Westworld Saw Machines Supersede Humanity 50 Years Ago

Movies Features Westworld
Westworld Saw Machines Supersede Humanity 50 Years Ago

But we aren’t dealing with ordinary machines here. These are highly complicated pieces of equipment, almost as complicated as living organisms. In some cases they’ve been designed by other computers. We don’t know exactly how they work!

Michael Crichton was not that great a writer if you’re talking about captivating prose. But Kurt Vonnegut (who was) once wrote that he wished more people who thought about science and had great ideas would write more science fiction. In that regard, Crichton was a great example of what Vonnegut was talking about, because his ideas were always, always fascinating, whether he wanted to imagine how genetic science could resurrect long-lost species, or what the practical dangers of time travel would mean to poorly prepared explorers. Though he could have a tin ear for dialogue, he understood one theme that ran prominently throughout all his most famous works: The tech (usually) works fine, but the folks operating it are deeply, fatally fallible.

Westworld—written and directed by Crichton—interestingly enough suffers from some of the exact same troubles as his prose. Some scenes stretch too long or go over territory that’s already been explicated perfectly well earlier. And yet, there’s a reason the movie remains a sci-fi touchstone, and why HBO dove back into the subject matter even more deeply and thoroughly with their incredible Westworld TV adaptation.

That reason is Yul Brynner. Westworld is a horror movie, and Brynner’s performance is on the same level as some of the genre’s all-time greats.

It’s the future, and Delos is the next great theme park, a place designed to give every guest the ultimate experience: The opening exposition is a pitchman interviewing absolutely astounded guests as they return from reliving Roman decadence, medieval pageantry and Western swagger. They’re the heroes of their own stories, no matter what they want: To eat great food, go on adventures, or even be sheriff of a dusty and violent town. (Yes, they can fuck the robots, and they do.) Isn’t it worth $1,000 a day, he asks the cheering crowd?

(Obviously 50 years will make any monetary figure seem dated, but it’s particularly funny that this would now rate a subpar day at a certain Florida theme park.)

The story mostly follows two well-heeled businessmen trying to enjoy a weekend at the park, the greenhorn Peter (Richard Benjamin) and the experienced trailhand John (James Brolin, or possibly a time traveling Christian Bale). Peter is at first skittish about enjoying the earthly pleasures of the park: He’s nervous around the sex workers and bartenders. But soon enough he shakes out of his funk, and of course, it takes violence to make him do it.

Brynner’s gunslinger character is dressed almost exactly as the actor appeared in The Magnificent Seven more than a decade prior, and he still looks as rough and ready as he did then. But in The Magnificent Seven, Brynner played an upright and honorable knight of the Old West. Here he’s a robot programmed to be a bullying shit-stirrer, designed to step on your boots and instigate conflict in a million petty little ways.

Brynner—one of the most captivating actors of his generation—was reportedly so hard up for money that he agreed to the part for just $75,000. It’s an unfortunate detail, because he turns in a performance worth 100 times that.

Crichton said that he wanted many of the individual plot beats in the movie to be very stereotypical and even cliched situations, and that he therefore wanted them to be framed that way cinematically. In that regard, he succeeded. When Brynner’s gunslinger goads Peter into drawing on him the first time, it’s right out of Peckinpah or Ford. Sergio Leone once said that there was a cinematic grammar to the Western, and Westworld knew it.

Filming the movie, Benjamin said, was like getting to be 12 years old again. And the movie does retread a lot of ground showing just how the park’s numerous guests enjoy their decadent vacations, filmed in a lot of the same ways that a Robin Hood or Western movie would have been. But, it also starts demonstrating how everything is starting to go wrong as the park’s engineers fiddle with knobs and monochromatic scrolls of computer code trying to cater to all their whims: From snakes that bite when they shouldn’t, nubile young serving wenches who won’t immediately fall into bed with lecherous guests and, eventually, a gunslinger who forgets that he’s supposed to lose.

Once the power goes out, the park starts going haywire in every way, and the machines, designed to be perfect but suddenly without inhibitors to stop them from being too perfect for feckless guests to defeat in single combat, start slaughtering everybody. And when Peter and John encounter the gunslinger again, rightly expecting another cake walk, things go a bit differently.

This is where the movie becomes truly a horror film. Brynner kills John immediately and the remainder of the film is him hulking after Peter, his aim deadly and his stride unstoppable. The robots in Westworld, once they’re clearly revealed to be soulless machines, have an effect where their eyes take on the appearance of glowing glass. It’s the littlest touch, but on Brynner it’s perfect.

There’s also a detail too hilarious to leave out, one that the late Crichton could never have guessed keeps the film just as relevant today: One of the telltale signs that someone walking around Westworld is a robot is that their hands don’t look right. The joints in the fingers and palms are easily identifiable as fabricated. At first blush, this seems ridiculous: You can design a sex-bot that a human won’t recoil from, or a gun-bot who can hit the eye of a bird flying, but you let them roll off the line with shoddy soldering on one of the most, shall we say, user-facing points of contact?

And yet, look where we are 50 whole years later.

Human beings, Crichton always understood, think they know what they want, and they have the fearsome and unstoppable ingenuity to make it so. But they fail, spectacularly, to extrapolate, to think things through to their logical conclusion. We’re in a time now where “artificial intelligence”—a term that has now become so ubiquitous as to be useless—is being used lazily and stupidly, in ways that are actively tearing down technology we’ve already solved. Google searches now return generative AI garbage. Half of the suggested news items that crawl across the screen of my phone (this is a sentence that would’ve made no sense 20 years ago!) are now some variation of “Look at how incredible this AI-generated crap is!”

It is all uncanny and useless, shoddily made and obvious, but the ones slinging it believe we’re all dull enough to go for it—and if we aren’t, well, they’ll burn whole industries down so we have no other choice. And like Brynner’s gunslinger, it may not fool us into thinking it’s real, but it does pose us a true threat. What greedy startup kid who has opened a book only grudgingly since the 12th grade isn’t going to use junk tech like this to minimize overhead, the same way I always use the Domino’s app so I don’t have to pick up a phone?

Westworld doesn’t go as deeply into the ethical implications of its computerized pleasure palace as it might have—it’s a pretty brief film that leaves all of that deeper rumination to you, the viewer. But Crichton gives you the perfect prompt for such reflection: What happens when we design something we barely understand and give it the run of the place?

What happens when an imperfect creator’s imperfect creation is let off the leash? Crichton knew, and we are finding out.

Kenneth Lowe said, “You talk too much.” You can follow him on Twitter @IllusiveKen until it collapses, on Bluesky @illusiveken.bsky.social, and read more at his blog.

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