Friday 20 July 2018

Filmstruck Friday: Westworld (1973)

A tale from Michael Crichton about a technologically-advanced amusement park that starts to have some major problems, resulting in the main attractions trying to kill the visitors, Westworld is a hugely influential film for a number of reasons, not least of which is the idea that Crichton would develop with even greater success in Jurassic Park (which you may have heard of, it led to a number of decent movies).

Although I've already supplied the plot summary above, I should go into a little bit more detail. James Brolin plays John Blane, and Richard Benjamin is Peter Martin. Blane and Martin are friends, with the former already having enjoyed a holiday in the amusement park that lets people live for a while in either the wild West, the age of the Romans, or the Middle Ages. Blane is keen to slip back into his cowboy role, and he encourages his hesitant friend to forget about reality and make the most of his time in the park. It's not long until they have an encounter with a bad gunslinger (played by Yul Brynner) who will end up malfunctioning and coming back to them with a loaded gun and a bit of a grudge.

Written and directed by Crichton, I always had fond memories of Westworld as an enjoyable, but fairly lightweight, sci-fi thriller. I very much thought of it as a great premise without too many other details distracting from the central pursuit of the hero by the relentless villain. But that's not really true. Crichton uses his premise to explore themes that are now much more familiar to fans of his dino-filled adventure and, of course, anyone who has been gripped by the recent TV reworking of this material (which is highly recommended). As Blane smirks and immediately adopts his cowboy swagger, viewers get to see just how quickly Martin is seduced by the options provided by the new lifestyle that he has temporarily purchased. He still has doubts, and hesitates while being talked into his first gunfight, but they are the doubts of someone wanting a friend to reassure them that it's all okay, there won't be any major consequences, just cut loose and have fun.

Benjamin is slightly weak in his leading role. He doesn't seem like the typical choice for this sort of thing but that is also what works for the role. He's not Brolin, lacking both the experience of the park and also the natural machismo that Brolin exudes. It's just a shame that his weakness applies to his acting and presence as well as his character, relatively speaking. Brolin, on the other hand, is confident and a solid co-star. Of course, the film would be a completely different beast if he was the focus. And then we get Brynner, arguably the inspiration for all of the best killer cyborgs that have come along afterwards. He is brilliantly cool and tough, constantly moving forward like a shark when he senses his prey ahead of him. And the way in which his eyes are lit up (an effect used on a couple of other robotic characters throughout) helps to remind anyone, if they needed it, that he's more than just flesh and blood.

No matter how familiar you already are with this material (be it in dino form, cowboy form, or even the perils of The Simpsons being trapped in Itchy & Scratchy Land), Westworld is a film that is well worth revisiting. Some parts have dated worse than others, particularly the early scenes showing the leads being taken to the park, but it's a film with a number of interesting and thought-provoking ideas, especially when you consider how prescient some of those ideas were when this was first released.


You can buy the blu here.
Americans can buy it here.

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