From: Subject: Date: April 21, 2005 3:53:51 PM CDT Hankblog

Monday, April 19, 2004

Movie Retrospectives: Machines Gone Bad

It's always a dangerous moment when a person has a chance to turn fantasy into reality. There's always the question of whether fantasy will translate into reality successfully. What does the person do if it fails to live up to the ideal? What if the fantasy turns ugly? In the case of Westworld, the more pertinent question is "What happens when it turns deadly?"

In the not too distant future, Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin) and John Blane (James Brolin) are two businessmen who are leaving for a vacation at a resort called Delos. Delos is comprised of three different "worlds": Westworld, Romanworld, and Medievalworld. Each area recreates with almost flawless detail an environment consistent with the theme of its particular world. It could be thought of as a sort of adult Disneyland.

Instead of rides, however, the illusion of each world is further enhanced by a variety of cyborgs that interact with the resort's guests. In this way, each guest has an opportunity to live out whatever fantasy they desire. If you want to slay the Black Knight and marry a princess, Medievalworld is your ticket. If you want to be a desperado, and throw down with gunslingers, head to Westworld. The cyborgs are designed to respond to and fulfill the whim of every guest, whether they desire to be adored, worshipped, or loved, physically or emotionally.

Naturally because of the potential for harm to their clients, the people who run Delos have safety measures built in to protect the guests. Guns read heat patterns in Westworld as signs of human life and will not fire. And the cyborgs are programmed with weaknesses that are supposed to prevent them from harming guests. When something goes wrong, the cyborgs turn on their human masters, and all hell breaks loose.

Though most people today know Michael Crichton as an author who preaches against the dangers of technology (most famously in Jurrasic Park, which turned into one of the all time box office champions), in the case of Westworld, he served double duty as both scriptwriter and director. Though he won't be mistaken for the next Hitchcock, he acquitted himself decently with this sci-fi suspense yarn. A good amount of the credit goes to the cast.

Benjamin provides a good role as Martin, an amiable attorney who is getting over a bad divorce. Brolin's Blane is obviously not just someone who has been to Delos before, but somewhat of a more worldly figure. He has clearly brought Martin to Delos to try and forget about life for a while. Martin is very reluctant to come out of his shell at first. It takes some prodding by Blane to get Martin to really immerse himself in the illusion. Blane finally convinces Martin to go head to head with a menacing gunslinger played by Yul Brenner (appearing if I'm not mistaken in the same costume he wore in The Magnificent Seven). When Martin kills off the gunslinger, his confidence grows almost exponentially over the course of the next couple of days. It serves him well when the robots go haywire, and Benjamin finds himself running for his life from Brenner's cyborg.

Watching this movie actually should call to mind another film that I'll be writing up this week, The Terminator. Brenner's Gunslinger would appear to have influenced the performance of Schwarzenneger's Terminator in the way both have a single minded relentlessness in their pursuit of their quarry. Brenner looks and moves like a human in all respects, but there's a cold steel look to his eyes that served him well in Magnificent Seven as it does here. The only thing that really isn't all that believable is the way Benjamin plays scared on the run. It's a little too calm for the insane nature of the situation, in my opinion.

That doesn't detract too much from the overall picture though. It's still an entertaining, tense picture. It also proves more than a bit prescient. The technicians at Delos early in the film start tracking a series of malfunctions in the robots. They describe it as following some kind of vector similar to a human illness. But they know that machines don't get sick, and can't infect one another as people can. In an era when work productivity can be brought to a screeching halt by a computer virus, it's interesting to see how accurately Crichton portrayed the trajectory of computer viruses well ahead of their time.

There's also an amusing connection in the casting to another futuristic society. When Brolin and Benjamin visit a Westworld brothel, it's run by a robot Madame named Miss Carrie. Miss Carrie is played by Majel Barrett, known better to sci-fi geeks as the wife of Gene Rodenberry, and the voice of the Enterprise's computer on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Considering how often that show had episodes that featured a malfunction on the ship's holodeck, Crichton wound up foreseeing the future on two fronts :-).

Tomorrow, we'll take a look at the Gunslinger's future cousin in James Cameron's The Terminator.