“Delos: The vacation of the future – today!”
Westworld (1973) opens with a corporate advertisement for Delos – a travel company that offers vacations in three different artificial worlds populated by robots: Roman World, Medieval World and Western World. The hit series based on this film is HBO’s latest must-see episodic, and the lat- est science fiction show since Black Mirror and Stranger Things to remind me that this current golden age of sci-fi shows no sign of slowing. Michael Crichton wrote and directed the film that inspired the series, and the movie is currently available to stream online through Google Play for a few dollars. Nashville Public Library boasts four copies of the movie collection on DVD, but the last time I checked, all four copies were checked-out, and four more people had already queued up on a waiting list. This run on the original Westworld is indicative of how the series has kindled interest in the smart, strange film that inspired it.
After the cold open and the credits, John Blaine (James Brolin) and Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin behind a fantastic mustache) are on a hovercraft to Western World. The futuristic transport is the first sign that Delos means to make good on its “vacation of the future” claim – the interior is like a massive circular train car with luxurious seating and short-skirted porters bringing fresh drinks to the men and women who are paying $1,000-a-day to be guests in Western World. In the current HBO series, the cost of a Western World vacation is $40,000 a day so these guys are getting a bargain.
From the beginning of the film it’s made fairly explicit that the main attractions of the Delos experience are the opportunities for killing and having sex with robots – one woman in the commercial at the start of the film says “the men” were the best part of her time in Roman World, and Martin obsesses about the finer points of gunslinging in the hovercraft on his way to Western World. Crichton’s movie is incredibly prescient, and it’s no coincidence that the worlds he introduced in the early 1970s are finding traction again at a time when pornography is the primary driver of the virtual reality industry and video games offer players the opportunity to inhabit the point of view of an armed killer in the first-person-shooter scenario.
Of course the effects and production values in a sci-fi film from nearly 50 years ago are lightyears from the wonders we’re watching in the contemporary series, but there’s a retro charm to Westworld’s fake tech, and Chrichton is smart to take his time showing the details of events like the docking of the hovercraft when it arrives at Delos: technicians man consoles full of buttons, switches and lights; a voiceover sounds tiny – like it’s coming from a headset or an intercom – and the dialog sounds like something you’d hear watching a streaming NASA mission. Sequences like this establish the reality of the tech on display, and that’s crucial in a film that requires its audience to believe in human-seeming androids.
Delos offers adults a utopia centered on adolescent escapism: sex without conse- quences and violence without the real fear of injury or death. A few years ago, I saw the author Margaret Atwood speak about utopias and dystopias at a lecture at Belmont University. Atwood reminded the audience that the two always go hand in hand, just like in Nicolas Poussin’s painting “Et in Arcadio ego,” in which a group of shepherds discover that even in paradise there must also be death.
Westworld also reflects the kinds of headlines we are reading today that find experts like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk voicing concerns about the intelligent machines of the robot-enabled future we’re currently creating. Crichton’s tech begins to unravel through a kind of machine epidemic which also seems totally believable to 21st century audiences who have come to accept the nuisance of computer viruses as part of our wired lifestyles. But what if your laptop had a Colt revolver or your smart phone started wielding a broadsword?
In 1967 the poet Richard Brautigan wrote:
I like to think (it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology where
we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.
While I was working on this review, Inverse published a story with this headline: “Talking Sex Robots With Warm Genitals Will Be on Sale Next Year.”
Welcome to Westworld.