of such an ideas being realized. (Again, this goes back to the initiators of the park and what they might have had in mind; motivational conceits that could have brought a richness to the film even Crichton might not have realized possible.) This is symptomatic of his entire oeuvre; spectacularly imaginative situations punctuated by dramatic set pieces, (that are often forgiven for being less impressive in execution that in the imagining) populated by sketchy ciphers. Often in practical filmmaking, being a visionary is not as important (or valuable) as being a pragmatist.
Interestingly, and with apparent deliberation, the tourist fantasies are portrayed with the utmost banality and this is one of the strengths and weaknesses of the film; the resulting redundancy contributing wonderfully to the theme of the abridgement of the imagination through the mechanization (Leading to the pointed question: Who is more mechanized, the robotic figures or the tourists who are visiting the park?) of our cultural consciousness, but it draws a blank as far as forward narrative momentum goes. The parks are specifically designed to mirror savage, uncivilized environments, but the natural attraction which would fuel the imagination would be how one might steel themselves against the formidable perils of such a world. What, for instance, would be the continued excitement to gunfights specifically designed so that you never have any chance of losing the contest? (There is actually a witty acknowledgement of this as Brolin and Benjamin react with bored annoyance at the emergence of the Gunfighter after a night of barroom brawling.) Perhaps it is the limitation of the ritualistic pretense impressed into our understanding of these “fictitious” realms that is part of the satire, directing our attention to the disappointing mediocrity with which modern fantasies find their expression. Crichton presents a world in which unexplained technical marvels might be spent in the service of indulging in the possibilities of mere Saturday matinee movie sex and violence. (Disneyland as a sex toy?) Here again, Crichton is beholden to his actors for providing the amusing plaster with which to bridge the banality incubating throughout his themes.
Crichton’s chief representatives in this dive into scientifically enhanced hedonism are played by Richard Benjamin and James Brolin, both well-cast as they bring an added dimension of their recognized screen personae to their roles. Benjamin at this point in his career had become successful at embodying the immature junior executive class whose neurotic hesitancy barely masked a giggly zeal for bourgeois suburban naughtiness. Brolin, on the other hand has always projected a callowness that is actually well served on this occasion; his is the one instance of not suffering from the insufficient character development of other characters as his presence is one of such shallow polish you’d think he was formed of formica. It’s not a performance, it’s a lark; but an extremely engaging one, and the genial ease also magnifies the fatal twist that befalls him into something truly haunting and immediately changes the mood of the film from feckless light comedy to chilling gravitas in the blink of an eye.
This sequence is particularly well staged, and shows a glimmer of filmmaking intelligence in Crichton that is most enjoyable if not always apparent, as his manipulation of the film depends as much on stylistic changes in the production to mirror thematic shifts as it does the written word. For once, (but it’s an important for once, in this context as important to the narrative as Hitchcock’s “Psycho” shower murder) a writer turned director seems immediately in tune with the symbiotic relationship of written, visual and aural components of film; the rhythm of the film completely shifts at this point, from strolling amiability to the unrelentingly predatory. The audience naturally is informed that bad things are coming; it’s the very nature of the film, its marketing and appeal. But the dramatic shift in tone is truly inspired. (Enhanced by Fred Karlin’s sudden shift from passive elevator compositions to unnerving pulsating electronic rattlesnake scoring.) This is in no small part assisted by the casting of Yul Brynneras the Gunslinger, putting an ironically satirical spin on his renowned portrayal as Chris, the leader of The Magnificent Seven, even down to the cut of his outfit. By turning this moral persona into a soulless killing machine, the film cannily exposes the frail border of our mythic images and how they seamlessly shift from savior to monster by the merest shift in perspective. (And just who were “the monsters” during the previous time in the story, the robots or the tourist who mercilessly tormented; knowing there was no retribution nor personal danger to impede their callous behavior?)
In the end, Crichton’s slight but engaging film is ultimately disappointing if only that it falls short of the fullest exploration of the simple but inspired idea Crichton brings to the table. His execution may be unpolished but his prescience is certainly attuned to some very unsavory truths about modern culture, and his cautions are crystal clear. To paraphrase a quotation popularized by a surrogate destination to his park: Hopefully what happens in Delos, stays in Delos.