Jonathan Nolan's new TV series Westworld is finally premiering on HBO tonight, and the network has some big plans for the show. But before diving in, it's worth remembering that it is based on the 1973 film from Michael Crichton (yes, the same guy who wrote Jurassic Park). With that in mind, we took a look back to see what inspired Nolan and his team in the first place.
How did the original Westworld age? Not terribly well.
The film opens with a spokesman from the Delos Corporation interviewing guests who are returning from their stays at the company’s three main attractions: Medieval World, Roman World, and West World, The park actively encourages a deeply creepy premise: guests can live our their fantasies, no matter how terrible. The incredibly realistic robots that populate West World are there for the pleasure of the guests, even if that means that they'll be killed or raped.
With that in mind, everything inevitably goes wrong. As the film's two main characters, Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin) and John Blane (James Brolin) go about their vacation, the park’s officials begin to notice that errors are cropping up. A snake bites Blane, while a robot in Medieval World refuses a guest’s sexual advances. As the machines begin to malfunction, one of their overseers notes the complexity of the technology: "These are highly complicated pieces of equipment. Almost as complicated as living organisms. In some cases, they have been designed by other computers. We don't know exactly how they work." By the end of the movie, the machines have begun to kill the guests meant to enjoy them, and Martin is left alive after fleeing a menacing robotic gunslinger (Yul Brynner).
A film about robots killing hedonistic vacationers, Westworld is certainly not a nuanced film, but it does appear to prefigure some elements prominently seen in cyberpunk science fiction. When Westworld first premiered, it was a bit of a novelty: a sort of proto-cyberpunk robot uprising film. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 and Blade Runner’s Replicants were still years away from movie theaters. Unlike those examples, this film’s robots aren’t really in it for deeper philosophical reasons: they’re just amusement park attractions that have gone haywire. It’s like a roller coaster malfunctioning and going off the rails.
What’s scarier here is the indifference of the Delos Corporation. The company understands that there’s issues with their main attraction, but cares more about the perception of shutting down might have on their image, opting to try and fix the problem without warning or evacuating their guests. This kind of corporate do-baddery is a trope at this point, but in movie theaters in 1973 it was undoubtedly insidious and terrifying.
The corporation's indifference is seen in one particularly striking scene when Blane comes across a technician struggling with his cart. He tells Blane that the machine that’s after him is an advanced model, and that "he hasn’t got a chance," before he himself is killed by the gunslinger. In its rush to bring its guests a thrilling, visceral experience, the Delos Corporation didn’t plan for unexpected contingencies.
While the robots here might not be rising up, there's still a certain amount of schadenfreude at what happens. The robots have every reason to be upset about their situation: they're murdered and being tossed aside by guests who want to live out their baser fantasies without consequence. The film certainly sets this up as a theme, but doesn't examine it in detail, which is why HBO's remake looks so promising. Nolan has already has experience playing with artificial intelligences with his now-ended CBS show Person of Interest, but the entire premise of Westworld is ripe with potential.
In many ways, Westworld shares much in common with Crichton’s best known novel, Jurassic Park, and taps into many of the author’s long-running themes of distrusting technology and the corporations that wield them. Through his later novels, such as Terminal Man, Timeline, Prey, and others, Crichton warned against the complexity of technology that has grown beyond our control or ability to comprehend.
So, does the original film hold up? Only in what it offers for potential. The film essentially becomes a frantic chase of a cowboy fleeing a robot, which is fun to watch, but leaves something to be desired. It works better as a simple robot uprising movie, but even there it’s been surpassed in the decades since by smarter, more nuanced films. HBO's Westworld looks as though it'll pick up on that premise and take a slightly different track. Perhaps the best way to look back at the original Westworld is as a good idea not fully realized, one worthy of new takes and interpretations. We'll know what the series did with that inspiration tonight.