Before Westworld became known as HBO’s latest critically-acclaimed and highly-successful show, Westworld was an ambitious 70’s gem of a genre blend between the wild west and the futuristic fiction.
Enter a world where the Delos company revolutionized vacation. Instead of flying to the beach, take a trip to ultra-immersive amusement parks – Roman World, Medieval World and Westworld respectively. They’re places designed to cater to all human fantasies and populated with life-like robots. Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin) is being taken to the park by his friend John Blane (James Brolin), who has been to the park before, a similar storyline as the one offered in HBO’s interpretation.
John enjoys his time in the park, fully emerging in the illusion of being a cowboy while Peter can’t quite get into it. He’s not sure who’s a machine and who’s a human, which worries him. Their friendship dynamic carries the first half of the film, as John acts as a mentor not only to Peter, but also to us, explaining the intricacies of Westworld. Despite the short runtime of the film, it lets us bask in the world together with the characters. We visit saloons and hotels, meeting both the hosts (robots) and the guests (humans).
It’s only in the latter half when the park starts malfunctioning and the guests are faced with a possibly lethal danger. The robots start fighting back, even though they shouldn’t, and the mysterious Gunslinger (Yul Brynner) is set to have his vengeance on both Peter and John, as they have killed him multiple times before. With nothing to hold him back, the two main humans find themselves in a game of cat and mouse amidst a bloodbath that took over Delos.
Released four years before the game-changing Star Wars, Westworld boasts equally impressive visual effects. What makes the film still entertaining even today, however, is the very natural and engaging worldbuilding. The high amount of exposition is cleverly hidden so that it never feels like the film halts in order to explain something. Though we spend majority of the film in the titular park, we also get a look inside the Delos labs as well as the two other worlds – Roman World and Medieval World. All of this contributes to a realistic, lived-in feel of this futuristic setting.
While the film never feels like it’s dragging, the latter half is where the film shines, the pacing radically picks up and we’re taken on a wild ride. In no small part this is due to Brynner’s portrayal of the Gunslinger, as he delivers the standout performance. He’s ominous, yet stern and with absolutely magnetic screen presence he embodies this robotic cowboy.
It may lack the deeply philosophical themes that made the TV show a success, but Westworld more than makes up for it with its action sequences, set both in the ‘future wild west’. Yul Brynner makes for a memorable villain in a film with a strikingly original and entertaining concept, which proves entertaining even four decades later.