A robotic Abraham Lincoln changed the course of science fiction when author Michael Crichton saw the robo-President in action at Disneyland. Walt Disney invested in ‘audio-animatronic technology’ for his theme park after obsessing over the mechanics of wind-up toys. The first wave of Disney ‘imagineers’ created robot politicians for the ‘Hall of Presidents’ in 1971, and swashbucklers for the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ ride, which opened in 1967. While visitors to Disneyland were in awe of the robotic innovation, Crichton took a different view.
In an interview with American Cinematographer, Crichton detailed the moment that inspired Westworld, the sci-fi/western thriller he wrote and directed in 1973: “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. I think it was that sort of a notion that got the picture started. It was the idea of playing with a situation in which the usual distinctions between person and machine – between a car and the driver of the car – become blurred, and then trying to see if there was something in the situation that would lead to other ways of looking at what's human and what's mechanical."
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, monsters and alien invaders dominated science fiction cinema. There were exceptions like Metropolis and The Day the Earth Stood Still, and throughout the 1960s films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Planet of the Apes and Alphaville started to break ground with visions of the future loaded with thoughtful subtext. Everything changed in the 1970s on two fronts. The latter half of the decade is remembered as a key turning point for the genre because of three films; Alien, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars, while the beginning of the decade was dominated by films like Rollerball, Soylent Green, Silent Running and THX 1138, which presented dystopian visions of the future that heavily scrutinised the nature of humanity. But it would be Crichton’s Westworld that would mash genres to offer a stealthily bleak future where science and innovation is used for leisure, driven by corporate interests and ultimately indulging the worst impulses of mankind, leading to its destruction.
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Set in the (then) future of 1983, the Delos corporation runs three theme parks: Medieval World, Roman World and Westworld. Each world is occupied by lifelike androids programmed to engage with human guests. One of the attractions in Westworld is ‘The Gunslinger’ (Yul Brynner), an android automated to instigate gunfights. The guests are safe from harm because the androids are designed to only kill each other and not harm anything warm blooded, but when the parks experience a major malfunction, the androids begin to defy programming and commence killing guests. The Gunslinger goes rogue and pursues two guests (Richard Benjamin and James Brolin) across Westworld.
If Westworld sounds like a first draft for Jurassic Park, it is, in many ways. Crichton explores the idea of scientific research being privatised and used for profit, with Delos playing god and creating androids to entertain the wealthy clientele who use the park to escape the real world. Indulging technology in this way in the pursuit of relaxation is selfish. It’s worth asking: how could this expertise be used to better lives instead? With Westworld, Crichton tested a thesis that he would refine in Jurassic Park, as summed up by Dr. Ian Malcolm: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
Crichton shows characters desperate to indulge their desires in Westworld, which is a fully realised slice of the old west. Considering our culture’s current rapidly-accelerating obsession with reviving films and television shows from the past, Westworld is a warning of the dangers of nostalgic loops of entertainment; a grand distraction while the outside world withers. People behave badly in the park; guests would rather shoot the androids rather than marvel at them as creations, as the machines are subsequently destroyed, repaired, and then put back in the park to do it all over again. There’s a level of trauma associated with how the androids malfunction, as they become self-aware of their plight and seek to kill their human oppressors. The ideas at play about artificial intelligence in Westworld would pave the way for films with similar ideas being made in the 1970s and 80s, such as The Stepford Wives, Blade Runner and Robocop. As the line between human and A.I. becomes blurred there are questions about what it means to be alive. In an alarming contrast, Westworld makes the human guests act uncivilised and the androids (before they go on murder sprees) seem normal by comparison.
The Gunslinger is a terrifying entity in Westworld; a killing machine who relentlessly stalks guests, as well as a key influence on The Terminator. It’s possible to imagine Arnold Schwarzenegger studying Brenner’s stone cold performance as a silent executioner for his own iconic role as a robot assassin, and fittingly enough, Schwarzenegger signed on to play The Gunslinger in a remake of Westworld that was announced in 2002 but never made it to production. The Gunslinger operates in the same way as the carnivore dinosaurs in Jurassic Park: a creation that turns on its creator. Crichton gets primal with Jurassic Park when it comes to nature finding a way to endure despite scientific meddling, while Westworld is a little more sinister in its depiction of our own A.I. mirror image destroying us.
Westworld was released to rave reviews and became one of the highest grossing films of 1973; a big deal considering Crichton was a first-time director who made the leap from being an author (a rarity in Hollywood). However, Crichton was deeply dissatisfied with the final product claiming publicly that people misunderstood the film as not a warning against technology, but against corporate greed.
Due to its financial success, Westworld became an unlikely franchise that led to a sequel, Futureworld (1976) followed by the short-lived TV series Beyond Westworld (1980). After the cancellation of the TV show, Westworld endured as a major reference point in pop culture. The Simpsons parodied the film with 1994’s episode ‘Itchy & Scratchy Land’, while HBO adapted it into a hit TV series in 2016 that may be loosely connected to the events of the film (it remains a mystery unanswered in the first season, although the Gunslinger makes a background cameo).
Without Westworld, and the science fiction wave of the early 1970s to which it belongs, we wouldn’t have the lush decade of dystopian science fiction that became prominent in the 1980s. The juggernaut of Jurassic Park arrived in the next decade as a novel, and then as a film directed by Steven Spielberg. Westworld remains one of the most influential films in the genre, firing off a warning about a future that takes its dread from the chances of the scenario becoming a reality.
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