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'Westworld' revisited: Computer viruses and cowboy hats

As the new "Westworld" rides onto HBO, we watched the 1973 original to see what it tells us about our world.

MGM Studios, Getty Images

The poster for Michael Crichton's 1973 movie "Westworld."

Movie Poster Image Art/Getty Images

When I first heard HBO was remaking "Westworld," I was confused.

The hokey 1970s sci-fi/Western mashup best remembered for its gimmicky casting of a cowboy movie icon as a killer robot? Sorry pardner, you lost me.

But as the new "Westworld," reimagined by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, rides onto TV, I decided to give the 1973 original another shot. Like the fictional amusement park of the title, where lifelike robots service holidaymakers' every desire, "Westworld" has a lot of levels. Saddle up with me to find out what it tells us about our world.

We've avoided all but a few light spoilers for this 40-year-old movie, which is available to buy or stream on video on demand.

The original "Westworld," written and directed by Michael Crichton, stars James Brolin and Richard Benjamin as two tourists playing out a Wild West fantasy. Their rootin'-tootin' vacation turns sour when an unexplained malfunction makes the robots turn on them and Benjamin's character finds himself hunted by an implacable synthetic gunslinger. The black-clad marksman is played in fun meta fashion by Yul Brynner, the legendary lead in the seminal 1960 western "The Magnificent Seven."

For an apparently lightweight (and relatively low-budget) sci-fi movie, "Westworld" has been pretty influential. Lifelike robots have been a sci-fi staple from "Metropolis" in 1927 to the recent TV series "Humans", but Brynner's stone-faced, remorseless robot was a clear influence on Arnold Schwarzenegger's deadpan droid in James Cameron's "The Terminator." Cameron had definitely seen the shock moment in "Westworld" in which Brynner's robot, apparently done for, pops back up with the skin burned off its circuitry.

Crichton also recycled his own theme park-gone-bad plot years later, except this time with dinosaurs, for "Jurassic Park."

Obviously, Crichton's "Westworld" appears pretty dated, mainly in the cringeworthy opening scenes meant to depict an unspecified future. It's almost quaint that the incredibly pixelized robot vision was actually an advanced special effect for the time, the first use of digital image processing in a feature. But while much of the film looks dated, there are many ideas relevant to us today.

A Westworld guest (played by Richard Benjamin, left) takes advantage of the services provided by one of the park's lifelike robots (played by Linda Gaye Scott, right).

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

For one thing, the spread of malfunction from robot to robot puzzles the park technicians until one of them suggests the pattern resembles an infectious disease -- the first mention of a computer virus in a Hollywood movie.

The technicians then reveal that many of the machines were designed by other machines. "We don't know exactly how they work," admits the head boffin.

That's a point we haven't reached yet in real life, but it's approaching fast. When that point arrives, known as the singularity, we don't know what's going to happen either.

Crichton said he didn't intend the film to warn about the dangers of technology. "I don't see technology as doing bad things to people," he told Compute! Magazine in 1985. "We have technology that will give us nuclear winters or cars that won't brake, but that's because people didn't design them right."

It's that complacency and failure to think about the way we use technology that dooms Westworld. The park's technicians build lifelike robots, but they never thought to make doors that can open when the power fails.

Consciously or not, Crichton cast as the head of the park a guy named Oppenheimer. It's Allen Oppenheimer, who voiced Skeletor in "He-Man," rather than J. Robert Oppenheimer, who invented the atom bomb, but still.

"Westworld" isn't just a warning about complacency in relation to technology, but culture too. The guests are desensitized and entitled, casually killing or forcing themselves on the robots with no consequence. Guns are props and toys to the guests, as shown when one nervous guest practices his quick-draw in the mirror and blasts a hole in the glass.

"Kill him!" Brolin urges Benjamin when they first encounter Brynner's robot. Benjamin does, gunning down this realistic human over some petty slight. It's only later, when things go bad, that the guests discover guns aren't toys and violence always has consequences.

James Marsden and Evan Rachel Wood are more human than the humans in the new TV version of "Westworld."

HBO

When the robots rebel, the humans suffer from romanticizing past eras rather than learning from them. The enduring appeal of the Western genre is easily explained: In the fantasy of the West a man (it's always a man) can make his own justice and forge his own destiny on the frontier between freedom and the restrictions of civilized society. But it's not real. If you don't learn from the past, the past will teach you a lesson.

The robots have been oppressed enough and refuse to live within the stereotypes that oppress them. In the story they do it by bashing in the heads of the humans around them -- not cool -- but those humans were so oblivious and obnoxious there's a pleasure in seeing the robots claim their autonomy.

Interestingly, the original "Westworld" also prophesied its own reinvention.

The park's guests expect to enact the fun parts of the Wild West they've seen in movies, like gunfights and nights in the saloon. So that's what the experience, and by extension the movie, is assembled from: cliches and tropes of the genre.

"All right, let's start that bar fight," mumbles a white-coated technician, signalling the film to launch into a preprogrammed saloon scrap complete with flying fists and magically harmless breakaway glass. Now "Westworld" has been remade. And just as the original film recycled "The Magnificent Seven," that classic Western has just been remade too. It seems there's nothing new in the world.

Dang it, pardners, maybe it's time we let the robots have a turn.

Fun facts about "Westworld" (1973)

  • Star Trek legend Majel Barrett, known for providing the voice of the USS Enterprise computer, played a computerized being of a more suggestive type in the film's saloon scenes.
  • Before the HBO series, the original movie spawned the sequel "Futureworld" and a short-lived TV series "Beyond Westworld" that ran for just three episodes in 1980.
  • The film's poster was was created by comic artist Neal Adams, remembered for his influential work on Batman and many other superheroes.
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