Theme parks have changed over the decades. In an earlier era, visitors were satisfied by the little, if thrilling, immersive experience rides offered. But in the era of smartphones and social media, the expectations for immersion have risen.
Now theme parks allow visitors to live out experiences within their park walls. (Think the Star-Wars-themed Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland.) This leveling up in both scope and technology applies not just to real theme parks but fictional ones too. And, one 1973 movie foresaw this desire to immerse one’s self into a new adventure.
Westworld takes a high concept and transforms it into a suspenseful and thought-provoking story. Here’s why you need to stream this sci-fi western on HBO Max right now.
The Westworld you may be most familiar with is the recent TV adaptation starring Ed Harris and Evan Rachel Wood. However, more than 40 years before the HBO series, famous sci-fi novelist Michael Crichton first brought Westworld to the screen. In a bold move, Crichton, whose name is now synonymous with writing the book Jurassic Park, stepped into directing his own original screenplay.
Crichton didn’t want to be pigeonholed into writing sci-fi for the rest of his life, but he didn’t want to be only writing medical thrillers like 1969’s hit The Andromeda Strain either. He became fascinated with human-machine interactions. After visiting the Kennedy Space Center, Crichton became fascinated with how astronauts trained themselves to be “machine-like and predictable as possible,” he told American Cinematographer in 2013.
“At the other extreme, one can go to Disneyland and see Abraham Lincoln standing up every 15 minutes to deliver the Gettysburg Address. That's the case of a machine that has been made to look, talk and act like a person,” Crichton said.
His fascination was set: Humans were trying to become machines, and machines were trying to become human. What would happen when you couldn’t tell the two apart?
Crichton felt Westworld wouldn’t work as a novel. The movie’s park has three worlds: Westworld, Medieval World, and Roman World. He said the details of these worlds better aligned with “movie fantasies.” He imagined people wanting to become “John Ford and John Wayne and Errol Flynn,” so it fundamentally made more sense as a movie in the first place.
Ford, Wayne, and Flynn were all white men, so that’s what we see in Crichton's movie. While the TV reboot eventually became convoluted, it’s hard to deny that Evan Rachel Wood and Thandie Newton stole the show. While the original Westworld never really seeks to understand any of its women characters (human or robot), the story it tells is a pretty good one.
The movie mainly focuses on Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin), a first-time park visitor trying to get over a divorce, and his repeat-guest friend John (James Brolin), who brought him along. The viewer learns very little about them in the movie, which was by design. Crichton hated what he called “verbal flashbacks,” in which writers find a way for characters to speak their backstories. It’s something that “almost never happens in real life,” he told American Cinematographer.
Rather, he took full advantage of this visual medium, saying he wanted to “let the audience find out about a character through what he does, instead of having him sit back and tell a little story about himself or his past.” Slowly, over the course of their stay at Westworld, Peter starts to show more life and confidence. While he starts off demanding robot barkeeps serve him vodka, he's singing cowboy songs to himself after a few days on their trip.
Unlike the TV show, Westworld the movie is much less concerned with free will and identity. Crichton is instead interested in asking what it would actually be like to step into the world of John Wayne, full of relentless killers and empty of mercy. While Peter and John visit robot bordellos and shoot a robot sheriff, the person who makes the deepest impression is without a doubt The Gunslinger, the killer robot played by Yul Brynner. Brynner, who had trained himself to fire a gun and not blink, is a magnet in every scene, drawing every bit of attention.
For a high-tech idea, Westworld was shot in 30 days with a budget of barely over a million dollars. At times, the park can seem almost empty. But the movie was innovative in other ways, like when Crichton was able to procure a prototype of a digital image processor, making Westworld the first time audiences had seen pixels (which are used to show what the robots see).
Westworld is full of odd narrative congruences — people calmly having a drink in the middle of a bar fight and Peter laughing as a Gunslinger challenges him. And this is all in a low-budget movie with cutting-edge technology. Perhaps the movie forced these elements together through lack of time and will. Regardless, they somehow work to create an intriguing experience that resonates nearly 50 years later.
Westworld is now streaming on HBO Max.