Westworld's TV twists were hidden in Futureworld all along
The original movie's 1976 sequel Futureworld is a bit rubbish, but it did make CGI history -- and it holds the key to the new TV show's secrets.
Richard TrenholmFormer Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
Hit television show
is a remake of an iconic '70s sci-fi movie, but the keys to the show's mind-bending twists can actually be found hidden in the original film's much-maligned sequel: Futureworld.
The original 1973 movie Westworld, which told the story of a theme park populated by
, was a huge hit. It influenced everything from the Terminator movies to, ultimately, today's HBO TV reboot. Unfortunately the original film's sequel Futureworld, released in 1976 with almost none of the previous stars or creative team involved, was a critical and commercial flop.
Watching it now, Futureworld sorely lacks the impact of Yul Brynner's terrifying central performance as the first film's robot gunslinger. But while the original movie was driven primarily by the dangers within the park, Futureworld instead focuses on the sinister goings-on behind the scenes. And the TV show's creators Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan clearly took note of the mostly forgotten sequel as well as the celebrated original, because you can see Futureworld's plot points foreshadowing the big secrets and reveals that unfolded in Westworld season 1 and hinted at for season 2.
If you want to watch Westworld season 1 or even check out the original movies, we won't go too much into specifics of either. But the following could be considered spoilers, so you have been warned...
It may have been a flop, but Futureworld can claim a few interesting firsts. The original Westworld was the first movie to use computer processing to digitally pixelate an image, and the sequel Futureworld was the first to feature 3D digital imagery.
Scenes showing robots being designed include computer-generated animation of a hand. That rudimentary CG hand was digitally rendered from images of a real hand belonging to none other than Ed Catmull -- the co-founder of Pixar. So the cutting-edge CG visual effects used in modern films and TV, from Toy Story to the Westworld remake itself, can be traced back to Futureworld.
Futureworld begins in a not-very-futuristic-looking 1985, a few years after the Westworld massacre. The sprawling Delos theme park has reopened, and although the western-themed section is now an abandoned no-horse town, several other parks are once again entertaining rich tourists with a heady blend of sex and violence visited on unfeeling robots. "I heard once you make it with a robot chick you don't ever want nothin' else!" crows an excited guest.
This reopening of Futureworld echoes one of the big reveals in the TV show. Humans are so awful. I spent much of the first season of Westworld wondering when the robotic hosts were going to go full Brynner. Then we learned something terrible had already happened in the park's past.
Another twist in the TV show was that we couldn't trust which characters were human and which were artificial hosts. That's a big part of Futureworld, which is staffed by robot technicians and is underpinned by a conspiracy involving artificial duplicates.
The plot sees squabbling reporters Blythe Danner and Peter Fonda invited to Delos for an all-access look at how smoothly the place is running. Fonda's wide-lapelled beige corduroy suits and Danner's bouffant laughably date Futureworld, but there's still a few prescient moments: Danner taunts Fonda's newspaper journalist as an "ink-stained neanderthal" working in a dying medium, foreshadowing the real struggles of the print industry in the age of the Internet.
Meanwhile, it's revealed that he was previously her boss and slept with her when she was a rookie reporter, the sort of sexual misconduct and abuse of power today's #MeToo revelations show to be all too common.
The film was released in the same year as All The President's Men, with Fonda's shaggy hack ripping off Robert Redford's dogged newshound. Instead of a sci-fi thriller, Futureworld is essentially a post-Watergate conspiracy story of lies and leaks and undeclared corporate influence with technology knobs on, and you only have to look at today's headlines to see how that never goes out of style.
While there's precious little in the way of rampaging robots, our heroes do at one point find themselves menaced by some angry AIs. They're chased by three snarling samurai-like robots from a planned Japan-themed park -- who look set to be resurrected in the TV show as season 2 takes us to ShogunWorld.
It may not be considered as iconic as the first film, but Futureworld opens with an unnerving close-up of a human eye that's remarkably similar to the opening scene of 1982's Blade Runner. Maybe Futureworld was more influential than anyone knew...
Not much in Futureworld is as evocative as that eye filling the screen. There are a few eerie scenes of robots lying around blinking in an unsettlingly docile fashion as impassive technicians poke at their exposed innards, but it's mostly lemon-coloured furry spacesuits and enormous flares and a plot as fuzzy as the shag-carpeted sets.
Among the highlights though are a homoerotic subtext in the character of a technician whose only friend is a mute, faceless robot called Clark. "You develop a taste for the iron", says the technician wistfully. "People on the outside would never understand how it is with us," he intones meaningfully as he gazes upon his mandroid companion.
The most memorable moment, however, is a truly bizarre dream sequence. Danner's character is strapped into a machine that displays her dreams to the world, and so begins a deliriously weird sequence in which Yul Brynner is briefly roped in to reprise his role as the first film's deadly gunslinger. He once again sends hot lead flying, this time in hallucinatory slow motion. But he also pursues Danner through a creepy house of Dutch angles and forbidding corridors into a deliriously semi-erotic lasso-based bondage session recalling the phantasmagorical weirdness of Giallo horror cinema.
This brief and silly cameo is a waste of Brynner's presence -- especially as it was his last Hollywood film -- but then again, it's also absolutely hilarious. Here's the video: