Now I know what you’re going to say—I’m well aware that it has been several weeks since I posted anything resembling a movie review. One might even argue that none of these cynical ravings qualifies as a scholarly film criticism. But I want to say one thing to the American people. I want you to listen to me. I’m going to say this again: I did not have sexual relations with that robot impersonating a woman.

You, however, are about to get mindfucked when I reveal the most underrated sci-fi film of all time.

Scratch that – it’s the second most underrated sci-fi film after the masterpiece that is Alex Proyas 1998 thriller Dark City. Also, Bill Clinton never stops being funny. Naysayers and disagreeing parties will just have to hold on for a few minutes while we all marvel at one of the most influential, yet underappreciated robot films ever conceived—Michael Crichton’s 1973 directorial debut Westworld (I don’t count that made-for-TV movie).

Never heard of it huh? And why should you? After all, it’s just another 70’s sci-fi classic that fell through the cracks in a post-2001: A Space Odyssey America, and one that was doomed to obscurity once Star Wars: A New Hope hit theaters in 1977. It’s a bizarre little period of cinema stuck in limbo between the McCarthyism of the 1950’s and the Reagan-era science fiction of the 1980’s, but it’s the only place a film like Westworld could ever belong.

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You’re all probably well aware of Crichton’s epitomous novel-turned-film Jurassic Park, but before we ever fathomed the dinosaur-filled island of Isla Nublar, the author had another story about a theme-park-gone-wrong.

One of three adjoining parks, Westworld is a vacation destination in the not-so-distant future where visitors can indulge in the senses and live out their wildest fantasies. Characteristic of the park’s name, Westworld is the destination for folks who want to experience the lawlessness of the Old West and live the dream of being a gunslingin’, whiskey drinkin’ outlaw. Shootouts and barroom brawls are just one stop on your journey, and considering you’re paying $1,000 a day to enjoy this fantasy, it’s not even a question if you’ll get lucky at the local whorehouse tonight.

What’s so special about that Airman Xley? People in Detroit live that fantasy every day!

How right you are Dear Reader, but here’s the science fiction catch—the three parks are all filled with robots to create the real life fantasy. The innkeeper, the bumbling sheriff—heck even Miss Carrie’s (Majel Barrett, yes, THAT Majel Barrett) the Madam of the brothel is a robot. On the outside, they are nearly indistinguishable from humans save for their artificial-looking hands. Inside they’re programmed to talk, spit, shoot and even insult you like someone out of the Old West.

When Peter and John (played by Richard Benjamin and James Brolin respectively) hop the first hovercraft to Westworld, they waste no time in acclimating to the violent and self-indulgent atmosphere. Eventually, they visit with Miss Carrie’s girls, but only after Peter goes “Mano a Mano” against the Gunslinger (Yul Brynner). Since the parks’ robots are programmed to let the guests win (without making it seem obvious), Peter makes quick work of the stoic outlaw.

Or so he thinks.

You see—Westworld and its two sister parks Medieval World and Roman World are all operated by the sinister Delos Corporation. Much like the infamous Omnicorp of the Robocop franchise a decade later, Delos is a company that likes to protect their assets, and that means repairing damaged or ‘terminated’ robot workers ASAP.

This is when the shenanigans begin, for you see—ol’ Mr. Brynner the Gunslinger develops a fault in his programming and seeks revenge on Peter. All the other robots in the parks eventually go haywire and kill the guests before running out of juice, but not The Gunslinger. The Delos Corporation is unable to shut down their mechanical minions in time, and what follows is just good ol’ fashioned thriller with robot-cowboy murder and mayhem.

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In hindsight, I probably should have led with “Revenge-seeking Robot-Cowboys”, but here we are.

It isn’t enough to say Westworld is a landmark science fiction film or that it’s a thriller of the highest caliber – there’s so much more.  It would go on to influence some of the major franchises we know and love including the aforementioned Robocop, The Terminator, Alien, and a host of others.

Horror Director John Carpenter even cites Westworld and specifically the character of The Gunslinger as a direct inspiration for his nightmarish Michael Myers in the Halloween saga.

And what a frightening character The Gunslinger is! Armed with a distinctive walk and an affinity for deadeye aim, Yul Brynner casts a terrifying villain the likes of which wouldn’t be seen for another decade with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator. There’s no doubt James Cameron borrowed heavily from the former (especially the scenes looking through the robot’s cold, hunting eyes), but alas, Westworld never received the same level of fanfare.

Despite it accomplishing so much, Crichton’s film could barely muster a half-cocked sequel in the form of the 1976 Futureworld. Having just watched it for the first time not two hours ago, I can safely say it probably isn’t worth your time unless you’re a fan of other 70’s-esque sci-fi films like Soylent Green and the Planet of the Apes sequels (the ones without Charlton Heston). It has a fairly interesting premise centered around an evil corporation making robot copies of important people, but it has a distinct lack of murderous robot-cowboys (though Yul Brynner does reprise his role as The Gunslinger).

It’s definitely no Alien, but Westworld is sure to offer enough thrills to make you want never to visit a theme park again. Yes, there are sex robots and the chance to live out your every fantasy, but I doubt most of us are capable of successfully defeating a gun-wielding [possibly robotic] Yul Brynner. I mean did you see The Magnificent Seven? Now imagine you pissed that guy off and that he was virtually indestructible with heat-seeking vision. Just let the Wookie win—or, in this case, the murderous robot.

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Still don’t know what I’m talking about? Don’t worry – Antoine Fuqua is planning a Magnificient Seven remake next year with Chris Pratt and Denzel Washington. It’ll pair nicely with the HBO adaptation of Westworld set to come out in 2016 as well.


The Bottom Line:

Remember that part where I said I should have led with “Revenge-seeking Robot-cowboys?”

Yeah – throw in “evil corporation” and Yul Brynner and that’s all the motivation you need to rush out and buy/rent Westworld.

Remember Dear Reader – that’s Westworld: Where robot men and women are programmed to serve you for romance, violence – anything!

…and nothing can possibly go wrong.

3.5 Stars