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Westworld

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 02/26/14 14:18:00

"Add some dinosaurs and you've really got something."
3 stars (Average)

SCREENED AT THE 2014 BOSTON SCI-FI FILM FESTIVAL: Nowadays, it's hard not to think of Michael Crichton's "Westworld" as a rough draft of "Jurassic Park", and to wish that it included a Pirate World, if only so that a certain Jeff Goldblum line would be even funnier. In some ways, that's an unfair way to judge the movie, but in others, it's rather fitting - even without considering that later multimedia blockbuster, there are a lot of ways that this one falls short of its potential.

We're initially treated to an infomercial-like bit hinting at how the Delos resort is sold to potential tourists in its world, but soon we meet two friends headed there for an expensive but elaborate bit of role-playing: John Blane (James Brolin), who has been there before, and Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin), who had just been through an ugly divorce. They will be staying in "Western World", while others on the Delos hovercraft are heading to Medieval World and Roman World, all of which are populated by androids of every variety. At the saloon, Peyer has a shootout with a gunslinger (Yul Brynner) as John eggs him on. They treat themselves to a night at the cathouse, unaware that in the underground service areas, the technicians are noticing an increasing number of catastrophic failures.

There's a peculiar frankness about just how much of the place's appeal is the chance to shoot people and have it feel real; debates about violence in video games were far in the future on 1973. Sex, on the other hand, gets a bit more of a winking treatment, although Crichton doesn't hide it behind too much innuendo. It is kind of a shame, though, that he does very little to directly engage the idea; for all that one may argue that the robots going haywire is a sort of symbolic payback for how the people who come to Delos not only embrace their bloodlust but have created people (of a sort) whose sole reason for existence is to be raped and murdered, that layer of the plot is buried deep. There's never a sense of purpose to all this beyond a glitch bit of self-replicating code, and there's no thematic weight to the confrontations, either.

That would be okay if there were a particularly good robots-run-amok movie, but while it shows flashes of potential there, it's a fair amount of set-up for not a lot of pay-off. Crichton introduces the audience to some folks in Medieval World and has a bunch of nameless technicians spout some jargon, but doesn't quite find the right balance between building his setting up and tearing it down. There is a pretty good game of hide and seek in a robot repair facility, but there's also what seems like a big missed opportunity when we see characters move from one area to another, like Crichton could have done much more than make a cowboy in a castle a little incongruous.

It's at least a fairly serviceable cast. Richard Benjamin's character isn't given a lot of depth, but his wide-eyed enthusiasm proves kind of infectious when the audience needs to be drawn in, and he's also got at least one line that will make me laugh no matter how many times I see this movie because of how he sells it. James Brolin, on the other hand, gives Peter a sort of seen-it-before detachment - not enough to dislike, but just enough to suggest that the arrogance of this place is not strictly limited to the people who built it. Yul Brynner gets top billing, but he seems kind of wasted as this killer robot: A great western villain made generic when he's in-character and a killng machine with the emphasis on machine when things get out of control.

Twenty years later, Crichton would add dinosaurs to this scenario and Steven Spielberg would blow people away with the action movie that resulted. It may just be a coincidence that the latest "Jurassic Park" sequel is being called "Jurassic World" and supposedly features a working amusement park breaking down, bringing things full circle. That set-up likely won't have the concept of lives created only to be killed again and again, and not doing much with that idea seems like "Westworld"'s biggest missed opportunity in a movie full of them.

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