Monday, October 23, 2017

WESTWORLD (1973) movie review

Westworld (1973) d. Crichton, Michael (USA) (7th viewing) 88 min

Located in the middle of some unspecified far-off location in the not-too-distant future, the latest revolution in escapist vacations is realized in the form of Delos, an immersive amusement park comprised of three different sections: Romanworld, Medievalworld, and Westernworld. As one might surmise, the different parks are themed accordingly, depending on whether your wardrobe tastes lean toward togas, chain mail, or leather chaps, and preferred activities being orgies, jousting, or gunslinging. In addition to the other guests, attendees are surrounded by anatomically correct robots happy to accommodate every wish, be it of a salacious or homicidal nature. Every fantasy is fulfilled and every safeguard has been put in place – what could go wrong?

Inspired by a visit to Disneyland where he was impressed by the animatronic figures used on such attractions as The Pirates of the Caribbean, novelist Crichton (Jurassic Park, Coma, The Andromeda Strain) wrote the script for (and made his directing debut with) this sly and sharp slice of high-concept sci-fi/horror.

Granted, everything starts off as a light-hearted affair as we follow vacationing Chicago businessmen Peter (Richard Benjamin) and John (James Brolin), along with other hedonistic thrillseekers (Dick Van Patten, Norman Bartold) indulging their every boyhood dream armed with six-guns or sharpened swords. The opening 45 minutes are all about setting up the fanciful premise, and there are more laughs and wry commentary than actual chills or jump scares.

But the seeds of terror are carefully planted throughout, as the cadre of white lab-coated technicians (led by Alan Oppenheimer, later of Six Million Dollar Man fame, ironically enough) running the park in their air-tight underground facility start to observe an increase in glitches amidst their mechanical minions. “Pleasure models” begin refusing guests’ advances, fake rattlesnakes start striking with intent, and broadsword-wielding knights start sticking pointy ends where they don’t belong.

John and Peter’s primary antagonist is a silver-eyed gunslinger (top-billed Yul Brynner, clad in his Magnificent Seven best) who predates The Terminator in the timeline of single-minded murderous machines. Brynner’s electrifying screen presence is put to perfect use; he utters only a handful of lines (much like Swarzenegger a decade later), making him all the more mysterious and monstrous. This is one tough hombre, recently souped-up with infra-red vision and amplified auditory sensors, and ready to fulfill its black-hat programming of gunning down any and all that cross its path.

When I included Westworld in HORROR 101: The A-List of Horror Films and Monster Movies, it raised a lot of eyebrows from genre fans who took issue with it being considered a fright flick. I stuck to my guns (heyo), due to the fact that it remains a sentimental favorite from my youth and because I don’t think too strong a case had to be made for the inclusion of a movie that features scores of unsuspecting vacationers being bloodily slaughtered by a bunch of androids run amok, all underscored by Fred Karlin’s nerve-jangling musical score.

Quibble if you will about its genre categorization, but there’s little denying its effectiveness as an entertaining and suspenseful slice of techno-fear that still manages to deliver the goods four decades later.


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