You’ve really got to wonder about Michael Crichton and amusement parks.
Two of his biggest hits – Westworld and Jurassic Park – told essentially the same story of a giant amusement park for the rich, utilising cutting edge technologies to give the privileged an experience unlike any other, built on an arrogance that thinks it understands every detail of what it’s doing, and the park’s exhibits ‘going wrong’ or getting free, to prove that Man’s arrogance is terminally unfounded.
But while the premise may be the same, there’s a very different underlying moral in 1973’s Westworld, and re-watching it in 2016 as the movie gets a 21st century TV upgrade, you might be shocked at exactly how prescient and relevant it is. While Jurassic Park considers our species-arrogance at considering ourselves all that and more, to the point where we can re-incarnate the previous rulers of the planet and parade them for our rich brats to gawk at, and our specific technological arrogance in creating amusements based on technology we barely understand, without also understanding the nature of unpredictable, adapting animals, Westworld, viewed today, is a staggering polemic on the dangers of entitlement, principally the entitlement of rich men to act however they like, irrespective of consequences that don’t touch them – and what happens when they do.
The premise is inherently exciting from a geek perspective – an amusement park where you get to ‘live’ the past, staffed by human-real androids that can fulfil whatever your fantasy might be. The Delos compound has three ‘worlds’ – Romanworld, Medievalworld and Westworld – in which, for $1000 a day (over $5,500 a day in 2016 money), you can live your fantasy of partying with the Caesars and the slave girls, fighting knights and seducing wenches, or slinging guns and frolicking with floozies. While the beginning of the movie goes out of its way to explain that rich women can get their fantasies fulfilled at the Delos complex too, mostly, Westworld is about rich, admittedly mostly white men getting to treat the world with a certain contempt they imagine was rife in the three distinctly masculine past-world environments, while as is made abundantly clear time and again, really, they’re fairly mediocre for the most part, and get upset when their actions are not validated, their clumsy seductions not indulged and their violent impulses not rewarded.
The action centres on two visitors to Westworld, but all three worlds are at least partially built for the movie, and we see examples in Medievalworld too of this cosseted adventuring that confirms men in their worst potential behaviours. Our two main visitors, Pete and John from Chicago, go to Westworld with very different intentions – John (an only vaguely recognisable James Brolin) has been there before and treats it as what it is, an adventure resort where your dreams are made to come true. Pete, a newbie to the whole experience (played by Richard Benjamin almost as though he’s in a real western) seems to be coming to Westworld to get over a bad break-up. The inference is that John thinks the experience will be good for him, to boost his manliness and give him a channel for his baser instincts.
Even before the robopocalypse which everyone knows is coming (and which, incidentally, doesn’t come until an hour into this ninety minute movie, because there was allowed to be plot and suspense in the seventies), the instances of ‘men at their worst’ behaviour are rife in Westworld, John urging Pete to ‘Kill him!’ when Yul Brynner’s Gunslinger bumps into him and adds a little bad-mouthing. Pete, despite feeling silly, eventually does just that – kills an android over nothing more than a spilled drink. But it’s not until John leads him to Miss Carrie’s ro-bordello (Miss Carrie surprisingly played by Nurse Chapel/Lwaxana Troi herself, Majel Barrett) and the two head straight upstairs with a couple of electronic prostitutes that Pete really gives up the last of his civility, the last of his common decency, and declares Westworld to be a really great place.
The next time he faces the Gunslinger, Pete has none of his previous inhibitions, emptying his gun into the android without hesitation – and when he’s arrested by the robot sheriff, both Pete and John maintain that Pete has ‘done nothing wrong’ – a cry we’ve heard from real-world men recently whether they’re shooting innocent black men (George Zimmerman killing Trayvon Martin), raping college students (Brock Turner), or running for President (Donald ‘Capote’ Trump, claiming massive tax avoidance ‘means I’m smart’). So convinced are our pair of Westworlders that they’re morally justified that they not only blow up the jail but shoot the sheriff stone dead to get Pete back his freedom. It’s a scene of male privilege going beyond even the notional ‘law’ of a theme park just because the pair feel justified in their idea that the world revolves around them (which in Westworld, it does). The subsequent scene of these two desperadoes whinging when a robo-snake goes haywire and attacks them is priceless – ‘That’s not supposed to happen!’ they yell, which is an attitude that’s fine and dandy within the confines of Westworld, or indeed in Medievalworld, where a fat, ageing lothario is stunned when a serving maid who, we’re perfunctorily told by the behind-the-scenes staff of the resort, ‘is a sex model,’ refuses his seduction. But these incidents raise the more fundamental question at the heart of Westworld. Yes, it’s science-fiction and it focuses on the arrogance of Man (and especially of men), but really, the question of what happens when the machines go haywire and decide to kill everyone is secondary, for all it makes up the final third of the movie, Brynner’s Gunslinger, who somewhat satirically decides to kill our two visitors after he gets an upgrade that means he sees and hears things more clearly, coming over all Terminator, shooting John immediately dead and hunting Pete through Romanworld, through the underworld base of the behind-the-scenes staff and ultimately to their fiery finale in Medievalworld. The idea of ‘one man on the run from the robot slaves made for his entertainment’ is potent enough, and there has to be a ‘happy’ ending in the survival of the human, but really, the underlying moral of Westworld poses the question of entertainment and its influence carried into the real world. How far can entertainment go before it not only entertains, but starts to inform our viewpoints and our behaviours in our own lives? How much do places like Westworld allow men to safely get their fantasy kicks, and how much do they encourage them to take attitudes from the past forward into the future? It’s a well-rehearsed argument these days, having taken in heavy metal music, violent horror movies and ultra-violent video games, but in 1973, it was pretty revolutionary to suggest that pandering to violent desires through entertainment might inspire them in the real world. While the likes of heavy metal have been pretty much exonerated by scientific findings that suggest angry music actually calms its listeners down, there’s contradictory evidence in terms of things like heavy porn-use, which seems to have a negative effect on men’s ability to relate to women as human beings, rather than simply sex objects. So the ultimate question of Westworld is how real an entertainment can be while still remaining harmless in terms of the attitudes it inspires. The fall of Pete from feeling silly and self-conscious, and even shy around his robot prostitute, to the man who guns down an opponent without thinking, and survives the pursuit of the machines by displaying a real ruthlessness in a real life and death situation, as opposed to the manufactured danger of the amusement park, is a kind of fall from grace and civilisation to reveal the primitive man within, but it’s also a stripping away of the cosseted play-acting to reveal a real survival instinct, which Pete takes ‘to the streets’ when he perceives the need arises. That the need is real in Westworld is apparent, but it raises questions of that perception of a need for violence in a world which perpetually tells men they’re right about those instincts.
Westworld is back on our screens in a pumped-up, psyched-up, futuristic TV version. But give the original a re-spin. You might be surprised at the movie you find.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk