If only Michael Crichton had realized Westworld was too good of an idea to give to a writer-director like … Michael Crichton.
The novelist made his feature directorial debut here, and the result is a picture continually undermined by clumsy staging, pacing and tone. Fight scenes rely almost exclusively on slow motion; other sequences go on long after their purposes have been served; yee-haw country music pops up at the most inopportune times. In terms of basic filmmaking technique, there is very little to admire.
The idea, however – in keeping with Crichton’s vision of technology as inevitable terror – is devilishly clever. Westworld, you see, is one of three connected theme parks (the others are Roman World and Medieval World) which are populated by lifelike robots who assist the tourists in indulging their out-of-time fantasies – violent, sexual and otherwise. It’s Disney World gone wild, with a degree in advanced robotics.
Crichton just lets the joke sit there, heavy on the screen.
We experience Westworld through the eyes of two friends: repeat customer John Blane (James Brolin, smug but sporting great hair) and first-time visitor Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin, doing most of his acting with his Harry Reems mustache). They whoop it up, Gunsmoke-style, until the robots start behaving oddly. Suddenly the tables are turned and the robots, who were previously programmed to be willing targets for the vacationers’ six-shooters, are taking dead aim.
There is some satire in that – the devouring tourist becoming prey – but Crichton just lets the joke sit there, heavy on the screen. Neither does he find a way to make the horror resonate in any upsetting way. Only one throwaway moment, involving a victim in Medieval World’s dungeon who may or may not be a robot, truly disturbs, yet only briefly and mainly as a suggestion of what could have been.
The movie does offer Yul Brynner as the Gunslinger, a riff on his Magnificent Seven role. A black-clad robot with a piercing stare, the Gunslinger looks intimidating, but he’s actually most skilled at taking a bullet. Well, at least until the glitch kicks in, when he zeroes in on Benjamin’s tourist with lethal obsession (can’t say I blame him). Brynner is a lot of fun. His movements are just slow enough to suggest that something’s off, but not to a point that the performance becomes comic. He walks through Westworld, thumbs resolutely in his gun belt, immune to the cinematic shoddiness all around him.