Directed by Michael Crichton
“Jurassic Park” author Michael Crichton made his directorial debut in 1973, when he brought his screenplay for “Westworld” to the big screen. Now, if you didn’t know that the hit HBO series “Westworld” was based on a 45-year-old film, or that the guy who wrote the “Jurassic Park” novels sometimes dabbled in filmmaking, you may be forgiven. But to sleep on this sci-fi action movie would be an unforgivable mistake. Despite its decades-old visual effects, “Westworld” was an ambitious first project that was so full of potential, HBO has spent about $10 million per episode to bring it to a new generation.
Of course, modern technology isn’t the only thing that separates these two projects. While HBO has currently given audiences roughly 21 hours of Westworld fun so far, Crichton’s film lasts a brisk 90-minutes. That means it didn’t get to drill down into the fascinating moral conundrums the show has explored, or follow nearly as many main characters, or world-build quite as impressively. In comparison, Crichton’s film might seem a bit rushed, but the short run-time lets the movie focus on the main point of the story. (General plot details for the movie at times overlap with the show, so SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t caught up with the show and are easily maddened by even the most basic of plot details.) The 1973 film follows James Brolin and Richard Benjamin as John and Peter, two buddies who make the trip to Westworld, one of three theme parks using lifelike robots to cater to guests’ needs. Guests paying $1,000/day can kill, drink, and fornicate as much as they want, with no threat of actual harm (the guns are designed not to fire when pointed at human beings). But when there’s a flaw in the parks’ systems, and the safeguards that once protected guests are no longer functioning, a vengeful gunslinger (Yul Brynner) will have his day.
If you think this theme-park-turned-dangerous plot sounds a lot like “Jurassic Park,” we’d be in agreement. I’m not sure to what extent Crichton’s own “Westworld” script inspired him to one-up himself by creating a theme park with living dinosaurs, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it had served as a muse. It makes sense. At the core of the stories are humans messing with risky science all so they can have a little more fun…and then that science coming back to bite them (in some cases, literally). In his script for “Westworld,” Crichton does a wonderful job creating characters who act like the audience members would probably act. Unlike the HBO series, which has a lot of longtime Westworld guests, Crichton’s version focused almost solely on first-timers, who are experiencing all these new things at the same time we are. It helps that Richard Benjamin, as the man with the most screen time, is great at expressing the satisfied shock of experiencing a vacation like none you’ve ever experienced before.
Compared to the HBO series, the movie is also not even half as self-serious, which (after binging the show recently) I found very refreshing. Crichton acknowledged and played up the more ridiculous aspects of Westworld and Medieval World (which the movie focuses on a fair amount). There’s no denying that HBO really taps into the potential of the story in a way Crichton simply didn’t have time for, but one thing Crichton’s “Westworld” has going for it is its tense and nerve-wracking final twenty minutes. It rivals any episode of the HBO show in terms of sheer terror. If you’ve caught up with the show and want a little more Westworld in your life, give the original the credit it deserves and check it out.