Paranoid, Android: How 'Westworld' Pioneered Modern Science Fiction

In our latest 'Be Kind, Rewind,' we look back at the Seventies cowboys-and-robots classic that predicted the rise of the corporate nation

Yul Brynner as The Gunslinger in 'Westworld.' Credit: Mary Evans/Ronald Grant/Courtesy Everett Collection

Every few months, RollingStone.com will shine a spotlight on a forgotten, neglected, overshadowed, underappreciated and/or critically maligned film that we love in a new series we're calling "Be Kind, Rewind."  Our latest movie: Michael Crichton's Westworld.

Find a list — any list — of the best science-fiction films ever made and chances are, Westworld doesn't hit the Top 50 (if it appears at all). The elevator pitch of "murderous cowboy robots" was, and is, a cinematic wet dream to 15-year-old geeks-in-training of any era. But Michael Crichton's 1973 film always seemed like the victim of bad timing: too lowbrow for those still debating the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey in a pot-smoke haze, yet too early for the Saturday-matinee populist camp that Star Wars would turn into sci-fi solid gold. Time has vindicated this tale of androids run amok, though, as its prescience about the iniquities of corporations — both onscreen and off — becomes more apparent with each passing year.

If you were a leftist, impressionable movie lover looking for a cause, the reductive, if occasionally accurate, "Corporations are evil" trope pushed forward by Reagan-era science fiction worked perfectly. But before Skynet and Tyrell were wreaking havoc on cities and initiating nuclear war, there was Westworld's Delos, one of the first onscreen companies to step into the genre's crosshairs. Looking back on the film, in which rich tourists of the future pay to roam around fantasy worlds populated by robots, you can see the rise of computer viruses and digital graphics. But more importantly, the concept of the big, bad, bottom-line-über-alles conglomerate that's now commonplace in the genre would find its spiritual godfather here.

In the not-so-distant future, those tired of traditional vacations may pay $1,000 a day to choose between three self-contained adult theme parks: Roman World, where travelers can experience "the sensual, relaxed morality…of the Imperial Roman Empire"; Medieval World, populated by Black Knights and large-chested robot chambermaids; and Westworld, where protagonists James Brolin, Richard Benjamin and others can "relive the excitement and stresses of pioneer life to the fullest" in a "life of lawless violence; a society of guns and action." It's in the latter area where we meet the Gunslinger (Yul Brynner, in an homage/parody of his character in The Magnificent Seven), a surly, trigger-happy robot programmed to play the victim in guests' macho shootout fantasies.

Soon, the malfunctions begin: A robot snake bites Brolin, bucking the company's policy that despite the optical danger, no guest will ever be harmed. A servant "refuses a guest's seduction" (yes, having sex with robots is one of the park's major draws). As the glitches mount, Brynner and the rest of the robots start disobeying their programming. Things fall apart. Guests get murdered.

In the 1950s, the perceived threats of nuclear annihilation and Communism were becoming more tangible each week. Ordinary Americans found themselves answering a HUAC committee for having the wrong pamphlet in their pocket. Teachers were instructing their students to duck under desks while internally questioning its efficacy if a nuclear bomb ever detonated near the school. Science fiction entered its anti-government age: Folks had to "watch the skies" for threats from foreign powers and watch their neighbors for threats from within. Myopic administrations and world leaders were taken to task by the genre; by the late 1960s, the space race had already become a reality and rage was being articulated on the streets. Instead, sci-fi turned cerebral. Trips to the moon were replaced by cosmic-slop head trips.

the concept of the big, bad, bottom-line-über-alles conglomerate would find its spiritual godfather here.

It's only in the early Seventies that corporations took their rightful spot within the genre’s evil hegemonies. In Soylent Green (1973), it was the Soylent Corporation, whose "high-energy plankton" green wafer cures global starvation by feeding the people…more people. And then, six months later, along came Delos, a company that chooses to ignore malfunctions in the interest of keeping up appearances (and profits). It’s not cannibalism, but then again, the world of Westworld didn’t have pesky problems like overpopulation, extreme poverty and food scarcity.

While Delos shows some signs of benevolence — there's at least talk of shutting the park down after the company suspects something is wrong — it helped set the template for every amoral, nefarious business that would follow. Blade Runner's Tyrell perfected planned obsolescence and purposely designed dangerous humanoid robots. RoboCop's Omni Consumer Products, among other things, helped supply the world's military-industrial complex and threw morality out the floor-to-ceiling skyscraper window. In The Terminator — a film whose idea of robots gone wild was heavily influenced by Westworld — we find Cyberdyne Systems, a company that initiated a world war by creating a network of supercomputers that become self-aware called Skynet. Then there's Alien's Weyland-Yutani, a psychopathic blend of Enron and BP whose cost-benefit involves profits on one end and destroying the human race by weaponizing xenomorphs on the other. Delos looms over each of these films, as its cadre of scientists who blend arrogant optimism with selfish indifference can be seen, in varying degrees of iniquity, in its cinematic descendants.

The reverberations of Westworld, of course, go beyond popularizing the evil company as all-purpose harbinger of doom. On the DVD commentary of Halloween, John Carpenter points to the Gunslinger as a direct influence on Michael Myers, with the director admitting he lifted the character's distinct walk and inability to be killed for the horror classic. (Even a prognosticator like Crichton probably couldn't have predicted that he'd help invent the slasher film.) Crichton himself would revisit the idea of an amusement park gone amok in Jurassic Park, which would become the highest-grossing film of 1993. And few Simpsons fans will forget Itchy & Scratchy Land, an amusement park where the robot versions of the murderous cartoon characters begin killing patrons.

Film geeks will also point to Westworld as one of the first features to use computer animation, itself a revolution in filmmaking. But while the 1970s graphics have long dated, the distrust of corporations gets more relevant with each year. Putting aside the more fantastical elements of killer robots, Crichton & Co. presaged the daily headlines we see today. Take your pick: The BP oil spill. The Massey mine disaster. The 2008 financial crisis (and subsequent lack of prosecutions). The dismantling of corporate oversight and regulation by government officials concerned with keeping their coffers filled with business donations — corporations are people too, don’t forget — has led to a Wild West(world) mentality not seen since the robber barons of the late 19th century. Americans' lack of faith in greedy corporations obviously didn't start thanks to the movies, but films like this one codified the idea of a company caring more about its bottom line than the welfare of its customers. It's a theme that continues to pop up today — in the big blockbusters that invade the multiplex every summer (and ironically make their multiconglomerate patrons millions), in the burgeoning wave of Indiewood's lo-fi sci-fi films, and on the small screen, where HBO will premiere its update of Westworld in 2015.

But don't be alarmed. The sky isn't falling. Relax. As a gentle automated voice tells incoming Westworld guests, "There are no rules. Do not be afraid of hurting anything. Nothing can go wrong."

Right.