This week's film: 'Westworld,' directed by Michael Crichton, 1973
Though its inclusion in this most excellent of repertory series in a bit dubious, 'Westworld' is a true classic of whatever genre you may suppose to assign it. The blending of science fiction with the familiar tropes of the American western is always something remarkable. It seems fitting that this harmony should exist considering the film was written and directed by master Michael Crichton. I am unabashedly in love with this film - it is one of my father's favorite movies of all time and he was never shy about extolling its bountiful merits growing up; I half expected him to make the 900-mile trip from Indiana to see it - and being able to see a 35mm print of it was nothing short of blissful.
Yul Brenner is essentially reprising his role as the fearless cowboy from 'The Magnificent Seven'; only this time the cowboy is a cow-bot. It's not over-praise to note that he completely makes the film. His natural steely glance and stoic composure make him ideal for playing a cyborg. Brenner sheds the good guy visage and plays this part with tenacious bloodlust. What I really love about his character is the parallel that exists between him and the Washington Generals; the sole opponent of the as-yet-undefeated Harlem Globetrotters. He is programmed to lose and does so every day to any flashy schmuck who pays the admission. So is Westworld therefore a commentary on exhibition basketball? Should the Globetrotters let the Generals win every now and again before they rise up and slaughter everyone in the arena? Just a thought.
James Brolin and Richard Benjamin provide the perfect one-two punch in terms of audience perspective of the theme park. Brolin, the seasoned veteran of everything from gun-slinging to fraternizing with hooker bots, is more or less the expository voice of Michael Crichton as he leads wet-behind-the-ears Benjamin around Westworld explaining all the technological wonders that allow for its existence. Benjamin may be wimpier than I typically prefer my heroes, but there is something to be said for breaking convention.
The number one complaint I hear about this film is that it is boring. While I can totally understand this qualm and do concede that the film is not break-neck in its pacing, I don't find it boring in the least. The time we spend with the characters is essential both for developing their arcs and for grounding the film more so than any other sci-fi-western mash up. When you think of this combination of genres, scores of "cowboys in space" films probably creep into your periphery as that is the go-to methodology for bringing them together. But Westworld goes the opposite route by using futuristic technology to retroactively create a 19th century setting whereas most films apply abstract thematic elements of the western to an intergalactic setting. Without giving the audience enough time to soak up the experience of the characters as they are entirely submerged in the setting, this defining trait is lost.
If nothing else, the chase at the end of the film is reason enough to see 'Westworld.' It starts with a foreshadowed, but still effectively shocking, death and doesn't cease until the credits roll. I still find it hilarious that writer/director Crichton created a story (and subsequent film) where a high-concept theme park goes haywire and causes the deaths of its patrons. It's not as if this old yarn would ever again enter his universe, right? But the cold, vengeful focus of Brenner as he struts like a slasher through the woods after Benjamin is fantastic, as is the shot of his robotic eyes flashing in intervals of darkness as he marches down a dim hallway. My only wish is that more people would have bore his wrath before he is ultimately bested.
There must be a universal connection between this film and fond paternal memories. Looking around the theater, there were no less than four groups of young, most likely college-aged, attendees being escorted by their fathers. It brought a wider-than-usual smile to my face as the film commenced. Films like these revel in the blurring of temporal setting and therefore make them ideal for passing on from one generation to the next. If ever again the Alamo shows this classic genre-confused romp, rest assured my father will be sitting beside me.
Special Note: Though 'Westworld' was last week's Terror Tuesday offering, this week saw a special Fantastic Fest screening of 'Nightmares,' a great anthology horror film that I previously covered for Terror Tapes.