Double Review: "Westworld" (1973) and "Futureworld" (1976)
I've gotten so hooked on HBO's newest hit TV show, "Westworld", that I knew the time had come to sit down and check out the source material and see how it all stacks up. The answer? Beautifully. It stacks up beautifully.
Older movies (and in particular 1970's movies) have a vibe to them that is unbeatable when it comes to making you feel the time and place that they're made in. The 1970's were such a unique era in terms of dress, lingo, overall style, et cetera that the "wow" factor is doubled. When you're talking about science fiction you start getting into that class of films like Logan's Run, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, THX 1138, and Star Wars that relied heavily on sets with tons of blinking lights and sliding doors. Apparently that was the height of what we could imagine as futuristic in the Nixon years.
But, I digress. 1973's "Westworld" stars a very young James Brolin ("The Amityville Horror") and Richard Benjamin ("Catch 22") as two guests at the new Delos resort, a theme park of the future, populated by robots, where you can partake is custom scenarios at one of three time periods- Romanworld, Medievalworld, and Westworld. Here in these richly done settings you can live out your fantasies. Feel free to save the damsel in distress or be the damsel in distress. You can fuck all the prostitutes you want or be the bad guy and shoot up the saloon if you like. The inhabitants are, after all, just robots that are programmed to do what you wish. They are monitored by storytellers who make sure you have the experience you want. At the end of every night teams come in to clean up the mess and send the robots back to home for surgery and repairs. What could go wrong? Right?
Westworld was originally a book by the legendary Michael Crichton ("Jurassic Park" series, "The Andromeda Strain"). Once you spend a few minutes in this world you can just see the idea for that dinosaur park floating around his brain. You can't help but smile. Crichton was wildly fixated on the idea that mankind's arrogance would lead him into these kinds of audacious endeavors and then screw them all up. It's downright prophetic, really.
Already you can see that things are starting to go wrong at the park when Peter and John kill a rude gunslinger (played with dripping, silent malice by Yul Brynner) in a chance bar encounter. The next day that gunslinger is back for revenge (which isn't supposed to happen as the bots have their memories wiped clean daily). He's dealt with again.........but he comes back. And back. And back.
Only a legend like Yul Brynner ("The Magnificent Seven", "The Ten Commandments") could play that part so deftly without ever really spitting any dialogue. I hope James Cameron gives credit to that character and this movie for being the forerunner to the inspired menace of the liquid metal T-1000 from Terminator 2. It's near plagiarism. No bullshit.
Pretty soon all hell is breaking loose at all three of the parks and control is gone. It's done with flair and style. The deaths are surprisingly violent (especially in terms of the rather liberal usage of that uber-bright 3M stage blood). No one is safe. The ending comes full circle back to the root of the problem, so to speak.
In short, "Westworld" is a perfect example of what is right about remakes / reboots / reimaginings. It's a classic of it's time, but there is so much fertile ground to mine and HBO realized that and capitalized on it. It had also been long enough (43 years!) that a remake didn't seem hasty or unnecessary, but this movie would stand on it's own 2 feet without any new material.
Sure, there are plot holes in the areas of decision making and overall crisis logic, but I feel that shouldn't stop you from enjoying a good time. They call it "suspension of disbelief" for a reason. I give the original "Westworld" a solid 7.5/10.
Which brings us to the 1976 sequel, "Futureworld"...............
I had no idea what to expect out of this one. I was aware, even as a kid, of "Westworld". It was a pretty big movie in it's day, pulling in over $10 million at the box office (against a budget of $1.25 million). I have to confess I had never heard of "Futureworld" at all (let alone as a sequel) until I was done watching "Westworld" and it came up as a recommendation on Amazon Prime. I was stoked, especially since it was free.
I was not disappointed. "Futureworld" is set several years after the debacle of the original Westworld (and Delos at large) that resulted in the deaths of over 50 park guests. Delos, however, has persevered and is reopening. The Westworld attraction has been replaced by Futureworld, which is themed as life in outer space. The buzz is huge and people are flocking to the new park in spite of what happened in the past.
Peter Fonda ("Easy Rider") and Blythe Danner ("The Great Santini") star as a pair of reporters being offered a chance to go see the new park in all it's splendor. Tracy Ballard (Danner) is a huge TV star looking for a little fluff piece on the new robot paradise. Chuck Browning (Fonda) is a grizzled, small-time investigative reporter who is convinced that trouble is around the corner at the new park. Both have a history together and good natural chemistry.
Ballard and Browning are given what they are led to believe is the "run of the place", including a trip back to the abandoned and defunct Westworld. Their guides shifty behavior makes it apparent that not all is as it seems, & Browning cannot resist wandering off at every available opportunity to snoop around where he shouldn't be. What he discovers is a threat to not only the guests of the park but mankind as a whole. He has to blow the lid off of this thing once and for all.
I'm going to have to confess to liking this one more than the original. It's got the best elements of The Manchurian Candidate and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The well played comedic timing between Danner and Fonda is right on point. The score is pitch perfect- wonky and weird when it's needed and deadly intense when the mood changes. There's a smaller part in Harry, the old service tech (played by Rockford Files regular Stuart Margolin), that steals the show with his relationship with his faceless robot companion, Clark. John P. Ryan as the evil park supervisor is fittingly vilainous. The other guests are zany and nonsensical and beautifully stereotypical.
The detective work and ensuing drama are well played and appropriately tense, but the charm that shines through this kitschy little mid-70's gem will win you over. There's genuine character establishment and it never feels preordained. I give it an 8/10.
If you can watch the two as a pair then do so........it's like pairing a mid-range Scotch and steak served on a hunter green dinner plate you pulled the foil off of after removing it from a harvest gold colored electric range. Just don't drop any on the shag carpet.