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Current Rating 8.3/10 | 33 Votes

Seen now, some thirty years after its first release, “Westworld” plays like an early draft of “Jurassic Park.” Both films, from the pen of best-selling novelist Michael Crichton, involve the amusement park of the future, in which science brings us an alternate reality, only to fail in some way and teach us a moral by wreaking havoc. In “Jurassic Park,” the alternate reality is the resurrection, via cloning, of dinosaurs, and the moral is not to play God with nature. I’m not sure if this is much of a moral, since virtually everything that makes mankind man could be construed as playing God, but that’s neither here nor there.

The amusement park in “Westworld” is a resort intended to recreate three different historical time periods: Western World is the Old West of gunfighters and bandits, Medieval World is all knights and damsels, and Roman World is tunics, togas, and debauchery. The futuristic element is that everyone in the artificial world is a robot. Robot gunfighters, robots knights, robot chorus girls, and robot wenches. Even robot horses. Visitors are encouraged to rob banks in Western World, slay the black knight in Medieval World, and be fed grapes in Roman World—and in all worlds there are floozies of some kind, programmed to be seduced. But just as the dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park” eventually run amok, the robots in “Westworld” backfire as well, and a murderous chaos ensues.

“Jurassic Park,” helmed by that great entertainer Steven Spielberg, is a slicker and more visceral experience than its predecessor, with engaging characters, great visual effects, and some of the most effective monster chases this side of “Aliens.” But the concepts at play behind “Westworld” strike me as more intriguing. What is this movie saying by showing us an amusement park where we can stab or gun down strangers with impunity, or where it’s okay to cheat on our spouse because it’s only with a machine? And what is “Westworld” saying when the violence, debauchery, and other antisocial behavior is fatally punished by the revolting robots? Sadly, “Westworld,” like most of Crichton’s work, doesn’t ask “what does it mean?” nearly as much as “how does it work?” Still, the movie does tell us how everything works, and there’s even a little grim satisfaction in watching the robots turn on their often malevolent human masters.

Like many good science-fiction short stories, the main function of the characters in “Westworld” is to examine things and not be examined. We glimpse various visitors to the different worlds, including a middle-aged couple in which she wants to be ravished in Roman World, while he wants the black knight’s head on a platter and the laundry wench in his bed; a portly nebbish (Dick Van Patten), scared of a gun but hungry to play sheriff; and two old friends (Richard Benjamin and James Brolin) hoping to waste some robots and screw some dancehall girls. Chief among the synthetic gunfighters who cross them is the great Yul Brynner, possibly in the same clothes he wore in “The Magnificent Seven.” He is gunned down again and again, and not even programmed to succeed. We can tell that Benjamin, who looks vaguely like Mr. Bean, might survive the oncoming rebellion because of how uncomfortable he feels when he cuts Brynner down in a bar-room quick-draw.

Half the fun of “Westworld” plays as camp now; science-fiction seems to date faster than any other genre, and “Westworld” looks more like a pricey episode of the original “Star Trek” than a modern Hollywood sci-fi. It’s a good movie to watch in a group while hitting pause a lot. I saw “Westworld” recently with a couple of friends, and we got plenty of laughs by talking about how, if we visited Western World, we would reply to even the slightest inconveniences from the robots with lethal severity. Crichton directs the film invisibly and efficiently, and brings a sterile creepiness to the scenes in which Western World’s employees must, every night, gather the dead robots and bring them to their subterranean “hospital” for repeairs. Benjamin is effective as “Westworld’s” everyman, while Brynner, in a role that predicts “The Terminator” eleven years later, projects mindless, unquestioning, unreasonable menace. “Westworld” is not enamored with its own implications, but they are there, and I’m reminded that I’ve always thought of heaven as place where we are no longer interested in sinning, and not as a place where our sins no longer have consequences.

Finished December 8, 2002

Copyright © 2002 Friday & Saturday Night

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