Why the rebooted Westworld matters
In November 1973, a 31-year-old acclaimed sci-fi author named Michael Crichton made his directorial debut with Westworld. The movie imagined a future in which tourists take fabulous vacations to elaborate theme parks that mimic ancient Rome, medieval times or the Old West—each of them populated by robot characters that act an awful lot like human beings.
Westworld was a critical and commercial success, but monster franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek have eclipsed its legacy in the sci-fi canon. That may change on October 2, however, when HBO unveils its highly anticipated 10-part Westworld series that stars Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, and Evan Rachel Wood.
Crichton won't be here to see it—the famed author passed away in 2008. But even if his 1973 film is largely a cult item, you can see its ideas and influences all over contemporary science fiction and pop culture. As we prepare for a new take on Westworld, here's how we're still catching up to Crichton's vision.
When Male Bonding Goes Awry
Crichton's script concerns two male friends, Peter (Richard Benjamin) and John (James Brolin), who are doing a getaway together to Westworld, an automated theme park that will allow them to indulge their Wild West fantasies. Peter's hoping it will help him forget the nasty breakup he's going through, too.
Sleeping with prostitutes and shooting bad guys—all of whom are robots programmed to provide an optimal experience—these bros are a precursor to the men-only excursions that have been chronicled (and satirized) in comedies like City Slickers and the Hangover trilogy. A year before Westworld, Deliverance suggested a worst-case scenario for male-bonding trips. Crichton's thriller picks up the thread, warning that dudes looking for macho good times away from society often bite off far more than they can chew.
Realer Than Real
Westworld opens with a fake commercial from Delos, the company that specializes in these getaways, advertising the authenticity of the experience. "I shot six people," one satisfied customer proclaims, before adding, "Well, they weren't real people!" Indeed, Westworld is littered with lifelike robots that are meant to make the environment feel accurate. But as we'll soon see, what Westworld really offers is a phony wish-fulfillment scenario in which Peter and John can play the part of unassailable heroes.
This notion of enhanced reality has been explored on shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation (any episode involving the holodeck) and in movies such as The Truman Show, which examined how easy it is to fool people into believing what they see is genuine. (Let's not forget Westworld's great precursor, the Philip K. Dick story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale," that was adapted into Total Recall. Twice.) In all these examples, the characters think they crave a realistic experience. Really, they just want a life that's not as complicated as the one they have.
Rise of the Machines
Peter and John have a fine time in Westworld—until the park's androids start to malfunction, disobey their programming, and kill the patrons. Crichton would tackle a similar theme of an amusement park suddenly out of control in his 1990 book Jurassic Park, of course. But in Westworld, he hits upon an idea that has haunted sci-fi creators for decades: What happens when the machines enslave us and humanity is no longer at the top of the food chain?
Westworld's future-shock anxiety can be felt in James Cameron's Terminator films and the Matrix trilogy. (In fact, Yul Brynner's steely gunslinger becomes an unstoppable, Arnold-esque killing machine once he starts hunting down Peter in the film's final act.) Last year's Ex Machina continued this fine tradition of presenting overconfident human scientists who discover their powerful robot minions will soon overthrow them.
The Line Between Human and Android Keeps Shrinking
Crichton told American Cinematographer at the time of the film's 1973 release that he was inspired by going to Disneyland and watching an animatronic Abraham Lincoln recite the Gettysburg Address. "It was the idea of playing with a situation in which the usual distinctions between person and machine—between a car and the driver of the car—become blurred, and then trying to see if there was something in the situation that would lead to other ways of looking at what's human and what's mechanical," he said.
In Westworld, even the park's administrators aren't quite sure what their robots are capable of. Ominously, one overseer announces, "These are highly complicated pieces of equipment, almost as complicated as living organisms. … We don't know exactly how they work." It becomes clear that Brynner's gunslinger has gone rogue at least in part because he's tired of letting park patrons shoot him full of holes just to satisfy their he-man cravings. He's not a piece of furniture. He's become sentient, and he wants a say in what happens to him.
Everything from Blade Runner (based on the late-'60s Dick novel) to A.I. (based on the late-'60s short story from Brian Aldiss) has grappled with the ethical questions inherent in making computers that duplicate human characteristics. How will we be able to tell if it's man or machine?