Saturday, March 18, 2017

Stubs - Westworld

Westworld (1973) Starring Yul Brynner, Richard Benjamin, James Brolin. Directed by Michael Crichton. Written by Michael Crichton. Produced by Paul N. Lazarus III. 88 minutes. U.S. Color, Science Fiction, Western.

By the 1970s, MGM was no longer the dream factory it had previously been. Kirk Kerkorian had purchased the studio in 1969 and was more interested in using the name for a Casino in Las Vegas than in making films. He placed James Aubrey “The Smiling Cobra” as the head of production and Aubrey went out of his way to change the culture at the studio. The Thalberg Building, named after the former production head, was renamed the Administration Building. He introduced a production budget cap and canceled two high-profile productions, Tai-Pan, which was supposed to have been produced by Martin Ransohoff and Carlo Ponti, and Man’s Fate, which was supposed to be directed by Fred Zinneman.

In 1970, the great MGM auction took place, selling off props, costumes, cars, and boats used in past MGM productions. The MGM British studio, the foreign theaters, and the MGM camera department were all shuttered. The famous MGM backlots were all sold off. A litany of filmmakers such as Paul Mazursky, Robert Altman, Blake Edwards and Sam Peckinpah all had negative experiences with the new regime.

Daniel Melnick was hired in 1972 to help turn things around, but there was only so much he could do with Aubrey still in charge. Three notable films would be axed at MGM and find their way to Universal: The Sting, American Grafitti, and Jaws.

It was into this mess that Westworld came about. The screenplay, written by noted author Michael Crichton, was shopped around to all the majors and subsequently turned down by all the majors. Only MGM’s Melnick was willing to take a chance. Crichton was aware of the studio’s reputation but assured by Melnick that the production wouldn’t be subjected to the MGM treatment. Still, the studio demanded changes to the script up until the first day of production and the stars weren’t committed until 48 hours before. Crichton had no say on casting and MGM still kept a tight rein on the budget.
Production would begin on March 5, 1973, last 30 days and take place at such diverse locations as the Mojave Desert, the Harold Lloyd Estate, MGM sound stages, the Sherwood Lake Ranch and on the Warner Bros. backlot.

The film takes place sometime in the future and opens with an ad by a company called Delos, which offers vacationers a choice between three distinct and gigantic theme parks: Westworld, Medieval World and Roman World. For $1000 a day, tourists are invited to indulge their fantasies of living in the past.

The film opens with an ad from Delos "The Vacation of the Future".

The three theme parks are located far from civilization and reached by a hovercraft ride across the desert land. It is on this trip that we’re introduced to Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin) and John Blane (James Brolin). Peter, we learn, is a recently divorced lawyer and is going at the recommendation of John, who has already made the trip to Westworld. John explains to Peter that the worlds are inhabited by robots in human form. In fact, they are so lifelike that the only way to tell them apart is by their hands, which Delos has not yet perfected.

After the hovercraft lands, tourists are segregated by their final destinations. John, Peter and a banker (Dick Van Patten) arrive at Westworld and are immediately outfitted with clothes, hats, and six-guns. They arrive in the park by way of a stagecoach and are taken to their rooms in the Grand Hotel. Peter complains about their accommodations, but John assures him this is realistic to how they were in the 1880s West.

Friends Peter (Richard Benjamn) and John (James Brolin) get to pretend to be cowboys.

Their first stop is a local saloon, where John orders whiskey. Peter originally orders a Vodka martini, but John corrects him. The whiskey is harsh-tasting, but Peter pours himself a second belt. But before he can drink it, the Gunslinger (Yul Brynner) bumps into him, causing him to spill it. Peter is mad and John encourages him to shoot the Gunslinger. The Gunslinger continues to taunt him until Peter decides he’s had enough and gets into a shootout with him, supposedly killing him.

The Gunslinger (Yul Brynner) taunts Peter.

After dinner at the hotel, John and Peter end up at a brothel, where they pair off with prostitutes. At first, Peter is reluctant to have sex with her but changes his mind when his prostitute, Daphne (Anne Randall), takes off her clothes and gets in bed with him.

After dinner, Peter beds Daphne (Anne Randall), a robot prostitute.

In the dead of night, as vacationers sleep, technicians come through the park collecting the robots who have been shot and/or need refurbishment. The bodies are taken to an underground lab where they are repaired. The Chief Supervisor (Alan Oppenheimer) is alarmed by the recent and growing number of robot malfunctions.

The Chief Supervisor (Alan Oppenheimer) is concerned about growing robot malfunctions.

The next morning, while Peter is taking a bath, the Gunslinger enters their hotel room. Peter hears him threatening John, breaks down the door and shoots the Gunslinger repeatedly until he falls back through the window and falls to the street below. Even though John will testify that Peter shot the Gunslinger in self-defense, the sheriff (Terry Wilson) jails him until the hanging judge comes through town next week.

The Gunslinger enters their hotel room and threatens John.

But John has different plans. He sends an Indian girl into the jail with a plate of food for Peter. Under the covering cloth is a bomb, which Peter uses to blast his way out. John is waiting outside with a pair of horses. After shooting the Sheriff, the two ride out of town acting like they are desperados. While they discuss going back into town, a rattlesnake robot attacks John. That’s not supposed to happen and the technicians are duly alarmed when a guest has been hurt.

John and Peter shake off the incident and go to the bar and get involved in a knock down drag out bar fight between robots and guests, though there don’t appear to be any malfunctions this time.

That night while the technicians work on the robots, the Gunslinger’s optics and sound perception are upgraded.

The Gunslinger is taken apart at night and his optics are examined.

But the robots continue to malfunction. Over in Medieval World, a guest posing as a knight (Norman Bartold) has his sexual advances rejected by the server girl robot, Daphne again. When they bring her in for examination, they can find no evidence of malfunction.

Daphne shows up again in Medieval World.

But things go from bad to worse, when the same guest knight is challenged to a duel by the Black Knight robot (Michael Mikler) and killed.

The technicians panic and shut down the power grid, but many of the robots run on batteries and are not affected. However, the technicians can’t turn the grid back on and find themselves trapped; the doors and life-support for them also run on the electric grid and so they are trapped and running out of oxygen.

Peter and John wake up in the bar from the night before and start to make their way back to the Grand Hotel. But on the way, they encounter the Gunslinger in the deserted streets. Neither is in the mood for a gunfight, but John takes this one. This time, though, he is actually shot in the heart and Peter watches helplessly as his friend dies in the streets.

The Gunslinger shoots ...
... and kills John, while Peter watches.

Peter makes a run for it and takes a horse and rides out into the desert. The Gunslinger follows after him on his own horse.

The technicians themselves are trapped with the heat rising, no oxygen and little hope. All around the Delos complex, the robots are out of control and visitors are being slaughtered.

Peter comes across a technician (Steve Franken) stranded in the desert and tries to get some help, but the technician is far from encouraging. With the Gunslinger’s upgraded audio and visuals, he basically tells Peter that acid might blind the Gunslinger, but there is little hope to make it out alive.

Peter rides off and the technician, who is trying to fix his vehicle, is shot dead by the Gunslinger. Peter continues to ride until he leaves Westworld and ends up in Medieval World. Trying to use the creek bed to hide his trail, Peter only momentarily slows down the Gunslinger. When he arrives in Medieval World, Peter finds that there are only the dead bodies of guests lying about. Running looking for some place to hide, he comes across a capped entrance to an underground tunnel. Peter pries off the heavy lid and climbs down the ladder, but because he couldn’t put the lid back, you know it’s only a matter of time before the Gunslinger finds him.

The Gunslinger relentlessly follows Peter into Medieval World.

Peter finds the control room and sees through the still-locked door that all the technicians are dead.
The Gunslinger, using his thermal optics, follows Peter’s footsteps to the tunnel and also descends into the corridors below.

Peter ends up underground and where the robots were repaired as he runs from the Gunslinger.

Peter can hear him coming and keeps running. In the lab where they work on the robots, and where the lights are still on for some reason, Peter finds various jars of acid. Grabbing one of the bottles, Peter lies down on one of the operating tables and pretends to be a robot. When the Gunslinger senses him, Peter throws the acid into to the robot’s face.

The acid bath only slows down the Gunslinger.

While the robot is temporarily incapacitated, Peter runs on, entering the banquet room of Medieval World. There we see the immobilized robots and the dead tourist knight. When the Gunslinger arrives, his vision is affected and the torches on the wall help to hide Peter from his thermal reads.

Peter senses the Gunslinger’s weakness and when he charges, sets the Gunslinger on fire with one of the torches. Continuing into the dungeon, Peter hears a woman’s cry for help. After setting her free, he offers her a cup of water, which she tries to refuse. But Peter insists and the woman shorts out; she was a robot.

The Gunslinger, now charred by fire, reappears and makes one more try for Peter. But he falls instead. Even though the Gunslinger tries to get up, his face plate now gone, it’s finally over.

Westworld was released on November 21, 1973, and ended up being MGM’s biggest film of that year, eventually earning $10 million at the box-office. There would be a sequel, Futureworld (1976), released by American International Pictures and once again starring Yul Brynner. There was also a TV Series Beyond Westworld, but it only last five episodes in 1980 before being canceled.

Warner Bros. has been planning a remake of the film since 2007, but so far that hasn’t come to fruition. But in the never-give-up-on-a-failed-concept approach, a new TV Series, Westworld, has been airing to great praise on HBO, but then again almost everything on HBO gets high praise.

Even though Yul Brynner gets top-billing, his Gunslinger character is little more than an homage to his character Chris Adams in The Magnificent Seven (1960). In fact, the costume he wears here is a near duplicate to what he wore in that film. He has very few lines and is about as one-dimensional as a character can get.

Westworld is a precursor to Michael Crichton’s biggest novel to film, Jurassic Park (1993), turned into a movie by Steven Spielberg. Both stories deal with a futuristic amusement park that carries with it a sense of controlled danger for tourists and for which the safeguards fail. In both, the loss of power stymies the control room and unleashes a bloodbath of destruction by a seemingly unstoppable foe. Make the Gunslinger into a Velociraptor and you’re halfway to Jurassic Park.

Another thing both films have in common is the use of digital image processing; in fact, Westworld was the first film to use the technique to pixelate photography to simulate an android's point of view. Computer Graphics, to which this is a forerunner, would be used to greater effect recreating dinosaurs next to live-action human actors in Jurassic Park.

Westworld is one of those films you need to see so that you can get the allusions made to it in other films and TV shows. The Simpsons, as an example, have used the androids run amok when the family visits Itchy and Scratchy Land.

On its own, it is an interesting mashup of genres. Old West meets Sci-Fi had been tried before, but the idea seemed fresh when the film was first released. Not that the film is worth going out of your way to watch, but it does make for a mostly entertaining hour and a half.

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