Watching Westworld (1973)

Reporting from the “Far Stars and Tin Stars: Science Fiction and the Frontier” Conference in Carefree, Arizona: at the end of two days of activities, we finished the day off with a “Dive In Movie” poolside. A big projection screen was set up at the end of the pool, and to the accompaniment of the occasional shadowy figure passing across the screen (as children loved to run between the screen and the projector on their way from one side of the pool to the other), we watched the1973  film Westworld, written and directed by Michael Crichton.

Westworld is a western sci-fi thriller. The premise is that via android technology, a somewhat nefarious corporation offers customers the thrill of full immersion into a world of their choice—like Avatar without the avatars. Rather than virtual reality, humans physically enter a medieval castle adventure or an Old West town. The saloon girls, bank robbers, and gunslingers they encounter are all robots (or androids), indistinguishable from humans (except for the palms of their hands), but programmed to respond to the fantasy scenarios of the guests. Richard Benjamin and James Brolin star as two buddies who decide to spend a few days in Westworld enjoying saloon brawls and shootouts. Yul Brynner plays an android gunslinger, dressed in black and looking quite deadly.

If you know Michael Crichton’s work, Westworld is a kind of precursor to Jurassic Park, with androids rather than dinosaurs, and like Jurassic Park, Westworld is an amusement park where things go terribly wrong, and the guests become the prey of the creatures designed to amuse them. Brynner’s gunslinger goes after Benjamin and Brolin with deadly intent.  It’s interesting to see this film again, as I hadn’t realized how much it has influenced later SF films, especially The Terminator series. In one scene, Brynner’s Gunslinger follows Benjamin down an access tunnel. Filmed slightly from above, the shots of the Gunslinger walking steadily through the tunnel are repeated almost exactly in the second Terminator movie. Westworld is also a precursor to the Joss Whedon series Dollhouse, with scenes of technicians repairing/operating on the androids repeated in Dollhouse episodes. The difference is that where Westworld programs androids, Dollhouse programs actual people.

One of the things that has struck me during this conference is how close together the science fiction and western genres are. In part, that’s because science fiction, especially film and television, has consciously (and perhaps unconsciously) borrowed from the western, recasting its conventions in futuristic terms or resetting its encounters of self and other, cowboy and indian, in terms of spaceman and alien. However, it also strikes me that the genres are congruent because the western is already science fiction, already providing a narrative means of investigating the dangers and possibilities of new technologies (trains, guns, etc.). In the genre western, the landscape is often as fantastic and alien and harsh as, say, a Martian landscape. Also, a central figure in science fiction, the cyborg, part human and part machine, is already present in the western in the form of the gunslinger, whose connection to his weapon is often described as an extension of his body, as if man and gun are both part of the same being—a cyborg, in other words. Westworld‘s android Gunslinger makes that connection apparent, but Westworld only makes explicit what is already implicit in hundreds of descriptions of western gunslingers—that the machine and the man are already as one.

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