Face Off: Westworld (1973) and Westworld (Series)

Each Motion State Face Off pits two films, franchises, or television series against each another for no reason other than because we can.

In hindsight, Michael Crichton’s 1973 film Westworld was an uncomplicated affair. Sure, the premise required a bit of explaining — there’s a Wild West theme park staffed by lifelike robots, offering full immersion for wealthy tourists looking for romance or violence — but the plot was deceptively simple and the characters were drawn without a trace of ambiguity. The humans were the heroes and the malfunctioning robots were the villains. As we’ve detailed in our Writer Series on the works of Crichton, lots of good science fiction operates in exactly this way: classic stories playing out in strange, unfamiliar settings or time periods. No matter how unsettling the concept, how futuristic the design, how far-off the entire experience feels, Westworld is still a movie about a killer robot. And this is hardly groundbreaking, even in 1973, considering that the very first robot in cinema (from Houdini’s 1918 silent serial The Master Mystery) was already wreaking havoc on its human overlords:

In some ways, Killer Robot Cinema (evermore an acceptable genre classification on Motion State) has progressed a great deal since 1918. The murderous machines went from stacked-and-spraypainted cardboard boxes to sleek metal automatons to, finally, looking just like humans, which is presumably the pinnacle of droid design both in fiction and in real life. In some ways, though, killer robot cinema has hardly moved an inch. Humans are still playing God, still inventing advanced A.I. in robot form, and those robots are still turning around and killing them for it.

So the primary intrigue behind HBO’s reimagined Westworld series was that this formula would for once be flipped: the robots are the heroes and the humans are the villains. We’ll note before continuing that the second season finale of this ongoing series just aired a few weeks ago, so here’s a spoiler warning for anyone who’d like to experience it cold. And we’ll also call attention to our choice of words with “hero” and “villain,” rather than “protagonist” and “antagonist,” partly due to the rise of the anti-hero in modern television and partly because the Westworld series, in its deployment and subsequent perversion of Western film tropes, is ostensibly a story about heroes and villains.

I’d venture that this flip is both brilliant in concept and somewhat frustrating in execution, necessary for a long-term format Westworld and simultaneously a betrayal of the basic story of Crichton’s original film. Maybe HBO and the show’s creators don’t care about that as much as they care about continuing to generate watercooler discussion in the post-Game of Thrones era. Die-hard Westworld purists aren’t exactly turning out in force, and even if they were there’s more than enough of that high-concept design present in the series to suggest that Crichton himself would approve.

Another thing present in the series: violence. Like, lots of violence. Presuming that the show’s viewer demographic is likely mostly humans, creating sympathy for the robotic hosts through a high degree of violence and torture inflicted upon them is a pretty surefire way to put us in their metallic boots. Ex Machina, the single best film about artificial intelligence to come out of the past decade, also asserted that a human would side with a robot over another human if there’s enough cruelty involved. It worked there and it works in HBO’s show.

Still, consider this integral scene from the original film. Our (human) hero has his first run-in with what will become the film’s primary (robot) villain, not so long after entering the park with a healthy dose of much the same skepticism that William from the HBO series displayed during his inaugural visit:

It’s evident from a single glance that Yul Brynner’s gunslinger is going to be a main character in the film. It’s Yul Brynner, and even if you’re watching Westworld years after Brynner’s heyday your Badass Detector should be registering that this dude has come to play, not to get shot after what amounts to a cameo. But he does get shot, and in that slow-motion instance of sudden violence we’re put into the shoes of the hero in a more effective way than the series has managed to date. We’ve just shot a man dead, and the exhilarating experience of committing murder turned out to be paradoxically life-affirming. Yul’s gunslinger ain’t dead, of course, because he ain’t really alive, and therein lies a further bridge from the experience of being a guest at Westworld to the experience of watching Crichton’s film: we slowly realize that these exhilarating actions of violence do not have consequences. “I killed six people!” exclaims a man in the Delos promotional video at the start of the film. “Well, not real people.”

That violence always has consequences, no matter where you are or what kind of machinery you’re running on, is of course a lesson of both Westworlds. In the show, though, the first episode alone contains upwards of twenty murders, implicit and explicit rape, a casual scalping, the frequent beating of women, and a general preponderance of physical and verbal abuse. Heck, Teddy (James Marsden) gets murdered several times over. The last-minute act of Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) swatting a fly, a poignant and prophetic symbol for where the show might turn, was still an act of violence. That’s how these robots are programmed, supposedly, and how almost all movie robots are programmed: they can never harm a living thing.

Westworld (1973)
Westworld (HBO)

Admittedly, it’s 2018. This is the post-Game of Thrones era (almost), so we viewers are more than accustomed to obscene debauchery in our nightly television viewing; even outside of Fox News, there’s a lot of violence and sex on TV. If the Westworld series shied from that it would likely be a lesser show, as there are great moments borne of violence throughout the series that propel the narrative forward and provide thematic depth for the robotic heroes. But those first gunshots in Crichton’s film in 1973 had real weight to them, both for the striking visual of seeing a Western icon gunned down like he’s just another saloon patron and then, inexplicably, for the dawning realization that such a powerful act can be reversed in a behind-the-scenes underground laboratory.

So with bullets flying nonstop, who are the heroes and villains of the Westworld series? The “flip” was clear throughout the first season, good robots and evil humans fighting for supremacy. But now, two seasons in, after so much violence back and forth on both sides, who are we rooting for? After the long-term television format has necessitated that some players defect to the other team, or that characters like the ostensibly-naïve Dolores start to delight in the same violent ends that got everyone all riled up in the first place, Westworld has very nearly become a show without heroes. For the most part this works for the HBO series. But it’s the primary point of divergence from Crichton’s original story and from the Western genre on the whole, and Westworld may just need a hero when all is said and done.

Anyway, here’s Yul Brynner getting his face melted:

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