Paranoid, Android: How ‘Westworld’ Pioneered Modern Science Fiction
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.
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