How HBO's 'Westworld' Can Improve Upon the Cult Classic Film
Writer/Director Michael Crichton's original movie is a cult classic, but it isn't perfect.
After blowing past its planned 2015 premiere date, producer J.J. Abrams’s HBO remake of Michael Crichton’s 1973 cult classic Westworld is back on track. Production on the show, about a technologically advanced amusement park whose robots malfunction and start killing visitors, was halted midway, so that executive producers Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy could massage the tricky storyline of the techno-cautionary tale of human creations rebelling against the makers.
Though it’s getting a remake, the original movie is still great, and has influenced countless sci-fi stories that came after it (as well as a particularly great episode of The Simpsons), but at 43-years-old, its near-future predictions of the aesthetics are understandably a bit outdated for 2016. The vivid world Crichton created is bursting with potential, which is why Nolan, Joy, and exec. producer J.J. Abrams decided to update it in the first place. Here are some things that HBO’s Westworld should keep or improve from Crichtons memorable original.
Things to keep
5. Corporate Hucksterism
Part of the fun of Crichton’s original film is the consumer kitsch tied to the concept. Crichton began the movie with an extended commercial and a corny pitch man asking happy customers about their experiences at Westworld, Roman World, and Medieval World. These predated and perhaps influenced 1980s consumerist satires produced by the likes of Paul Verhoeven, who inserted absurdist fake commercials in movies like Total Recall and Robocop.
Composer Fred Karlin’s semi-experimental score for the film is as elusive as the fantasy worlds Crichton created. It manages to strike a surprising balance between jittery electronic churl and the lazily lilting guitar of the park’s fake western town. It makes sense to have the music dictate the various settings, but Karlin managed to make the music comfortable and tense from one not to the next. The HBO show has Game of Thrones composer Ramin Djawadi behind the music, so it’s in good hands, but hopefully Djawadi keeps the story’s musical language similarly eclectic.
CGI is commonplace now, but Westworld was the first film to use digital special effects. Crichton wanted the Gunslinger’s robo-vision to shows a distinct pixelated robotic look for his point of view, and the effect lasts for a mere two minutes of the film’s 90-minute runtime. HBO may not give the series Game of Thrones-level money – at least not at first – but it’d be great to update some kind of cutting-edge digital technology gimmick to try and mirror the original. If they can’t do that, the least they could do is keep the robo-vision for Ed Harris’s similar gunslinger character.
2. The Illusion of the Amusement Park
One of the best parts of the original movie is a scene in which no action happens at all. A quiet moment sees Richard Benjamin and James Brolin’s characters stand in front of their lockers and quietly change out of their 1970s chic into old-west gear before entering Westworld. It’s a small, seemingly insignificant beat filed with a ton of subtext about the performative aspects of the fantasy that the characters are entering. Benjamin’s character stays a bit skeptical as the story progresses, but the moment when they literally put their costumes on is a straightforward way to convey to the audience the awkward transition between what is real and what is fake.
1. Alternate Worlds
Besides Westworld, the original film also volleyed back and forth between a Pompeii-like city in Roman World and the Camelot-esque, faux-European setting of Medieval World. The film doesn’t quite balance the scenes that jump between each, and it only really coalesces once Benjamin’s Peter Martin and Yul Brynner’s unnamed Gunslinger start running in between worlds in Western garb. It’s a great anachronistic touch, and though the HBO series teaser only showed the titular old west setting, it’d be great if the audience was reminded that the robot mayhem could be happening to others in different fake time periods, too.
Things to improve
5. Alternate Worlds*
Yes, you read that right. Westworld, Roman World, and Medieval World are great and they should stick around, but creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy should expand it even further. Why not do Ancient Egypt World, Roaring ‘20s World, or the Futureworld of the sequel to the original movie? By making the fantasy even more elaborate and varied it makes the scope of what ends up happening even bigger as well. Plus the possibilities would be endless both storywise and for the showrunners to play around with gorgeous production design.
4. The Robots Turn Evil
The movie hints that there are minor tweaks and technological malfunctions in their various parks leading up to the robots going haywire — an unexpected shutdown here, a break in mechanics there. But suddenly going from buggy robotic knight to evil outlaw bot hunting down humans for sport is a very big transition. The HBO series should give some narrative and philosophical weight to the way in which these robots rebel against their human creators. What better way to point out the disparity of power dynamics than to give robots a reason to question humanity and for humans to question the robots and their own humanity?
3. Lead Characters
Crichton’s movie has one iconic character: Brynner’s nearly wordless outlaw. He’s on the posters and all the advertisements for good reason. But one thing the movie is sorely lacking is a truly sympathetic and equally iconic lead character. You could give Crichton the benefit of the doubt for pulling such a Hitchcockian switcheroo and killing off Brolin’s ostensible protagonist John Blane as a way to hammer home Benjamin’s own everyman status. Series producer Jonathan Nolan recently said they flipped the point of view and have now made the robots the protagonists, which ads and ingenious level to the story. Make the audience empathize with Evan Rachel Wood’s synthetic human lead and be skeptical of Anthony Hopkins’s Dr. Robert Ford (the creator of the park) and now we have something interesting.
2. Technological Implications
The genius of Crichton’s story is that it doesn’t even have to rely on pseudo-science to convince the audience of the story’s viability. All he needs to do is have a bunch of people in white lab coats sitting in front of blinking lights talking about vaguely robotic things and it sells the concept. The same happened when Crichton decided to do the whole “amusement park gone wrong” thing again with Jurassic Park. But knowing Nolan, who has collaborated with his filmmaker brother Christopher Nolan on films like Interstellar, he’ll definitely want to delve deeper into how the technological implications of a park like Westworld seeps into every nook and cranny of the story. The VR and AR comparisons are there, but making the series an allegory that stresses how we life now not only justifies the reboot but also makes it culturally relevant.
Crichton’s movie operates on a certain level of cheese. At times it uses this to its advantage, like when Benjamin gets to Westworld and complains about it being uncomfortable in the old west, though it is obvious to the audience that they are on some kind of movie backlot set. Add to that an overly goofy barroom brawl between patrons and robots and it kind of takes away the impact of what the movie is trying to do. The HBO series should use cheese to its advantage instead of relying on it like aspects of the movie. The awkwardness of the illusion of Westworld could be cheesy comic relief, but the series should treat robots running wild as a serious matter — but not too serious.