Call them “cult classics.” “Guilty pleasures.” “Comfort movies.” We all have a mental rolodex of flicks that may not be terribly popular but, for one reason or another, they resonate in a very special way. Maybe you saw it at the right moment. Maybe you just see gold where everyone else sees feces. Whatever the case, these are the special favorites that you keep stashed away for sick days. Here are some of ours.
Long before Michael Crichton threatened park goers with T-rexes and Velociraptors, he directed “Westworld,” his own script about Yul Brynner as a black-hatted robo-cowboy gone berserk. James Brolin played the heroic counterpart to his nerdy “Jurassic Park” counterpart portrayed by Jeff Goldblum, and Brolin’s son Josh could have benefited from a re-examination of this horror-infused Western before filming next year’s “Jonah Hex,” as it cleverly splices science fiction and human/inhuman struggles into a classic Western framework.
“Westworld” sets itself in a fantasy theme park called Delos where vacationers can choose among three worlds staged to recreate ancient Rome, a Medieval castle or the the American West of the 1880s. Much like the corporation in this year’s Bruce Willis blockbuster “Surrogates,” Delos supplies gobs of robots to enable wish fulfillment involving violence and sex without any real fear of punishment or death.
Predictably, this all goes wrong when the robots quit listening to their masters. Brolin’s and Richard Benjamin’s characters then have to fight for their lives against the liberated slave-bots, one of whom is notably played by “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry’s late wife Majel Barrett, who went on to do the voice of the ship’s computer aboard the Starship Enterprise.
The Western genre gets completely mangled as the white-hatted cowboys roll into their new town and defeat Yul Brynner several times, unable to communicate with him or get him yield. This becomes a problem when his gun, which is not supposed to kill people, suddenly starts drawing blood.
The fight scenes are total cheese, but the roles of the characters get flipped upside down as they modulate from thrill-seekers to hunted humans on the run. In true Michael Crichton form, most of the philosophical discourse comes across as way over the top in the script and beats you over the head with its message. But in the tradition of Westerns where John Wayne and Clint Eastwood loved to make moralizing statements about their violent actions, the “Westworld” screenplay turns that trope on its head with a science fiction twist as the tourists and scientists come to grips with what they’ve created.
The film harnesses Yul Brynner’s impeccable mystique as the robot who doesn’t seem to die. His eyes glow with a yellow menace to them. As the plot evolves, revealing that robots repairing and creating robots has elevated his inside technology beyond the current limits of human understanding, Brynner only becomes more enigmatic. He becomes a sentient independent force that his creators don’t know how to contend with or stop.
The tone of the movie is not heavy at all. If anything it’s melodramatic, but it’s a great change of pace from the typical TV Westerns you’ll find on daytime programming. Whether you’re sci-fi buff, Crichton reader or lover of gunslinger action, the brilliance of this film lies in its amalgamation of those genres with horror undertones. Its place in history at the close of the Vietnam War leaves plenty of ripe contexts to analyze within the film, as basic as the tourists’ oversimplified understanding of their destination and as complex as their enemies’ rights to self-determination.
When all is said and done, Brynner completes one of the all-time great robot villain performances in the film with a haunting collapse.
What do you think of Yul Brynner’s performance in “Westworld”? Have you seen the ill-fated follow-up “Futureworld” starring Peter Fonda? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.