A lone figure sits atop his horse, his all-black ensemble stark against the brightness of the horizon; slowly he surveys the rocky landscape before him searching for his prey. The camera shifts and the audience can see the world from his perspective – a pixelated view of the desert before him. Zooming closer a blurred shape moves out from behind some rocks across the top of the cliff. The figure takes aim but before he can fire, the shape is gone.
The scene sounds as though it should feature in The Terminator or Predator. In fact the film predates both films -11 years in the case of the former and 14 in the case of Predator– and in many ways helped to define them as well as countless other works that would follow. The film in question is Michael Crichton’s seminal work, Westworld.
In the past few weeks Westworld has stepped back into the limelight thanks to HBO’s new TV series based on the original film and starring Evan Rachel Wood and Anthony Hopkins. The show is indeed excellent, successfully managing to capture the spirit of the source material while also expanding on its core themes in order to create a unique and complex experience.
However brilliant the series may be, one must not fail to acknowledge Crichton’s original film. Not just because it is a deeply underappreciated classic that deserves far more attention than it has received, but also because of the impact it had on the science-fiction genre.
The premise of Westworld is simple and not all that dissimilar to the HBO series – a futuristic theme park allows the rich elite of the world to fulfill their fantasies in one of three themed areas: Medieval World, Roman World and West World. The park is populated with androids that exist to serve the guests and indulge their every whim, be it sexual, violent or otherwise. The androids themselves are almost identical to the human guests save for a few tell-tale signs – the hands are low-resolution gloves compared to the rest of the body and the eyes possess a glint akin to a mirror (a trick later imitated by Blade Runner). As is to be expected from such parks (including Crichton’s later and more famous work: Jurassic Park) things inevitably go wrong, and the androids turn on the guests and begin a murdering rampage.
Certainly the film is extremely dated now and the plot is not seem all that complex; the final act is effectively a chase sequence between the sole-surviving guest, Richard Benjamin and the relentless hunting machine simply known as ‘The Man in Black’ played by Yul Brynner – who in an interesting nod is dressed almost identically to his character from The Magnificent Seven. Despite this there is a simple beauty to Crichton’s narrative as the androids become aware of the dystopian cycle of death and servitude in which they exist and consequently rebel. It is a perfect example of soft science-fiction at its finest, internally focusing on societal issues of worker exploitation and technological advancement rather than maintaining an obsession with technical detail and scientific accuracy.
Moreover, the film is a superb marriage of science-fiction and western, a partnership that would continue to reappear throughout the following decades in the likes of Star Wars, Firefly and Cowboy Bebop. Like Star Wars, as well as many other science-fiction films from the time including Alien and 2001: A Space Odyssey, retrospective viewing highlights the beautiful coating of zeerust– the effect caused when something is designed to look futuristic but retrospectively looks extremely dated. The mixing of the genres means that the zeerust only helps to establish a deeply unique aesthetic that makes Westworld so refreshing to watch.
It is not just the mixing of genres that makes the film such a landmark piece of cinema, but also its use of special effects which was also deeply significant in influencing later works. Westworld featured the first use of computer digitised images in order to convey the point of view of androids, hence the scene described earlier. The process took eight hours to produce each ten seconds of the pixelated view with each frame being colour-separated and scanned in order to create a rectangular block with basic colour according to the tone values developed. This resulted in a mosaic of colour that excellently depicted the androids’ pixelated view. The process would come to define the genre with countless films incorporating similar effects, such as the red view of the T-800 in The Terminator and the deeply analytical view of the titular character in Robocop. Although these films used different styles and effects, the premise began with Westworld.
A similar first for special effects would appear in the sequel, Futureworld which featured the first use of 3D CGI to display a hand and face on a computer. Sadly however that is perhaps the only redeemable feature of the film and it should be avoided at all costs.
Undeniably Westworld helped to pave the way for science-fiction as we know it and deserves a far greater level of respect than it has. By all means, enjoy the HBO series, but I implore you to watch the film too. In doing so one gains a greater understanding of the lore and history of the park and can thus appreciate certain references and homages. Perhaps most importantly though, one will gain a far greater appreciation of science-fiction in general, seeing where so many common tropes originated. You will not be disappointed.