I, Robot: How 'Westworld' Went From Seventies Blockbuster to HBO Show

Everything you need to know Michael Crichton's landmark paranoid-android thriller

From Seventies sci-fi blockbuster to HBO's great white post-'Game of Thrones' hope – everything you need to know about 'Westworld.' Credit: John P. Johnson/HBO, Bettmann/Getty

Few ideas survive the times that spawned them, but Westworld, the 1973 Michael Crichton movie about an Old West amusement park populated by lifelike robots, is good enough that Hollywood's been coming back to it for more than 40 years. The original film, which was MGM's biggest box-office success of the year, spawned a sequel and a short-lived TV series; talk of a remake had been floated around for years, with everyone from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Quentin Tarantino being namedropped around the project at various points. (There was even a porn version, called, naturally Sex World. No, it's not canon.)

Now, the 2.0 version has finally resurfaced at HBO, where after years of development and production delays, we'll finally get a look at the upgrade starting October 2nd. Here's a guide to Westworld's many guises. Remember, those denying the existence of robots may be robots themselves.

Westworld (1973)
Hero: Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin), a mustachioed tourist who has to fight his way out of an amusement park gone awry.

Villain: The Gunslinger (Yul Brynner), the Western town's resident black-clad bad guy, who turns into an unstoppable killing machine when his wires literally get crossed.

What's it about?: The world's richest tourists spend their surplus dollars at Delos, which modestly bills itself as "the most exciting vacation spot in the history of man." For a mere $1,000 a day, they can visit one of the park's three worlds: Westworld, which recreates the old American west of 1880; Medieval World, where they can swing swords and sip mead; and Roman World, which offers all the end-of-an-empire debauchery you can stand – all populated by lifelike robots whose only mandate is to keep their big-ticket guests happy.

Peter is a skeptical visitor, dragged along by his buddy John Blane (James Brolin), who's rather more enthusiastic about engaging in some frontier-style sex and violence. But he starts to get a feel for the immersive experience when the Gunslinger picks a barroom fight with him and Peter shoots him down. That experience comes in handy when the park starts to malfunction and the robots turn on their former masters – a theme first-time writer-director Michael Crichton would return to nearly 20 years later in his novel Jurassic Park. The medieval knights who were meant to fall down dead at the merest touch of a guest's sword start fighting back, and the Gunslinger goes from sitting duck to moving target, chasing Peter into the bowels of Delos' underground control center.

(How) does it hold up?: Like any 40-plus-year-old vision of the future, this Westworld shows its age – its robots are stuffed with loose wires and circuit boards as if their designers did their shopping at Radio Shack. And its version of ultra-luxury can look awfully threadbare, even with silent film star Harold Lloyd's sprawling estate used as a pre-existing location for Roman World. But the set-like quality of its manufactured worlds ends up working in its favor. You're not watching a movie about the future but about fantasies, of the kind Hollywood movies serve up on a weekly basis. So even when you can clearly see that what's meant to be like a sword is actually a strip of warped, edgeless metal, it doesn't ruin the effect. The unfettered techno-pessimism, however, feels awfully dated, especially since by the 1970s science fiction writers had been exploring the idea of artificial intelligence for a over a century.



Futureworld (1976)
Hero:
Chuck Browning (Peter Fonda), a dogged reporter who gets wind of something shady going on behind the scenes at the newly revamped Delos.

Villain: Duffy (Arthur Hill), the oily, gladhanding manager of Delos. But really, it's the system, man!

Who made it?: A Westworld sequel was probably inevitable, but Crichton and most of the original's cast were not involved. (Brynner has a wordless, nonsensical cameo in a dream sequence.) Journeyman director Richard T. Heffron took Crichton's place behind the camera, with a script by Mayo Simon (Phase IV) and future NCIS scribe George Schenck.

What's it about?: It's years later, and Delos is back in business, bigger and better – and supposedly more fail-safe – than ever. (Suggested slogan: "Now with less robot murder.") There's even a new attraction: Futureworld, where guests can take off in a rocket and go skiing on Mars. But newspaperman Chuck Browning gets a tip that there's more to the new Delos than meets the eye, and when his source turns up dead in his arms, he decides to investigate himself.

Accompanying him is comely but comparatively lightweight TV reporter Tracy Ballard (Blythe Danner), who in 1976 is already crowing about the waning popularity of print media.The duo discover that Delos' supposedly increased reliability is due to the elimination of the human factor: Now, even the technicians manning the park's controls are robots. But that's just the tip of the iceberg, as they stumble onto a sinister plot to replace the world's most powerful figures with cloned doubles indistinguishable from the real thing. Except, of course, that their unpredictable human impulses have been replaced by implacable machine logic.

(How) does it hold up?: Although its attempt at a Seventies-style paranoid thriller isn't nearly paranoid or thrilling enough, Futureworld does make some interesting advances on its predecessor's ideas, notably the introduction of organic circuitry and elaborate in-world storylines that push Delos closer to virtual reality than a mere theme park. But there's not enough newness to sustain a second go-round, and the movie's insistent sexism – Danner's main function is to stand around in clingy blouses while Fonda says things like, "Don't bother me, I got an instinct for these things" – dampens whatever kitschy pleasures it might otherwise yield.



Beyond Westworld (1980)
Hero:
John Moore (Jim McMullan), a Delos "security chief" hunting down rogue robots and their mad-scientist creator.

Villain: Simon Quaid (James Wainwright), the aforementioned mad scientist, who believes that only murderous robots can save humanity from itself.

Who made it?: TV veteran Lou Shaw, best known as the co-creator of Quincy, M.E.

What's it about?: Without the budget to recreate a no-expenses-spared luxury resort, this ill-starred TV spinoff wastes little time destroying Westworld and its sister cities, leaving rogue programmer Simon Quaid to turn his creations on the real world. Like the villain of Futureworld, his schemes have a utopian bent: He dreams of a robot-run world where "free of war and hunger and sickness, where those in charge will make decisions without fear or hysteria, without emotions." And hey, if he has to detonate a nuclear bomb or two to achieve that dream, it's a small price to pay. Fortunately, Delos security officer John Moore and fellow agent Pamela Williams (Connie Selleca) have other ideas.

(How) does it hold up?: It's bad – bad enough to be cancelled after two episodes, even though five had already been shot. (Three were aired, with the remaining two unseen until the series' DVD release in 2014.) Series lead McMullan is so stiff it's hard to tell him from the robots he's meant to be fighting, and for an evil genius, the show's villain is awfully fond of low-tech solutions like leaving his adversary in a room with a venomous snake rather than killing him outright. Framing the bad guys' bid for emotionless conformity in vaguely Soviet terms gives it a half-hearted tinge of topicality, as does the unannounced retcon of resetting the show in the present day. But it still feels as dusty as a sun-baked prairie. It's hard to get through even one episode, but it's worth checking out the beginning of the third, if only to see Nashville's Ronee Blakely and Altman regular Rene Auberjonois playing rock stars at a No Nukes rally.



Westworld (2016)
Hero:
Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), a fresh-faced rancher's daughter who is one of Westworld's full-time robotic residents.

Villain: The Man in Black (Ed Harris), a sadistic Westworld tourist with an apparently unlimited budget with a bottomless appetite for violence.

Who made it?: Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy Nolan, who succeeded where many others who'd attempted to reboot the franchise for both film and TV had failed.

What's it about?: Like the movies he's co-written with his brother Christopher, as well as Nolan's own Person of Interest, the new version is more about the discovery of a world that exists beneath the one we can see. Instead of taking the perspective of the park's visitors, the show mainly shifts between its inhabitants and the scientists who create and control them. The "hosts," as they're now called, are meant to have their minds wiped clean at the end of every day, the memories of the horrors visited on them by the park's more creative guests obliterated. But it's starting to become apparent that the process is imperfect; the trauma remains in places no programmer can touch. That leaves Westworld's creator (Anthony Hopkins) and his chief scientist (Jeffrey Wright) posed with a difficult question: Their goal has been to make the hosts as lifelike as possible, but when does lifelike become actually alive? It's a distinctively post-Blade Runner approach to Crichton's original idea, one that's less about technology per se than its effect on human consciousness – and the point at which humanity's machines will begin to outgrow their creators.

(How) does it hold up?: Time will tell.