Long before he was resurrecting dinosaurs to hunt mankind author Michael Crichton took a shot at directing a science fiction adventure thriller, and that result was the movie Westworld. As a first time director the studio wasn’t keen on giving him much in the way of a budget; so with just over a million dollars to spend it’s actually quite impressive on how good the film looks, and it certainly made MGM happy as it was their biggest hit that year, but just how good is it?
The movie Westworld is about a futuristic park where tourist can visit and live out their fantasies in either the Wild West, Medieval Europe, or the decadent palaces of Ancient Rome. For a mere thousand dollars a day guests can enter a completely immersive and realistic version of eras long gone by, all in complete safety as nothing can possibly go wrong. The movie’s primary protagonists are John Blane (James Brolin) and his best friend Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin); Blane has visited the park before but this is Peter’s first time, and it’s along with Peter that we learn how the park works. As he’s a repeat visitor Blane works as the film’s exposition machine as he constantly explains how the park works to his friend. In fact, I doubt Peter even read a brochure before agreeing to this vacation as he appears to have no clue as to how this “Robot World” functions. He continually asks Blane if so and so is real or a robot, and he wonders how safe is it shooting at people with what looks like fully functioning guns. Peter is apparently a lawyer so you’d think he would have done some research before plunking down the kind of cash this park is asking for.
Peter and Blane have loads of fun shooting up the town, performing jailbreaks, and repeatedly killing The Gunslinger (Yul Brynner). They even get laid at the local saloon by some robot prostitutes, which according to Blane is more fun than thwarting a bank robbery. When after one night of particular raucous bar brawling the two find themselves facing off against The Gunslinger for a third time because Peter had killed the dude the previous two times Blane decides it’s his turn. This turns out to be a big mistake as The Gunslinger mercilessly guns him down. This is, of course, a tad shocking as we’ve been repeatedly told how safe the park is. Turns out some nasty computer virus has infected the machines and now all three areas of the park are full of murderous robots.
The technicians who run and maintain the park do everything they can to shut down the rampaging attractions, but all they manage to do is cut the power to the doors and thus trapping themselves in a room with a dwindling supply of oxygen. This leaves poor Peter on his own against an armed and relentless murder machine, and to make matters worse The Gunslinger recently received upgrades that included infrared vision and increased audio capabilities. I’m not sure why these features were added as I can’t see how this could affect a guest’s enjoyment as these robot gunfighters are supposed to lose in a fight, so giving a robot that big of an advantage over a guest seems counterproductive, but as the man said, “We spared no expense.”
After being stalked across the deserts of Westworld, through the carnage of Roman World, and into the stone hallways of Medieval World, our protagonist is finally able to triumph over the mechanical menace by splashing sulfuric acid in his face, and then setting him on fire with a torch. It’s after the credits roll that we can assume Peter’s real skills come to the fore as he sues the living hell out of everyone involved.
Westworld is a fun science fiction thriller, and it was a nice spin on the genre to have the rough and tough James Brolin killed off and the nebbish nerd Richard Benjamin turning out to be the hero, but to fully enjoy the film you really can’t think too hard about how the park works, because it makes no fucking sense. So now that we’ve watched the movie let’s take a more scrutinizing look at how these three parks function.
Problem One: The Delos Corporation created three large theme park attractions that couldn’t possibly house enough guests to make it financially feasible. I know a thousand dollars a day seems like a lot of money but just how many guests could each park accommodate at one time? The town we see in Westworld looks to have about a hundred residents, and the bulk of them must be robots. I can’t see guests signing up to be hotel clerks or schoolmarms, but because even our heroes can’t tell who is a robot we can never know for sure what the ratio of guest to robot is. The only ones we know for sure are actual guest in this town and not robots, would be James Brolin, Richard Benjamin, and Dick Van Patten, who gets the job of Sheriff after Brolin kills the robot one. We see four other people get out of the stagecoach with our two leads, so we can assume they are also guests, but that means this area of the park is getting roughly six thousand dollars a day in revenue. Even if we assume that there may be a few guests already on site I still can’t see this park taking in enough money to cover operating expenses
In just the three days we see the town having multiple shoot outs, a bank robbery, a jailbreak, and a barroom brawl, all causing extensive damage to the robots and their surroundings. How much does a brick jailhouse cost to rebuild if it’s blown up weekly? The price of replacing broken windows and furniture after every fight must certainly add up. Then when you take into consideration the repair work on the robots the costs really start to skyrocket. Every night during “repair time” a team of workers head out into the streets of Westworld to collect damaged robots, because the guns in this park shoot actually bullets and do blow holes in the robot, and that’s got to be bloody expensive.
There looks to be a team of technicians working on each and every robot brought in, and these are people versed in robotics so one can assume they aren’t being paid minimum wage. This isn’t even taking into account the staff that has to monitor the goings on in the park 24/7. Sure some of the menial labour such as janitors and tour guide could be robots, but the salary budget would still be astronomical to keep three parks functioning with the support facilities needed to run them. Speaking of “Repair Time” just how is this done without destroying the illusion of this being the real Wild West? We see Blane and Peter getting into bar fights and screwing saloon girls late into the night, so exactly when do the repair teams have time to sneak out and pick up the broken robots? Worse is the fact that all robots shutdown is at a pre-determined time in the night, which means at one point Dick Van Patten was in bed with a “dead” saloon girl. Do technicians monitor each robot so they don’t accidentally shut it down during a sex act? And just how good can sex be with these robots if they don’t have human body temperature? Why they don’t have a proper body temperature will be explained shortly.
Also for this illusion to be maintained all the guests must go to bed by a certain time and not wake up and decide to wander through town or they’d spot the clean-up crew, and as we see that when the robots are turned back on in the morning its full daylight we have to assume there are no early risers among the guests either.
Problem Two: Let’s talk about park safety. For this, we will ignore the computer virus that turned the robots into death dealers and just deal with how the park is supposed to function normally if all goes according to plan. Blane explained to his friend that the guns in Westworld that are issued to the park guests have temperature sensors that prevent them from shooting humans, or anything with high body temperature, but allow them to ‘kill’ the cold-blooded androids. The late Brandon Lee can attest to just how dangerous even guns loaded with blanks can be let alone ones that fire real bullets. Even if the guns will only fire on things with a high body temperature that’s not going to stop a bullet from ricocheting off something and then embedding itself into a guest’s head. And what about the barroom fights? Exactly how does a guest not get injured when he is being hit by a chair or tossed over a bar? I’m pretty sure punching a robot in the jaw could easily result in a broken hand. The problem becomes even worse if you take Medieval World into consideration; how do you rig temperature sensors on a sword? This leads to the next problem; how can you tell your fellow guests from the robots?
Problem Three: Not knowing who the other guests are. We learn that the only way to tell a robot from a human is that the creators of the robots haven’t quite perfected the hands, they have goofy ridges across their palms, but unless you are inspecting every person you meet for this defect you will not have a clue as to who is a fellow guest or who is a robot. Say you aim your gun at the Sheriff, you pull the trigger and then nothing happens because it turns out that now the Sheriff is being played by a guest and not a red paint-spraying robot. Once again that pretty much destroys the illusion this park is trying to maintain, unless you are in Medieval World and then you’ve probably just murdered a fellow guest.
Problem Four: Who would pay this kind of money for a Westworld vacation? We’ve already established that a thousand dollars a day fee would require many more guests checking in for this park to be economically viable, but if they did get enough people what would they all do? In the opening promo, a Delos employee is seen interviewing guests as they leave the park and one of the guest’s states, “I’ve just been the Sheriff of Westworld for the past two weeks.” First, this means he spent fourteen thousand dollars on this vacation, which seems rather excessive – we are talking $80,508.00 in today’s dollars – and that he spent all of that time in the Westworld park. Just how exciting and fun could that be for two whole weeks? When I’ve visited Disney World Frontierland was just the place you walked through on your way from Adventureland to Fantasyland, it certainly wasn’t my number one destination, and I couldn’t see spending a whole day let alone two weeks there, no matter how realistic it was.
But say being a sheriff of a Wild West town is your ultimate fantasy, and well worth fourteen thousand dollars to you, what if some other guests had that same fantasy? Do you draw straws to see who gets to be sheriff, or if someone was there first are you stuck playing the deputy or the possibly the barkeep?
So if you manage not to be injured or killed during your stay you still have to worry about being bored to death. Medieval World and Roman World would at least have a few more fun activities than what you’d get in Westworld, but after a few tournaments or an orgy or two, you’d probably be ready to go home, or at least visit one of the other parks. Staying two weeks in only one park doesn’t seem that attractive to me, even if the sexbots are superbly well programmed.
Westworld is a fun movie but as an actual park attraction it makes the safety parameters of the Star Trek Holodecks look exemplary, even without the computer malfunction that we see in this movie they would be seeing numerous lawsuits due to guest injuries on a daily basis. What if a guest of Roman World tried to rape a slave girl who just so happened to be another guest? How could jousting in Medieval World not result in multiple fatalities? What if a guest of Westworld mistook a real rattlesnake for a robot one and let it bite him? With the park’s immense operating costs, its proportionally low revenue stream, and the multiple lawsuits they’d be trying to settle out of court each day, this park would be out of business within the first year if not sooner.
Michael Crichton certainly created an interesting world with this movie, but one that is not all that realistic, even by science fiction standards, so it will be interesting to see what the HBO series starring Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris will be like and how they address the problems inherent with the concept.
Westworld is one of those fun high concept science fiction movies; it’s great entertainment as long as you don’t think too hard on how any of it would really work.