With HBOs highly-acclaimed new scifi show Westworld currently enjoying lashings of critical praise, whilst also consuming the tireless brains of hardcore fans determined to unearth the show’s underlying mythology, the gurus behind the film club Science Fiction Theatre felt the time was right to revisit the original 1973 film that HBO mined for its new series. One of the most committed and welcoming film clubs the Smoke Screen has had the honour of patronising, Science Fiction Theatre is a monthly science fiction film club run by The Space Merchants, an online bookshop specialising in vintage science fiction. Their film events explore and celebrate classic science fiction film and television, and screenings are enhanced by custom-designed posters (which can be bought online and at events) as well as takeaway items like stylised tickets (such as the Westworld-themed ticket the Smoke Screen picked up at their Westworld screening last Monday), programme notes, and there is the odd raffle too.
In the movie version of Westworld, which was written and directed by none other than Jurassic Park’s author Michael Crichton (note the “theme park gone bad” motif) businessman Blane (James Brolin) and lawyer Martin (Richard Benjamin) take a dream holiday to the newly opened technological paradise Westworld, a futuristic theme park offering its visitors all the thrills, but none of the dangers, of the old Wild West, which is recreated by supposedly harmless robots. However, when one of the computerized gunslingers (Yul Brynner) malfunctions, the two city slickers find themselves in a battle for their lives.
Fans keen to compare the movie to the television series will of course be unable to avoid the difference a few extra million dollars and an advanced CGI toolkit can make. HBO’s series simply has more technical oomph, and a multi-season order with HBO’s traditional hour-long episodes give the show’s creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy far more scope than Crichton’s film ever had to create a richly-detailed world of hosts and robots in a huge recreation of the old American west, whilst exploring the related themes and concerns more deeply. Yet, interestingly, HBO’s first season has so far limited itself to exploring only one park – the titular Westworld – whereas Crichton’s film features not only an old West setting, but the sybarite Roman World and Medieval Worlds too. Future HBO seasons might address this. And 1973s Westworld wasn’t exactly primitive when it was released, it does in fact feature some of the earliest use of computer-aided visual effects to create several pixellated robot POV shots.
Whilst Crichton’s film is a good deal of pulpy fun, ending in a quite memorable last act chase scene and squeezing in some commentary on the effect of unlimited power/ zero responsibility on humans on the side, HBO’s series took a leaf out of the Battlestar Galactica remake’s playbook and introduced the conceit of the robots having been designed to such an advanced level that they are developing their own self-awareness. Blade Runner levels of paranoia about who is human and ‘replicant’ are also in play, as HBO’s robots are all but indistinguishable from humans, and some have been programmed to think they are human. With this twist, HBO’s Westworld opens up whole new avenues to explore the moral/ethical minefield that the park has created. That being said, HBO’s show, for all its fine dressings, lacks a character with the poise and edge of the movie’s Yul Brynner, whose performance as the malfunctioning gunslinger allows just enough man into the machine to make you think this might be personal. In many ways he is the “first Terminator.”