Rewind: Liked 'I, Robot'? See Robots Get Jiggy In 'Westworld'

Seventies sci-fi flick is an enjoyably dated man vs. technology tale.

Will Smith's FX-heavy slam-bang action flick "I, Robot" has about as much in common with the 1950 Isaac Asimov sci-fi short-story collection it's based on as it does the Alan Parsons Project's 1977 album of the same name.

In the book, there's no murder mystery, no Del Spooner and certainly no long black trench coat and sunglasses. But the movie does derive its premise from the book's Three Laws of Robotics (they've been reprinted in every other piece written about this movie, so let's just wrap them up by noting that they try to ensure that robots help man, not hurt him ... and they sure aren't supposed to swarm a guy's car while he's flying down the highway).

Of course, in "I, Robot" these laws (and the machines that adhere to them) turn out to be flawed, much as they have been in other artificial-intelligence-gone-bad classics like "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Blade Runner" and "The Terminator." But if "I, Robot" piqued your interest in the whole man vs. technology thing, you might want to try to wrap your head around the supremely odd tale of Michael Crichton's 1973 sci-fi thriller, "Westworld."

In the not-too-distant future, buddies Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin) and John Blane (James Brolin) vacation at Delos, the ultimate interactive amusement park. For $1,000 a day, visitors come to dress, drink and act like they're living in one of three historic periods: ancient Rome, medieval times or the old West. The idea of vacationing in the past seems to make Delos' slogan of "the vacation of the future ... today" seem a little off, and none of those eras are what one thinks of as relaxing or luxurious, but we digress. Apparently, they appeal to the id, to the basest human instincts, allowing visitors to gorge themselves on food and drink, to fight and kill, and to have sex.

And that's where the robots come in. Unlike the Weeble/Slinky offspring in "I, Robot," robots in "Westworld" are designed to be completely lifelike in every way. They can display emotion, they can fight and die, and yes, they can get jiggy with humans (it's worth noting that one of the failsafe measures at Delos is that guns are modified so they can't fire at anything with a warm body temperature, meaning that the robots are presumably as cold as steel, making the prospect of robot sex a bit ... chilling).

Of course, it's only a matter of time before something goes horribly wrong. A robot rattlesnake bites James Brolin, and it's all downhill from there. The phones go down, a medieval robowench refuses the advances of a guest (even though she is a "sex model"), and the same guest is later killed by the Black Knight in a duel.

Things then go from bad to worse when — in what's probably Barbra Streisand's least favorite scene — Brolin is killed in a gunfight with the real star of the film, Robot Gunslinger. In a stroke of casting genius, Yul Brynner plays the bald, stoic Robot Gunslinger. Calling to mind his role in the classic 1960 western "The Magnificent Seven," Brynner pretty much walks through the part (literally), but his sheer presence evokes a searing malevolence that makes Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator seem positively cuddly.

For better or worse, Richard Benjamin is no Will Smith; while Smith battles an army of 'bots, Benjamin spends most of his film's climax running away, and there's not one snappy one-liner to be had. Luckily for Benjamin, Brynner's a lousy shot — probably because robot-eye views display a vision so pixelated, it's a wonder he can even find his horse, let alone single out visitors for execution.

But the bizarro vibe doesn't stop there. It's always fun to check back in on the predictions for fashions and hair of the future that old science-fiction films present, and "Westworld" doesn't disappoint. The film may well be set today since Brolin (with huge, sweeping hair) and Benjamin (with his faux-porno mustache) both look like lost members of Franz Ferdinand.

Majestic hair aside, "Westworld" is fairly lacking visually. The technology on display is laughable, even within the context of a movie made in 1973. Flashing lights, big brown bottles of mystery chemicals, two wires sticking out a woman's foot ("she keeps falling down") ... it has all the production value of a high school play.

It's worth noting, however, that "Westworld" was the first film to utilize what we now know as CGI. Called "digitized images" at the time, they consist of a black and white computer screen with an undulating graph depicting the rising failure rate of the robots and some graphic screen savers. It's not quite the car chase in "I, Robot," but then again, America had to play "Pong" before it could master "Grand Theft Auto."

Crichton would revisit the themes of science and technology gone bad in both "Runaway" (in which Tom Selleck battles robotic spiders) and of course "Jurassic Park." But "Westworld," despite its sparse action and pacing that's slower than a Roomba robotic vacuum, is a fun, seminal slab of sci-fi. It may at times go down like a shot of old rotgut, but still has more kick than "Bicentennial Man."

Check out everything we've got on "I, Robot."

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