Dir: Michael Crichton, 1973. Starring Yul Brynner, Richard Benjamin, James Brolin. Science-Fiction.

Long before writing the novel Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton created another futuristic amusement park where everything goes wrong. Directing his first feature, Westworld, the result is much more credible than the later Spielberg directed flick. Closer to the vibe of cult-television show, The Wild, Wild West, than the Gene Autry serial Phantom Empire, Crichton’s film may be the best science-fiction / western Hollywood has ever produced.

A new high tech adult playland offers vacationers the choice between Medievalworld, Romanworld or Westworld. Vacationers get to enjoy exotic pleasures both in danger and even sexual, interacting with perfectly human looking androids. Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin) and his much cooler pal John Blane (James Brolin) opt for Westworld. It’s an Old West experience straight out of Bonanza, with saloon fights, shootouts, and robot brothels (though the guys are usually left to wonder if that was a human or a droid). The cowardly Martin has a run in with a gunfighter of few words, likely a droid, played by the famously shaved headed Russian tough guy Yul Brynner (wearing his same cool black outfit from The Magnificent Seven), killing him gives Martin some new found bravado.

In some quickly explained science, apparently real bullets are used, but heat sensors in the guns or something stop the robots from killing humans. It’s never explained if heat sensors are in the swords of Medievalworld. Eventually the scientists lose control of their creations. First a robot snake bites Blane, then the back-from-the-dead bald gunfighter returns looking for revenge, killing Blane and then stalking Martin, like The Terminator he keep coming and coming. All hell has broken loose with the robots rebelling against the guests. It appears Martin is about the last guest left alive and he is chased out of Westworld through the park’s labs and control rooms into what is left of Medievalworld. Eventually Martin is able to kill his assailant, exhausted and devastated we hear the park's advertising logo, “Have we got a vacation for you.” Fade out…

Michael Crichton has been associated with dozens of hit films and novels, along with some barely memorable ones, ranging from Congo, Coma, Looker, Runaway, Twister, Sphere and TV show ER. His work has often had a running through line; something about man tinkering too much with technology, like Jurassic Park, in the end it can turn around and bite you. Westworld may stand the test of time more than any of the other half dozen flicks he directed and it may be the best example of his ironic seriocomic attitude, underneath the tension there’s a lot of relief humor and of course with that final advertising tag, irony.

Even more than his more admired contemporaries like Gene Wilder and Charles Grodin, the once popular Richard Benjamin may be the quintessential “seriocomic” actor. Benjamin got famous in the early '70s standing in for Philip Roth in the big screen adaptations of his novels Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint, high brow humor that elicited brainy discomfort more than laughs. But by the end of the decade his career had been relegated to a terrible short-lived space sitcom Quark and slapstick spoofs like Love At First Bite and Saturday The 14th that didn’t match his intellectual style. He would reinvent himself, knocking the ball out of the park with his first film as a director with the wonderful Peter O’Toole vehicle My Favorite Year. As a director his work since has been spotty but he’s found a comfort zone directing solid TV movies.

Peter Fonda headlined a little seen, awful Westworld sequel Futureworld but Crichton wasn’t involved with it. Totally out of the blue, a TV series in 1980 called Beyond Westworld managed to last five episodes. For years there was talk of a Westworld remake, fittingly with Arnold Schwarzenegger attached to it. There’s little wonder why the magic has not been able to be replicated. Westworld is on a par with films from the era like Planet of the Apes, Capricorn One, THX 1138, and Silent Running - science fiction that was laced in Vietnam and later Watergate conspiratorial paranoia. This was secretly a great era for sci-fi, before a much more easier to love Star Wars brought the genre to the mainstream.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Apr 4, 2011 6:36pm
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