Saturday, April 11, 2009

Westworld (1973)

Director: Michael Crichton
Writer: Michael Crichton
Actors: Yul Brynner, Richard Benjamin, James Brolin

Rating: 3 1/2 Black Sheep

Ahh, Westworld. What a wonderful, wonderful movie. And the main character may very well be James Brolin’s hair, it is that magnificent. But in all seriousness, the film Westworld continues to be a great piece of cinema more than 30 years later, despite its place on the fringes of mainstream pop culture.

If you could afford it, would you pay $1000 a day to stay in a Western resort town where you would be able to pretend to live in the Wild West, drinking whiskey, engaging in shootouts, and doing a little business with the oldest profession in the world? Come on, who wouldn’t?! This is the basic premise of Westworld where in a futuristic time, guests can pay to stay in one of three artificial resorts: Romanworld, Medievalworld, or Westworld. The fun part is that all of the world’s inhabitants are robots who are almost impossible to tell apart from the human guests if not for the strange bumps on their hands, but they bleed and “die”, adding to the authenticity of the experience. Peter (Benjamin) and John (Brolin) are friends who have come to Westworld to let go and get away from it all. It is John’s second time and Peter is hesitant but soon embraces his new Western identity. Everything is going well when the robots appear to malfunction and are no longer behaving according to their programming. The resort’s crew is unable to intervene and guests from all three worlds meet their demise in quick succession.

Yul Brynner plays The Gunslinger, a rough and tumble robot cowboy who’s role in Westworld is to be the bad guy that guests can beat in a shootout for a substantial ego boost. Brynner is chilling in this part with his shaved head and his square jaw. Well into his 50s at the release of this film, Brynner looks like he is made of steel and could most likely crush your skull with one hand. His exotic look and stiff mannerisms completely sell him as one robot cowboy you would not want to mess with. And when his eyes turn silver (apparently an indication that this machine has gone bad), he is beyond creepy. In the end, he is a man on a mission to kill and nothing will get in his way. For me, Brynner really rose to the challenge with this character. James Cameron must have had The Gunslinger in mind when he directed Robert Patrick as the T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Brynner displays that same relentless drive for destruction that seems impossible to escape. But he brings some depth to the character, pay close attention when The Gunslinger is tracking Peter and gets confused by the heat from the torches; Brynner’s facial expressions speak volumes.

This is an extremely fun movie to watch. The scenes in the Western town echo Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch with slow motion fight scenes and bright red bullet holes. Peter and John act out scenes that they’ve only ever seen in the movies and it plays like an homage to old Hollywood westerns. James Brolin is very playful as John and looks comfortable with a chomped cigar between his teeth and a six shooter. There are small flaws, such as the likelihood that a resort like this would ever actually exist, the safety issues alone are difficult to ignore. Also, parts of the film are fairly dated such as hair styles and the hokey computers that make up Main Control. But the same could be said for the original Star Wars movies and who doesn’t love them? On the other hand, the robot effects still stand up fairly well to today’s standards since it’s relatively easy to make believable robots when you just have humans play them.

Westworld is one of Michael Crichton’s earlier cinematic ventures and it’s an excellent precursor to the theme park concept behind Jurassic Park. As I’m writing this review, a remake is rumored to be in the works although a director has yet to be chosen. I’m generally firmly against remakes because I just feel like it’s an excuse for Hollywood studios to not bother coming up with original ideas. Also, Westworld in particular is still an excellent, vibrant film with an outstanding performance by Brynner that begs the question, how can you top that? I have serious reservations but I’ll try to hold back judgment until I see the final product. Remakes can occasionally work if care is taken to look at the material from a fresh angle and to give the story a new perspective that lends it current relevancy. We’ll see. In the meantime, if you haven’t seen Westworld, what are you waiting for?!

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