Wednesday, January 18, 2017

"Westworld" Before "Westworld"

Since it's been a thing a lot of people have talked about recently, I thought it made sense for me to say a few words about Westworld.
Good show!  I love it and am glad it's doing well and will happily continue watching.
And that's all I have to say about that, at least for now.  If that doesn't look like anything to you, I get it.  So now is when I reveal that what I'm here to actually discuss is the Westworld(s) that existed prior to the HBO series.

It all began with the 1973 Michael Crichton film.  In case you're unfamiliar with Crichton, he is best known as a novelist who wrote the book Jurassic Park.  He started out as a physician, but decided that wasn't for him, and jumped ship all the way from one side of the fence to the other, opting to become a writer.  He was able to begin publishing almost immediately, and one of his early novels, The Andromeda Strain, was a bestseller that was adapted into a hit film by director Robert Wise.

Crichton somehow parlayed this success into a secondary career as a film director, and Westworld was his first movie behind the camera.  It was a hit: MGM's biggest of the year, bringing in nearly ten times its budget at the box office.  Crichton never had another directorial success like that one, although he did go on to direct The Great Train Robbery (starring Sean Connery) and Runaway (starring Tom Selleck and Gene Simmons).  Plus, as a producer, he had a hand in creating a little show called ER.  So he did okay for himself, apart from being a big-deal writer.

I saw the movie once years ago, during a time when I went on a brief Crichton kick that was spurred by Jurassic Park.  I read most of his major science fiction novels, such as The Andromeda Strain, Sphere, and Congo, and that led me to Westworld.  By the time the HBO series began, however, I remembered nothing about the movie apart from the poster; by the time the HBO series ended its first season, I suspected it had forever supplanted the movie as the thing I'd think of when I heard the title Westworld.

That's fine by me, but it does create a mild intellectual problem when it comes time to write a post like this one: how to divorce the movie from the series so that a critical appraisal of Crichton's film is neither tainted nor buoyed by the HBO version?

It would likely be easier if the movie had stuck with me in any way.  If I had fond memories, or negative ones, then that would be a place to start from; but prior to rewatching the movie recently, if you accessed that subfolder of my brain, you'd have only found a GIF of a guy shrugging.

Looking back on it after the rewatch, it's not hard to see why.  It's by no means a bad movie, and some aspects of it work quite well; but there's nothing special in it apart from the overall concept.  It's easy to see how somebody decided they could take the concept and expand it and get something special as a result; but as its own thing, it just doesn't amount to a whole heck of a lot.

Still, it has managed to hang around for over four decades now, so it must have something going for it.  So what is it making this sucker tick?

In part, I think it's just that audiences enjoy seeing actors pretend to be robots.  There's a lengthy (if not entirely rich) tradition of actors letting their faces go blank, lurching a bit as they walk, taping some wire or tinfoil to some part of their body, and saying "voila, robot!"  From there, the minds of audience fill in the blanks.
This is a variation of how actors become monsters, aliens, zombies, and whatnot; they've been doing it for quite some time, and we've been applauding them for just as long.  Or, in some cases, hooting at them derisively.  Regardless of our reaction, the formula is essentially the same: a little bit of makeup, a little bit of pantomime, and a lot of suspension of disbelief from the audience.

Crichton's Westworld -- referred to henceforth in this post merely as Westworld -- asks for a somewhat larger suspension of disbelief than was at that time normal; and in return, it supplies a "realistic" what-if element that, in theory, pays interest on the dividend we've supplied.  Whether that return on emotional investment amounts to a significant degree of enjoyment or not is a matter for each viewer to decide separately, of course.  The movie was a hit, so I think it worked on audiences at the time of its release, if nothing else.  I'd argue that some of its sensibilities found their way into James Cameron's The Terminator a decade later, and given how big an impact that movie and its sequel made on the pop-cultural landscape, I wouldn't shrug Westworld off too quickly.

You also have to admit that the ideas in Westworld resonated for at least one person if for nobody else: Michael Crichton.  He'd put a few of these ideas to repurposed use in his novel Jurassic Park, which, via the Steven Spielberg film adaptation, had a massive impact upon the cultural consciousness.  Those ripples are arguably still spreading, and given how influential Westworld was upon Jurassic Park, that's yet another point in favor of not writing it off.

Both stories share a theme-park setting, obviously, and it's that aspect of Westworld that most intrigues me.  Yeah, sure, robot Yul Brenner and all that; it's cool, it's fine.  But to me, it feels as if the story is a dark what-if version of what might happen at Disneyland.  Crichton might have gone there at some point and seen Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln -- or might have ridden Pirates Of The Caribbean -- and thought to himself, "You know, the second somebody figures out how to fuck one of those things, they're going to do it."  This hypothetical thought leads to another involving people paying money to watch robot gunfighters shoot each other, which of course leads to thoughts of being able to be the one who does the "killing" while on holiday.

After all, even in 1973 we were already paying money to go to Disneyland and pretend to be on Main Street U.S.A., or in Frontierland, etc.  It's not too big a logical leap to assume that if somebody in the future armed with more advanced technology came along and offered an experience that put people in a more expansive and realistic environment that also broadened the horizons in terms of the types of experiences available to the theme-park guest, that people would go for that.  You know they would; I know they would.

Michael Crichton knew it, too, obviously.  His idea seems to be that if the opportunity to do so exists, people will pay a lot of money to be entertained in complicated and extreme ways: robot cowboys in Westworld, resurrected species of extinct life in Jurassic Park.  It's not just believable, it's beginning to feel inevitable.

Westworld seems primarily to be interested in merely posing that hypothesis and then using it as a staging ground for a nightmare scenario.  It's typically listed as a science fiction film, and it is that; but it's also got a lot of horror-movie trappings (as does Jurassic Park, for that matter), and once we get to the third act, it's almost literally just a nightmare in which the boogeyman WON'T STOP COMING.  If The Terminator was influenced by this movie, then it's not hard to imagine that John Carpenter's Halloween was, too, with its relentless, silent, unemotional killer stalking the main character.

There is a lot to admire in the mere fact that the setup contains that much power.  There won't be half a dozen movies to come out in 2017 that reverberate in that way, so even if you're of the opinion -- as I am -- that Westworld does little of interest with its ideas, it's laudable that it even had them to begin with.

That said, there are elements here that work well.  Richard Benjamin has an appealing guilelessness in the lead role, and James Brolin is excellent as his more seasoned partner.  And, of course, Yul Brynner makes for an excellent villain.  His nameless character is modeled heavily after his character in The Magnificent Seven, which adds an element to this movie: it helps it serve as a conscious evocation of the Old West of Hollywood films, which at this point is the Old West of Americn myth, and therefore the only one that will count going forward.  It's a lie, but its use here feels like truth, and that's to the film's credit.

I also like the score by Fred Karlin, and while Crichton is by no means a major directing talent, he's competent enough to get by.

Let's look at a few screencaps:

The movie opens with a delightful mock commercial consisting of testimonials from guests who have recently returned from Delos, which includes Western World (as it is called a few times during the early part of the film), Medieval World, and Roman World.  These testimonials do a good job of establishing the things that the movie wants us to believe about these parks, as well as the things Delos as a company wants us to believe about the parks:

(1)  In Delos, one can "kill" with impunity.  It's realistic, and is therefore a kick.  In fact, it's so realistic that one might not be entirely sure it was a fakery.
(2)  In Delos, a lady can get her brains absolutely fucked out if she so wishes.
(3)  In Delos, one can take on a new set of responsibilities for a while.  One of the testimonials is from a stockbroker who's just spent some time as a sheriff.  "It's the realest thing I ever done," he says, ungrammatically but honestly.

(4)  In Delos, if you're a man, you will be successful in your attempts to seduce women.  Been sitting on a dream of winning the hand of a princess your whole life?  Delos has got you covered.

This shot of the pilot as the plane is approaching Delos is nice.  There's an artificiality to it that reinforces some of the movie's themes, and seems almost to prefigure some of the themes of the HBO series.

You can tell the robots from the people by virtue of the fact that their hands aren't quite right.

And Old West experience would be incomplete without a surly bartender.

Majel Barrett plays a cathouse madam.  I bet Gene Roddenberry got a kick out of that outfit.

I like that Richard Benjamin's experience includes getting tossed in the town clink and having to bust out.

Medieval World seems lame.

Is there a knock-down, drag-out bar fight?  Of course!

This effect is excellent.  It's simple, but the fake Brynner face really sells it.

I'd forgotten entirely about how much Medieval World is used in the movie.  That's where shit begins to get real, in fact.

This crude digital representation serves as our insight into what it's like to look through the eyes of a robot.

The opposite view is by far the more compelling.

As mentioned previously, the movie was a hit, and three years later, a sequel emerged:

Michael Crichton declined to participate, and MGM took a pass on the movie, too.  It ended up being released by American International Pictures, the home of quality.

If Westworld was more of a horror film in tone than it was a science fiction film, Futureworld is arguably more of a blend.  It tries to explore ideas about what the differences are between man and machine; nothing of substantial interest floats to the surface during that exploration, but at least there's something there.  Westworld had drawn a fairly clear line between man and machine, once it established that the line might be blurred; Futureworld returns a bit to the blurred lines, which makes for intermittent moments of interest.  (The HBO series will later make a meal of those blurred lines, asking what the implications are of such a thing.  What kind of person would consciously blur them to begin with?  To what uses might such a philosophy be put?  It's a big topic, and so far, the HBO version is successfully navigating the treacherous divide between the silliness of the concept and the seriousness of the implications.)

The setup for Futureworld goes something like this: it's two years after the events of the first film, and Delos has opened a bigger new park on the grounds where the old one existed.  They've invited some journalists -- Peter Fonda and Blythe Danner -- to come check it out in the hopes of sparking some good coverage.  While there, they find evidence of a plot involving replacing a bunch of world leaders -- who are (implausibly and conveniently) visiting at the same time -- with robotic duplicates.  Some of this seems to be the idea of robots themselves, who have begun replicating themselves; some of the rest seems to be the idea of humans at Delos.  It's all a bit unclear, but if you care about the specifics of the plot, you've got bigger problems than successfully figuring it out.

Some aspects of the first couple of acts are good, and most of the acting is fine.  Peter Fonda is a bowl of oatmeal, but it's always good to see a vibrant young Blythe Danner.  The movie looks and feels cheaper than Westworld, which is par for the course, but it gets some good use out of wherever it was filmed (which looks like a combination space center and factory).

I'll say this for it: nowhere in Westworld is there a scene so loony as the one here in which Danner dreams of Yul Brynner.

I watched Westworld and Futureworld with some friends a few weeks ago, and I thought they were all going to die from laughter during the moment in this scene when Brynner uses the ribbon as a lasso.

But I don't think anyone but me noticed the super-weird look Brynner gets on his face for half a second or so right at the end.  Is he grossed out by Danner?  Is it just a stray moment of random awkwardness?  Did he just die?  I cannot say, but I would believe any or all of those things.

All things considered, Futureworld is an unnecessary cash-grab of a sequel that seems to want to turn the concepts into a franchise of movies perhaps not unlike the Planet of the Apes series.  It wasn't to be, but that wouldn't be the end of the Westworld concept.

Before we go Beyond Westworld, however, a few more screencaps from Futureworld:

The extent to which this is purposeful is unclear, but there are little things throughout the earlier versions that make me think of things from the HBO series.  The emphasis on eyes in Futureworld, for example.

This conference table, with its elevating central bank of televisions, is righteous.

One of my pet peeves in cinema: people watching footage of an event that they could not possibly have obtained footage of.  This footage often appears to have been professionally lit, edited, and recorded for sound.  Prepare to see a LOT of that conceit if you ever watch Beyond Westworld, by the way.

A model of the new Delos.  Note that the dome representing Futureworld has a smaller interior dome.  We'll come back to that idea in a few moments.

The guys in the tacky blazers are all robots.  Or real-estate salesmen.  Or both.

This is actually pretty cool: a sort of life-size Rock-'em-Sock-'em Robots using actual robots.

The people who go to Futureworld are able to go on an excursion to an "alien planet," which, I assume, is what the smaller interior dome is for.  It's a very cool idea; the movie does nothing with it.

The implication that interest in visiting Delos is largely spurred by the promise of free robotic nooky is furthered in the sequel.  It's a big component of the HBO series, too, and while there have been some complaints about that aspect of it, I'd argue that it's a big part of the source material.

At some point, some robots are constructed literally out of thin air, and they are all Samurai warriors who try to kill Fond and Danner.  They are all played by what appear to be white stuntmen in yellowface.  This is the point at which the movie entirely lost me.

A technician who lives underground shows up.  He's got a robot friend without a face.  The robot is named Clark.  Says his friend, "He used to work at Roman World; he was one of the original Iron Men in the orgies.  He's seen a lot, Clark has."  The movie's existence is justified by these two lines of dialogue, which are hilarious.

I pretended this guy was Mandy Patinkin.

According to Wikipedia, this is the first-ever use of 3D CGI.  (Westworld had contained the first-ever use of 2D CGI.)  The image was rendered by Ed Catmull, who later was a big part of Pixar's development.

Clark gets bummed out when his friend goes off to be killed in a fight.  It's a bizarrely affecting moment.

Futureworld doesn't seem to have been a hit, but the Westworld brand still had enough mojo in it that CBS decided to try a television version.  This was a moderately common occurrence for sci-fi films of the seventies: Planet of the Apes had gone that route when the series of films ran out of gas, and Logan's Run had jumped straight to television without even trying a sequel.

The setup is that after the Westworld massacre, it is discovered that the whole thing was masterminded by Simon Quaid, the former assistant of the scientist -- Joseph Oppenheimer (get it?) -- who created the robots.  He's busted most of them loose, and has assembled them into a sort of army that is going around the country (wherever the budget will allow the production to go, which is nowhere much) in an effort to achieve world domination.

The main character is John Moore, Delos Security Chief, who continually stumbles into Quaid's plots and thwarts them.  He's joined in the pilot episode by a female sidekick, played by Judith Chapman.  Chapman is only in the pilot, though; she was presumably unavailable when the series went go (a not-uncommon state of affairs for pilot episodes).  Don't feel bad for her: she would later win a role on The Young and the Restless, and IMDb says she has done 763 episodes of that series so far.  So she's doing okay for herself.

She was replaced in the second episode by Connie Sellecca, who should thank her lucky stars that Beyond Westworld flopped, as the next season she was available to be cast in The Greatest American Hero for three seasons, and then in five seasons' worth of Hotel (one of which netted her a Golden Globe nomination) after that.  So she did alright, too.

But boy is Beyond Westworld ass on a cracker.  So much so that it kind of turns a corner and becomes eminently watchable on a trashy level.  Dig these opening credits:

That might have been the precise moment the eighties began, for all I know.

I don't want to dwell on this turkey of a show, but since it's only five episodes, let's run very briefly through each of them.  
"Westworld Destroyed" (episode one, airdate March 5, 1980)

In which: Moore briefly visits Westworld to find that the robots are still running amok.  This leads him to discover that Quaid has gotten one of his robots onto a nuclear submarine, and is planning to launch it at an American city.

Jim McMullan is thoroughly unsuited to play the lead in a sci-fi/action series.

James Wainwright plays Quaid without a hint of charisma or danger.

Judith Chapman


The series was nominated for an Emmy for its makeup, and I betcha it was this scene that got that done.

"My Brother's Keeper" (episode 2, airdate March 12, 1980)

In which Quaid tries to take an oil company by enacting the following plot:

  • He locates the brother of the man who owns the oil company.  The brother, Dean, is a degenerate gambler.
  • He waits for Dean to rack up a sizeable debt.  This does not take long.
  • He buys Dean's debt from the casino.
  • He offers Dean a deal: he will forgive the debt provided that Dean signs a contract that would assign 51% of his stake in the oil company to Quaid if and when he ever inherits the company.  But since the other brother, Nick, is alive and kicking, there's no WAY that could ever happen...!
  • He tries to have Nick killed by having one of his robots set a fire at the oil field.  This appears to possibly be a diversion designed to draw attention away from the real plot, which...
  • ...involves Nick's professional football team.  They are going to be playing a "big game" soon, and Nick is spending a lot of time with them.  They appear not to have a coach; nobody involved with this series seems to know that football teams have coaches.  Anyways, one of the players -- spoiler alert: it turns out to be the quarterback -- is a robot!
  • The robot quarterback is going to throw the ball at Nick real hard during a press conference and kill him, thereby ensuring that Quaid becomes majority shareholder.

I shit you not.  That's what this episode is about.

This is the first episode to have that awesome -- "awesome" -- opening credits sequence.

I restrained myself; this post could have been nothing but Connie Sellecca screencaps.

"Oppenheimer"?!?  Really?!?

This guy, who appears to be about sixty, is the quarterback.  I'm expected not merely to believe that he's a professional quarterback, but also that he is very nearly able to get Connie Sellecca in bed.  No and (I hope) no.

"Sound of Terror"  (episode 3, airdate March 19, 1980)

In which Quaid has replaced a member of a rock band with a robot so that he can, while they are playing a demonstration outside a nuclear power plant (for a crowd of what seems to be a dozen people), steal some uranium.  He is then going to sell the uranium to some dictator, or something.

Blakley had been nominated for an Oscar for her supporting role in Nashville.  You wouldn't know it from this; she's fairly awful.  But she sang backup on Bob Dylan's "Hurricane," one of the all-time great songs.  (Good luck finding that fucker on YouTube, by the way.  Every version seems to be an outtake or a live version, so I was unable to link to the version with Blakley.)

A hell of a credit.

In my headcanon, the guy with the sign if Jim Gardner from Stephen King's The Tommyknockers.

Oppenheimer wears a lot of sweaters and/or vests.

The poster for Westworld is an especially tacky touch.

This episode is batshit nuts.  Blakley's performances occupy what felt like about forty minutes.  In one of them, she plays acoustic for -- and again, I shit you not -- a group of orphans on furlough from Catholic school or whatever.  The song she plays must be seen and heard to be believed, and I would advise you to pay close attention to the reactions of some of the children:

Marvelous!  But even that isn't as good/bad as the big climactic fight scene on an airplane.  Moore is getting his ass handed to him by a robot rocker who has a bomb inside him, so he decides to cut the fight short by opening a cabin door.  The production could not afford to simulate the robot being sucked out of the cabin, so instead, the director directed the actor to -- for the third time, I shit you not -- walk backwards real slow as if he's trying to walk forward.  He then steps backwards out of the plane and "tries to hold on."

If you don't find this to be delightful, then you have no soul.  Can we assume that Albert R. "Cubby" Broccoli saw this episode and decided to steal the shoe gag seven years later for The Living Daylights?  Fuck, why not?  That would only make me love The Living Daylights more.

The series was canceled after "Sound of Terror" aired, and the final two episodes never aired; they did not appear until the series was released on DVD on July 29, 2014:


I'm being very snarky about this series, for obvious reasons, but I am definitely glad that somebody saw fit to put it out on DVD.  I'm a believer in all movies and TV shows (and books, comics, albums, etc.) being on the market in perpetuity.  Even a trivial piece of work like this deserves to be seen by the people who wish to see it. 

"The Lion" (episode 4)

In which Quaid plots to take over a race-car company so that he can get his hands on the new gasahol engine invented by the racer.  Has it not occurred to Quaid that he could just kill the guy and steal the plans or whatever?  Motherfucker always has to make shit complicated.

Let's count this as a Stephen King reference.

Christine Beflord, who played Arnie's mother in, uh, Christine.

Moore is constantly having to either go undercover or temporarily adopt a secondary profession.

Quaid is constantly wearing crewneck sweaters.

I don't have any screencaps to illustrate it, but many of the episodes use stock footage in about as ham-handed a manner as I can imagine.  This episode is an especially vile offender, showing us shots of huge crowds watching a race, and then showing us a group of actors who are plainly nowhere near a crowd.

"Takeover" (episode 5)
The most boring episode, in which Quaid has had a robot infiltrate a police department so that ... uh ... I kind of don't remember, but it eventually has something to do with the governor, who is also a robot, and who is in line to run for President.  So I guess Quaid has his eye on infiltrating the White House.  No, I'm not sure what this has to do with the police department.

George Takei shows up for a couple of scenes as a doctor who implants a chip into the police chief's head.  the chip enables Quaid to control him as if he were a robot.  Poor Takei isn't even credited until the end credits, which is where bit players always get credited.  This makes no sense to me.  Takei had co-starred in what was at that time one of the two or three most famous sci-fi shows ever to air, and just a few months previously (in terms of when this would have aired, if it HAD aired) had been in the cast of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which was a big hit.  And you relegate him to the CLOSING credits?!?

I have no idea why I took a screencap of this.

"A rat ... with a dick THIS long!"

"No, honestly!  I swear to GOD I will not fart!  Just pull my finger!  Pull my finger!  Hey!  Hey, man!  Just pull my finger, man, I'm not going to fart!"  (Henchman pulls finger.)  prrrrrrt  "Gotcha!"

I don't know what else to say about Beyond Westworld.  It's awful.  But it's eighties-television-awful, and I can roll with that, so did I enjoy this process?  Kind of, yeah.
We'll leave you with this, which sums the series up best:
So what of Westworld and Futureworld?  Do they have much to offer for people who got into the HBO series?
Not really, I'd say.  I mean, if you're the type of fan who enjoys seeing where a thing like that comes from, source-material-wise; then yeah, the original movie is worth a look.  The sequel less so, but even it has its moments.
As for the HBO series itself...?  I have no plans to ever cover it here.  Not until the series is over, whenever that happens.  (And based on the first-season response and ratings, I suspect HBO will want it to be around for most of the next decade or so.)  I love the show, but I'm not inclined to write about it weekly; I'd rather just enjoy it for now.
Speaking of enjoyment, I hope you got a bit of it from this post.  Be seeing you!


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    Man, do I know that gif. I tend to blog about the things where my own subfolders yield more active or generous GIFs, but if we were doing an honest inventory of the many films and TV and books and people, even, that elicited only shrug-GIFs, the latter would outnumber the former by several thousand. Probably more.

    I had a similar experience revisiting this movie (as part of a double feature - well, a spread-out-over two nights double-feature) with its sequel. The casting of both films is interesting to me in that they star actors everyone knows but (with the exception of Yul Brynner) are not traditionally box office draws, or leads. (I mean Richard Benjamin? James Brolin? Blythe Danner? etc.) It's not something unique to Westworld/ Futureworld, and maybe it was just seeing them one on top of the other that made it seem like some kind of Island of Forgotten A-Listers (Who Married / Invested Well and Are Still Around). And I agree, too, that Benjamin and Brolin are both perfectly fine, this isn't a dig on their performances or anything.

    "We don't take no mouth from surly bartenders!"

    That Danner/Brynner dream scene in "Futureworld" as is weird as it gets. I'm not very enamored with Blythe Danner.

    I have the same pet peeve where people watch professionally-edited and actor-blocked footage from "security cams" etc. That's always a "tsk tsk" moment for me as a viewer.

    LOl at Mandy Patinkin. Nice.

    Never caught a moment of "Beyond Westworld," so this overview almost felt like research for me, and very entertaining research at that. Sure beats entering in this endless roster of providers into IL Medicaid, let me tell you... Connie Selleca, haven't thought of her in awhile. Which surprises me, given the amount of time I spend/ e-ink I spill on 80s actresses/ TV in general. "Hotel" is a show I go long stretches of time forgetting even existed. I'm surprised not only that it hasn't been remade but that it doesn't have a half-dozen iterations of itself, like CSI or something.

    "The robot quarterback is going to throw the ball at Nick real hard during a press conference and kill him, thereby ensuring that Quaid becomes majority shareholder." ha! I love it.

    That guy works as Jim Gardner for me.

    All right, back to enrollment hell...

    1. Oops, my attempt to include a quote between those greater/lesser-than symbols didn't quite work, but I was quoting (as I'm sure you sussed out from what I wrote) the "memory guy subfolder shrugging gif" part.

    2. What Blogger left behind from your quote attempt is <>, which actually kind of looks like a shrug. Nice!

      I do not envy you your enrollment-hell special time. That's bound to ease up eventually, one hopes.

      That's an interesting point regarding the not-quite-A-lister casts. It's kind of surprising Brolin never broke through in that way. If he'd gotten the James Bond job in "Octopussy," that might have done it. I'd kind of like to put the Ur-Kindle to use on that one.

      I don't think I ever saw any of "Hotel." I remember it being a thing people watched, but I couldn't tell you squat about it. If it's got Connie Sellecca, though, it's worth my time.