Friday, February 22, 2013

WESTWORLD: Blu-ray (MGM 1973) Warner Home Video

MGM effectively stopped making movies in the 1970s; thanks to Las Vegas financier Kirk Kerkorian, who bought the studio lock, stock and back lot; then proceeded to liquidate just about every available asset – either through public auctions or merely with a bulldozer - to finance, among other things, his MGM Grand Hotel. It took Kerkorian exactly eighteen months to dismantle the vast legacy L.B. Mayer had taken more than thirty years to build from the ground up. Cinematically speaking, Kerkorian put a period to MGM’s sad decline with Westworld (1973): an ominous sci-fi thriller written and directed by novelist Michael Crichton.

The film is at once an allegory for mankind’s over-dependence on modern technology and a forewarning against society’s increasingly dysfunctional self-indulgences. Like most of Crichton’s prolific literature, the concept behind Westworld was slightly ahead of their time. Viewed today, the film has not dated particularly well; its cheap-jack sets reconstituted from remnants once belonging to MGM’s vast storehouse of props and scenery, now looking more like borrowed junk from a garage sale than an escapist playground where the ultra-wealthy can live out their debaucheries with complete immunity from prosecution.
Regrettably, there are several glaring misfires that prevent Westworld from becoming a sci-fi classic. First, is its skinflint budget – the fault of the studio – resulting in a glaring lack of detail in Herman Blumenthals’ production design. This budgetary restriction immediately renders our acceptance of Westworld’s supposed lavishness – where guests spend upwards of a thousand dollars a day to be entertained - moot, as this retreat is nothing more than a series of pathetically obvious cardboard cut outs.
Second, a lack of extras milling about the theme park – also slashed for budgetary reasons – alters the immersive experience of Westworld’s themed lands into rather empty voids. It’s inconceivable that a theme park would have twenty or so guests for its inaugural run. Looking closely, one can see the same extras recycled in the background of all three supposed themed worlds at the park: Westworld, Medieval World and Roman World. Also, there is the acting of the ensemble to consider. Apart from Yul Brynner’s impeccably crafted – often chilling – star turn as the deadly ‘gunslinger’ android the rest of the performances are uniformly mediocre at best.
Finally, there is Crichton’s script – too ambitious for these insurmountable shortcomings and ultimately flawed in its key premise; creating fantasy worlds where guests can indulge their whims to either murder or have sex with robots. After all, how can a human guest be entirely certain that the ‘person’ they are shooting or taken advantage of in other ways is, in fact, only a machine and not another human guest? The script allows for the simple identification of the robots by examining their hands that have not been ‘perfected’ as yet. Of course, the real silliness is that if scientists have been able to craft androids capable of mimicking human behavior in virtually every way then they ought to have also been skilled enough to make a believable set of humanoid hands!
Crichton’s script introduces us to three themed lands of exploration; Westworld, Medieval World and Roman World. But of these only Westworld – the dream vacation visited by James Brolin and Richard Benjamin - is ever explored at any length. The others are superficially glossed over, particularly Roman World (shot on Harold Lloyd’s estate gardens); only glimpsed after the androids have inflicted their carnage on the human guests staying there.
Crichton’s story begins with a TV commercial for the Delos Corporation; an interviewer (Robert Hogan) receiving obviously scripted endorsements from several guests who have already experienced the pleasures of Westworld.  From here, we move to the cabin of a futuristic hovercraft flying perilously low to ground level in the Mojave Desert. Aboard are best friends, Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin) and John Blane (James Brolin), as well as an unnamed man (Norman Bartold) and a banker (Dick Van Patten). The latter two are hoping to indulge their fantasies by playing a knight and a sheriff respectively. Pete and John are bound for adventures in the old west, a lusty/dusty land of lawlessness ruled by bar room sin and confrontations with desperados.  After changing out of their ‘70s chic for chaps and ten gallon hats, the boys take to the open streets. Very soon they are confronted by the gunslinger (Yul Brynner). John, who has been to Westworld before, encourages Pete to accept the gunslinger’s challenge. Pete shoots the gunslinger dead, feeling a sense of exhilaration overtake him.
Next up, the boys visit Miss Carrie’s (Majel Barrett) house of ill repute where they take full advantage of her mechanized prostitutes. Later that evening a shootout occurs just outside the bordello, leaving many bodies strewn about. After the human guests have all retired for the night a work crew appears to collect the robots and take them back to the repair shop to get them ready for the next day’s adventures. But Westworld’s lead engineer (Alan Oppenheimer) is concerned and for good reason. Throughout the day his team of programmers hidden beneath the theme park, have been detecting severe malfunctions resulting in more breakdowns than usual. Relaying his findings to Westworld’s board of investors, the engineer is assured that such malfunctions are par for the course of overseeing a huge operation like Westworld. There is absolutely nothing to worry about.
The next morning, as Pete is shaving in the bathroom the gunslinger returns to confront John in his rented room at the Grand Hotel. But Pete – who only the day before was a mild-mannered divorcee – has now developed a taste for blood. He bursts into John’s room, guns blazing and dispatches the gunslinger to his second ‘death’. Pete is arrested by the town sheriff (Terry Wilson). But John breaks him out of lockup and then murders the sheriff just outside the jail. Now John and Pete decide to go exploring the country on horseback, playfully declaring themselves desperados. They arrive at a remote desert cliff to relax, but John is attacked and bitten by one of the synthetic rattlesnake. The chief engineer – who apparently has cameras set up everywhere – witnesses this attack and orders one of his technicians to retrieve the snake for further analysis.
Meanwhile, in Medieval World, the unnamed man – masquerading as a knight - is unable to satisfy his passions with one of the bar wench androids (Ann Randall).  This is in direct conflict to the android’s basic protocol of obey and serve. The chief engineer recalls ‘the model’ for reprogramming. All too late, he begins to realize that Westworld’s creations have begun to develop a will of their own. The next day the unnamed man is brutally slain by the Black Knight (Michael Mikler) during an unscheduled duel. As Pete and John are leaving the Grand Hotel in Westworld, the gunslinger confronts them once again, only this time he outdraws John and shoots him dead, leaving Pete to flee into the desert.
Unable to bring his operating system back online, the chief engineer and his technicians are trapped inside Westworld’s command center without sufficient ventilation. They suffocate, leaving the human inhabitants of the theme park to fend for themselves. Woefully unprepared, the humans are slaughtered by the androids. Pete makes his way across the desert to Roman World where he finds nothing but bodies scattered about its lavish Imperial gardens. He crawls down a ladder into the underground tunnels of the park and makes haste toward the robot repair room, pursued by the gunslinger. Pete tosses acid into the gunslinger’s face, thereby damaging his sensory capabilities.
Running into Medieval World, Pete is confronted by the gunslinger once again. Only now this killing machine becomes disoriented by the heat given off from various torches inside its castle great hall. Using this to his advantage, Pete sets the gunslinger on fire and flees into a dungeon room where he hears the cries of a woman (Julie Marcus). Believing that she is the last surviving human guest, Pete frees the woman from her shackles and attempts to pour water down her throat to revive her. But she is an android like all the rest and short circuits once the liquid has entered her system. Pete is briefly threatened by the smoldering gunslinger, who topples down the stairs into the dungeon before short circuiting – the sole survivor of Westworld’s carnage as the company’s tagline ‘Boy, do we have a vacation for you!’ begins to echo in his ears.
Westworld abounds in nonsensical contradictions. For example, how is it that the gunslinger can drink pure whiskey and not short circuit while the girl in the dungeon fries over a few drops of water? Where does the gunslinger get real bullets to attack the guests? The engineering staff suffocates in a matter of minutes in their basement bunker despite the room being quite cavernous and thus containing more than enough oxygen to sustain them for at least a few hours – long enough for real help to arrive. Even more curious; where have all the other androids gone after killing their human masters? It seems only the gunslinger is around to hunt Pete. The others have effectively vanishing into thin air.
Fred Karlin’s score is a weird combination of tinny western saloon music and electronica underscoring – the latter used to ominously good effect when augmenting Yul Brynner’s eerily mechanical performance.  This is also greatly enhanced by the reflector contact lenses Brynner wears to make his eyes a pair of frozen silvery orbs when properly lit. Regrettably, the lenses also scratched Brynner’s corneas and had to be abandoned half way through filming. More discerning viewers will take note that in some scenes Brynner’s eyes sparkle cold dead silver and in other scenes appear simply as his own natural brown.
In retrospect Michael Crichton has gone on record as saying that the production was an unmitigated disaster, marred by repeated studio intervention and penny-pinching that continuously forced him to downscale his efforts. Viewed today, Westworld is indeed very second rate on almost every level. And yet, there is something disturbingly vibrant about its last act. Crichton infuses his clich├ęd hysterics once the mechanical world overtakes its human creators with a genuinely palpable sense of paranoia. If the first two thirds of his story seem grossly uninspired in both content and execution – and they are - the showdown of man vs. machine - is never anything but terrifying. In the final analysis Westworld will not win any awards for high art. But it is unusually contemplative and fairly intelligently scripted. Its strengths are Crichton’s writing and Yul Brynner’s nerve-jangling performance.
Warner Home Video has finally come around to releasing Westworld on Blu-ray. This title has been readily available overseas for over a year from Aventi Home Video. Warner’s incarnation is light years ahead of their old DVD transfer. But it’s considerably different in its color scheme from the Aventi release. Where Aventi’s release exhibited fairly natural looking ‘pink’ flesh, Warner’s release has a decidedly orange patina. Contrast levels are decidedly bumped. Scenes in the desert in particular look somewhat harshly bright to my eyes. Never having seen Westworld in its theatrical run I cannot in good conscience claim which home video presentation is more faithfully rendered. But personally, I prefer the look of my Region B Aventi to this disc.
Warner’s 5.1 DTS is identical, with SFX and Karlin’s score sounding fairly solid. Good stuff here. Where the Warner disc wins out is in the extras. Aventi’s has none. Warner gives us a vintage featurette on the making of the film, plus the nearly hour long TV pilot for ‘Beyond Westworld’ – a series that only lasted for 5 episodes. Reviewing the pilot, it’s easy to see why. We also get the original theatrical trailer. Really good stuff.  All that’s missing is an audio commentary from Crichton. Too bad. 
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


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