Though known primarily for his novels, Michael Crichton made a name for himself in Hollywood not only through popular adaptations of his novels such as Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain but also by directing films himself for more than a decade. Westworld was both Crichton’s feature directorial debut (barring the ABC made-for-TV film Pursuit) and one of his earliest original screenplays. Plagued with production woes from the start, Westworld is largely renowned today as a major landmark in science-fiction cinema and an important advancement in film technology.
As David A. Price writes in this New Yorker piece, computer-generated imagery is commonplace at the movies these days. Star Wars gets a lot of the credit for sparking the technological revolution in Hollywood (although there have been a few technological advances since then), and it’s certainly true that the effects team behind that space saga deserves most of the commendation in which they bask. But if the question is where did all of this start? — Star Wars and Avatar and every other CGI-laden movie of the past thirty years — then the answer is almost certainly Westworld.
Like Crichton’s biggest hit Jurassic Park, the plot of Westworld revolves around a new-age theme park and the forward-thinking (read: rich) visitors who encounter something wholly other than the promised relaxation of vacation. Delos, the futuristic land of amusement billed in the commercial as The Vacation of the Future, TODAY, is actually three separate parks all built on the same premise. Those parks are Westworld, Roman World, and Medieval World, and that premise is the complete immersion of visitors into each of those time periods. Tourists in Roman World get to lounge in the shadow of an aqueduct with voluptuous women in togas; vacationers in Medieval World get to chomp on turkey legs, chug mead and swordfight the Black Knight; cowboy-wannabes in Westworld can strut around with their spurs and their chaps and shoot anyone who looks at them funny. Though the title of the film refers to the park where most of the action takes place, important things happen in all three regions of Delos.
The ringer is that the Delos Design Department has populated these fantasy worlds not with people but with lifelike androids, capable of walking and talking and lounging and swordfighting and looking at people funny. Just as things go haywire in Jurassic Park when the “attractions” start eating people, Westworld really picks up when the androids mysteriously malfunction. Yul Brynner plays a gunslinger in Westworld that, again, seems capable of anything a human is capable of — and that includes hunting and killing a mild-mannered vacationer. Also, yes, looking at people funny.
Seriously: android vision, it turns out, is different than human vision (now you know!) and Westworld‘s depiction of the world through the eyes of Yul’s gunslinger marks the very first time 2D computer-generated imagery was utilized in a feature film. The process of pixelization was both painstaking and expensive in 1973; as that New Yorker article linked above points out, the process is used nowadays for things as mundane as the bleeping of a mouth forming a curse word on a cooking show. The total use of the pixilated footage in Westworld is only around two minutes:
Not only did those two minutes push modern CGI out of the starting gate, but Crichton’s determination to include these sequences in spite of high cost, long effort, and immense pushback from most everyone involved really speaks to his storytelling. Could Westworld have been categorized in a Director Series on Crichton rather than a Writer Series because of this more technical side of things? Sure. The point is that Crichton sussed out ways to immerse viewers in the world of a story in the same way Delos immersed visitors in the worlds of the past (only, you know, Crichton didn’t malfunction and kill us).
Westworld spawned a sequel (Futureworld) and a TV series (Beyond Westworld) and is currently being refashioned yet again into an HBO series helmed by Jonathan Nolan and starring the likes of Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris. Bring it on.