Revisiting WESTWORLD Forty-Five Years Later

Michael Crichton’s directorial debut laid a formative foundation for sci-fi and the beloved HBO series.

Michael Crichton is best known for depicting technology and the human condition, specifically man’s desire to play God. As one of the primary founders of the techno-thriller genre, Crichton’s novels center around technological advancements and the significant failure of humans who are unable or unwilling to control the dangers of their creation. His narratives possess a scientific and medical underpinning reflective of his time in medical school along with his educational background in literature and biological anthropology. Several of his novels have been adapted to film, and while we live in an age of perpetual reboots, one that I will not complain about is Crichton’s 1973 fantasy/sci-fi thriller Westworld.

The manner in which HBO creators Lisa Joy and husband Jonathan Nolan have elevated the film by creating a sleek, empowering, and thought-provoking narrative consisting of various layers revolving around morality, artificial intelligence, and technology is an exemplary blueprint on how to approach a remake. While there are basic similarities to the original, the new blood pumped into the hosts of Westworld provides significantly deeper, more complex themes that would surely make Crichton smile if he were still alive today. However, none of us would be as sufficiently entertained as we eagerly head into season two had it not been for the impact of the original film.

In 1969, a novel about an infectious alien virus entitled The Andromeda Strain became a national bestseller that propelled Crichton into a world-wide brand which led to a film adaptation in 1971, earning two Oscar nominations. His transition from novel to silver screen continued, and in 1973 he made his directorial debut with Westworld. The animatronic robots in Disneyland along with a visit to the Kennedy Space Center inspired the futuristic storyline of an adult theme park called Delos, populated with androids eventually malfunctioning and attacking their guests. While observing astronaut training at the space center, Crichton was fascinated that these people were essentially being trained as machines by making their physical responses as predictable as possible. Conversely, machines can be altered to appear as human, like the animatronic Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address in Disneyland. He stated his inspiration derived from “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.” This subsequent obscurity between man and machine set the stage for the androids gone awry and the human motives behind their creation.

In the film, Delos is comprised of three worlds or “resorts” in which guests can freely act out their most deviant desires: Medieval World, Roman World, and Westworld. The movie follows two main characters. Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin), a rookie Delos visitor, and his friend John Blane (James Brolin), a veteran visitor, who choose to stay primarily in Westworld while the film occasionally cuts to the other resorts with lesser story impact. The robots in Delos are specifically engineered to pleasure and please their unruly guests, allowing them to live out their ultimate fantasies.They do not resist the human customers who pay a hefty fee of $1,000 per day to carry out their diabolic delights in which normal society requires them to typically suppress. They are merely props that interact with guests to appease their carnal pleasures while staff members repair the androids’ damaged bodies each night in a hospital-like environment before placing them back into the park.

Westworld was revolutionary for the sci-fi film genre for a few different reasons. Before there was RoboCop’s Omni Consumer Products (OCP), Blade Runner’s Tyrell Corporation, or The Terminator’s Cyberdyne Systems, there was Delos Incorporated. It set the stage for the evil hegemony subgenre where corporations comprised of businessmen and scientists weaponize technology spawning from their abhorrent greed and egomaniacal indifference. The film was also the first to utilize CGI technology in order to convey the perception of the movie’s antagonist, a robotic gunslinger dressed in all black, played by actor Yul Brynner. The digital image processing revealed the android’s point of view and also influenced shots used in The Terminator franchise. On the Halloween DVD commentary, director John Carpenter even references The Gunslinger as direct inspiration for Michael Myers’ stealthy walk and inability to be killed. Additionally, the concept of a computer virus spreading throughout the park, invading the robots, and causing their coding to malfunction was well before its time. Referred to as an “infection” in the film, it wasn’t until the 1980’s when the first actual computer virus made headlines.

Maverick contributions aside, Crichton’s film earned nominations for Saturn, Nebula, and Hugo awards, making it MGM’s biggest box office success that year. A sequel entitled Futureworld was released in 1976, adding the new park Spa World providing a service to reduce pain and eliminate old age for guests. It wasn’t well received. Later, there was a 1980 TV series entitled Beyond Westworld that failed so miserably it was canceled after three episodes. A remake of Westworld had been in the works since 1990 before it debuted on HBO in 2016. With Joy, Nolan, and executive producer J.J. Abrams at the helm, the park and its characters received superb updates, flourishing in aspects where the original was severely deficient.

Crichton’s Westworld lacks depth in its characters and is told from the perspective of the human guests, whereas the viewpoint of the remake belongs to the hosts or robots. When the androids malfunction in 1973, it is merely a technical issue as opposed to a shift towards consciousness and free will. They never gradually become sentient or even remotely human with feelings of pain, guilt, love, or loyalty. It is primarily combat driven to the point of camp and does not explore the deeper complexities of what it means to be human. The women are sexual toys and play no vital role in the narrative, the focus clearly seen through a male lens. In stark contrast, the women of the new Westworld are phoenixes in their own right, subjected to the horrors of rape, murder, and savage assault who begin to write their own narratives and take control of themselves and the world around them. Video games are a large influence in the show’s development with heavy emphasis on control and dissociation with a majority of the guests viewing the robots as mere objects designed for sick entertainment. Writers on the show craftily sprinkle an abundant amount of motifs, allusions, easter eggs, and symbolism which drive themes of agency, blurred reality, feminism, and morality with razor-sharp intrigue.

The philosophical implications of the new Westworld expand on the original’s concept, all while paying homage to Crichton’s original. It is also fitting that the first film to process imagery by a computer inspired an entire sci-fi subgenre of evil corporations mass producing androids that threaten the division between man, machine, and God. Thanks to the 1973 film’s influence, “these violent delights have violent ends” maintain an enthralling viewing experience, also igniting a desire that encourages viewers to ultimately write our own narratives, while embracing the beautiful and flawed mechanisms that make us human after all.