Go West (For Redemption)

Not the robot apocalypse I was expecting.

(Please note that in the following article I am only taking into account the first season of the TV version of Westworld. I haven’t watched past the end of the first season and I’m not sure I even want to given how perfect it was.)

I can certainly understand why film executives take a risk adverse attitude when it comes to remaking films. They are, after all, in the business to make money and choosing films that were successful the first time around is the low risk option. However, it also rarely results in something that transcends the original and all too often results in a less interesting version. The worst part though is that even if the remake turns out to be better than the original it’s still more of the same. So while I can understand the logic being employed I’ve no particular reason to be happy about it.

What I would prefer is for those film executives to work just a little bit harder. To search through their back catalogues for flawed films with unrealised potential. It doesn’t matter to me whether these are films which bombed or if they were hits, just so long as they are in some significant way unsatisfactory. There are plenty of such films out there, I know because I made a list of interesting but flawed films I’d like to see remade in the hopes of their deficiencies being eradicated. That list includes 1408, Conan the Barbarian, Westworld, and Mad Max, all well known films that could be so much better in my opinion.

Of those films, Westworld, that is the 1973 original directed by Michael Crichton, did very well at the box office, making $10 million on a budget of $1.2 million according to Wikipedia. However, all that proves is that even flawed films can make money because Westworld is very flawed film indeed. It’s also very well regarded if the scores quoted on the Rotten Tomatoes website are to be believed. However, I suspect that Westworld, like the original Mad Max, is mostly remembered with fondness for several striking scenes rather than for the film as a whole.

Westworld Poster 4

Just to be sure I re-watched the original Westworld recently and while the basic idea is as interesting as I remember, the way that idea is developed leaves a lot to be desired. I came up with what I consider to be four major flaws (while ignoring several minor ones):

The claimed financial viability of the theme park is entirely unconvincing.

It takes far too long for any real action to start.

Too many scenes were little more than information dumps.

The reason for the robots going on their rampage was not convincingly explained.

As you can see none of these flaws pose an insurmountable problem. Even a simple soul like myself can see how they all could be corrected without injuring the basic idea posed in Westworld. Perhaps doing so wouldn’t result in a brilliant film but it could be competent and it could potentially fix the flaws listed above (of course I can’t guarantee that doing so wouldn’t introduce a bunch of new ones).

Having given this film so much thought imagine my surprise when I discovered that Westworld was to be remade as a TV series. I was dubious about the idea to say the least because I couldn’t image where they would find the extra plot to flesh out what I considered to be a rather thin story. So imagine my yet greater surprise when I watched the first season of Westworld (to see if they did indeed find a bit more plot) and discovered it both entertaining and mostly devoid of the faults mentioned above. Imagine my yet greater surprise when I looked up the details of this TV version and discovered that none other than Michael Crichton, the man behind the film version, had been involved in scripting this version. So, let me explain what Mr. Crichton (and others) did that was so right.

Let’s start with the financial viability of the theme park. Yes, I know, I’m the only one who’s bothered by details like this but I can’t help it so I’m going to write about this at length. You have been warned.

First of all it was made clear at the start of the film version that there two main reasons for customers to spend time at one of the three theme parks, that is Westworld, Medievalworld, or Romanworld; fornication and murder. However I didn’t find it convincing that large numbers of people would pay significant sums of money for either of these given how these parks were run.

First of all there’s the problem offered by the parks offering sex. The thing about robots is that they’re complex machines which need to monitor and record what happens to them in multiple ways in order to facilitate repair and maintenance. Anybody who contemplates sex with a robot in Westworld, Medievalworld, or Romanworld will have to do so knowing that their partner will be at least partially recording what happens (much like the black box on a plane I would imagine). It seems likely to me that the majority of people willing to indulge in casual sex would prefer to believe their encounters are going unrecorded (except perhaps in an exaggerated form as part of the memories of their partners). Not only that but what guarantee do visitors have that their encounters aren’t being fully recorded? How many people are inclined to implicitly trust a corporation and the staff working for it in such intimate situations? Regardless of how much the park administration denies such practices it seems likely to me that most people would find the possibility that somebody was not only looking over their shoulder during sex but keeping a permanent record of what happened to be extremely off-putting. Sure, a minority people won’t be bothered by the idea but I doubt this group alone would be enough to provide the necessary cash flow.

The potential for violence in film Westworld doesn’t seem like something which would greatly appeal to punters either but for an entirely different reason. The problem isn’t so much that park guests knew they were in no danger whatsoever, though that didn’t help. The real problem was that every one of the staged violent encounters had no build-up and wasn’t part of any larger story. Each incident I saw in the film involved a robot challenging a visitor more or less out of the blue and with no justifiable reason for seeking such an encounter. Combine this lack of story line with the certainty of victory and I can’t imagine people flocking to hand over cash for what I can only describe as a boring experience.

The TV series mostly fixed these problems by putting an emphasis on providing story lines for visitors to participate in. So rather than visitors arriving in town and having an android announce that they don’t like their face and make an attempt to kill them, they would instead be invited to join in some sort of escapade by various androids. Guests could decline such offers and simply play tourist, wandering about and watching a fully functioning replica of the past at work. However, as was mentioned by several different characters, most of the interesting action happens far away from the arrival point and it was implied the best way to encounter that interesting action was to take up one of the many invitations.

Guests still couldn’t die but by involving them in complex plots that could last for days their visit could become a far more immersive experience. If, for example, a guest accepted an invitation to join a team of android bounty hunters and then spent several days in the saddle with this posse, by the time a gun battle erupts it’s very likely said guest will have forgotten that they can’t be killed and will bite the ground with the best of them. Given the potentially immersive nature of these plots I can see this version of Westworld being a far more satisfying experience and something which actually draws customers.

Even the sex angle seems to have been partially fixed by hinting that the world outside contained many more people who were comfortably off but bored than in our time and that for these people the potential for excitement outweighed the potential lack of privacy. Actually, for all the TV audience knows about the outside world reduced privacy might well have become the norm out there as well. The TV version also doesn’t blatantly promote the sex angle, it’s clearly there but neither does anybody turn to the camera and announce that they’re only there for the rumpy-pumpy.

What’s more, the TV series was very careful to underplay the options for sex in Westworld. Virtually the only place the possibility of sex was brought up was in the saloon where the prostitutes were based. I suspect somebody realised that we live in a less innocent world and that with an android population any sort of sex was possible. Given that sex was a prominent part of the film version the makers of the TV version couldn’t drop it entirely without the audience noticing its absence but it was certainly downplayed. I assume it was decided to skim over the whole matter in the hopes that the more unsavoury options wouldn’t occur to the audience. Which would be the best that they could do under the circumstances, as trying to explain why any illegal sex acts couldn’t occur in Westworld would only draw attention to the possibilities.

Even so, I did begin to wonder about money as the TV series progressed. With each episode the theme park was shown to be larger and the infrastructure ever more elaborate so that towards the end it did begin to seem unrealistic. By that point I could understand why one of the characters had talked about the park haemorrhaging money. I wish this had been made more of a plot point so the scale of everything could be explained, if not justified, and a more concrete threat to the park developed by revealing that the board wanted to scale back the size of the operation.

Westworld Poster 1

Okay, so moving to my next point, a quick skim of the reviews for the film version of Westworld assures me that I wasn’t the only one who thought it took too long for the real action to start. The film was nearly half done before events at the park began to go haywire and the relatively interesting chase sequence began. I blame this on the author of the screenplay , Michael Crichton, being allowed to also direct. Crichton was clearly in love with his theme park idea and wanted to explain how it all worked. This level of background detail can work in a novel where pacing doesn’t need to be so tight but a film, especially an action film like Westworld, needs to keep advancing the plot in order to stay interesting. What’s worse I didn’t find Crichton’s theme park especially well thought out so as far as I’m concerned I didn’t find those scenes worth the time spent on them. He also failed to develop any of his characters into very interesting people. Which of course meant that even once the action started I didn’t much care what happened to them.

The TV series also began slowly, so much so that it took until the fifth episode for the story to get really exciting. This wasn’t a problem as it was in the film though because the TV version very quickly set up a series of questions. Every character was clearly up to something, but exactly what only became clear in the second half of the season. Developing these mysteries made the early episodes a bit slow as we had to follow multiple characters who were up to who knows what, but this was more than compensated for by the fact the various plot threads were clearly building to conclusions the viewer could enjoy speculating about. In fact it turned out that the threads which made the most sense early on proved to be dead ends and the less comprehensible scenes built into the main, and quite interesting, story line.

Besides which, even when it wasn’t clear what was going on some of the performances were quite fascinating. In particular Anthony Hopkins acting like a slightly stoned David Attenborough was mesmerising in its surrealness. Even if it did make me wonder why the board of directors running Westworld hadn’t already made serious efforts to shuffled him off to a retirement home.

In short, unlike the film version the slow start to the TV series was worth it because the early episodes were dominated by the mystery of how the story would get from its starting point to the assumed robot holocaust.

Westworld Poster 3

The next problem I had with Crichton’s directing was that too many scenes were designed to be little more than information dumps. For example, the film begins with the guests being driven to their various destinations. I could see no point to this other than as an excuse to have recorded voices repeatedly tell the guests they could do whatever they wanted and they would be perfectly safe. Given that anybody who saw any of the posters for the film knew that things were going to end badly this seemed like a very clumsy way of heightening the surprise when things began to end badly. Besides which, I can’t imagine any company, even back in the 70s before the health & safety craze took hold, thinking this would be a good message to pound into their customers given it encourages stupid behaviour. It made no sense and was clearly only there for no other reason than to contrast how the theme park was intended to operate with just how out of control events would later become. (I was amused when later in the film one of the head technicians says that it’s ‘inexcusable to endanger a guest’. Pretty rich coming from a senior employee of a company which keeps telling these same guests that they don’t need to take any care in regards to their actions.)

Another example of clumsy foreshadowing is a scene in which a lot of time is spent having one of the main characters explain to his partner that the guns in Westworld couldn’t work on living creatures. This was an especially stupid scene as it asked the viewer to believe that the people running the park didn’t bother telling customers about this basic fact on arrival. Again, this was only there to reinforce the surprise when guns did begin inexplicably working on people. Equally absurd was the reveal that the technicians operating the park all worked in an air-tight room fitted with electrically operated doors. Thus when the electricity failed all the technicians asphyxiated in a surprisingly short time. It was never explained why they worked in an air-tight room or why there was were no manually operated means of escape. I assume the audience, not knowing much about computers, was suppose to assume the room needed to be kept dust free because computers could break down if dust was present. If so, then this was complete rubbish as the computer wasn’t in the room, only terminals connected to it. Besides which in one scene which cut back to the control centre we hear a technician order scrambled eggs, bacon, and cinnamon toast and then ask the kitchen to send it down to consul three. Why guard against dust if you’re going to let cinnamon toast crumbs waltz right in? No, the only reason for this silliness was to ensure nobody was left alive who could help the surviving main character as he was chased by the robot gunman.

That the TV show was able to avoid replicating this sort of obvious foreshadowing is impressive given it had to be assumed the audience knew for a fact that eventually there would be a robot rampage. Putting the emphasis on the mystery of what the various human characters were up to was a wise cunning ploy. It allowed the growing danger of what the androids were capable of to be pushed into the background. In hindsight all the clues were there but so casually inserted that I imagine most viewers didn’t question any of them.

Finally, the explanation for why the robots went out of whack in the film was totally unconvincing. The basic idea of multiple robots developing a fault was entirely reasonable but why this should be so is never explained. All the audience is given is the suggestion that the robots are breaking down in a manner analogous to the spread of an infectious disease. Audiences back in the 70s, who were after all unfamiliar with computer technology, apparently found this sufficient explanation, but it’s entirely unsatisfactory to anybody more knowledgeable. Even adding in additional references to other equipment faults doesn’t help as the cause of these breakdowns aren’t explained either. It was such an easily fixable problem too, for example all Crichton needed to do is have a couple of technicians talk about some sort of upgraded command processing device that they had been inserting into the robots and have one of them mention that it seemed to be having unexpected side-effects. That way we have an understandable cause and effect for robots beginning to kill, even if the cause is glib sounding gobbledegook.

(Just as an aside, I’ve been blaming Michael Crichton for all these faults because he did write the script and he did direct the film but I have to be fair and acknowledge that a film is a pie made by many cooks. For all I know studio interference caused some of these faults, such things have been known to happen after all.)

How the TV version eventually handled this was far more believable and far more interesting. Actually I didn’t catch on to what was going to happen until nearly the end despite the evidence pointing in that direction. It’s very easy to become so distracted by all the sub-plots that the single thread which ignites the the final sequence can be easily overlooked. In fact by the halfway point of the first series I’d begun to wonder if they hadn’t decided on a totally new ending. I thought it very impressive how the TV version turned one of the main weaknesses of the film into a strength.

All in all I would rate the first TV season of Westworld as a vast improvement over the film. It is a rare, if not unique animal, a remake that surpasses the original. If only we had more of those.

Westworld Poster 2

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