A thriller set among medical professionals, with just enough scientific accuracy to temper its science fiction, and a craven corporation perverting science for profit? If only Michael Crichton’s Coma had been set in an amusement park, it would have been the most Michael Crichton movie ever.
More than just a dry run for his hit TV series ER, it’s also strikingly feminist — in some ways more than a similar thriller would be today. Not for nothing does an inciting incident involve an abortion subplot. Even Crichton’s own Westworld (1973) barely included any female characters at all.
Geneviève Bujold plays an accomplished female surgeon who discovers and exposes a criminal conspiracy. She is unable to break through the dismissive armor of the establishment bureaucracy, or even her mansplaining boyfriend (Michael Douglas) — an interesting character in that he is not so much an antagonist but an obstacle to her aims.
She is left to battle alone against an entrenched medical patriarchy that stymies her with variations of “don’t rock the boat”, “you’re being hysterical”, and “take a valium”. Even a sequence in which she removes her stockings is no sexy striptease, but rather a symbolic shedding of constraints in her pursuit of the truth.
The late Michael Crichton is primarily known as a bestselling novelist, but somewhat less so as a screenwriter, feature film director, and television producer (he was one of the co-creators of the blockbuster series E.R.). Characteristic novels Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain are built upon fascinating speculative science with thrilling story potential, spoiled by wafer-thin characters and simplistic plots. His 1973 thriller Westworld suffers from the same syndrome. Despite its high-minded origins in speculative science, the movie is simple in structure and theme. It’s not unusual for science fiction films to be overtly based on Western tropes (the best example that comes to mind is Outland), but Westworld is a hybrid with equal parts of each. The second half is basically an extended chase sequence, punctuated by a few classic horror movie tropes.
Westworld posits a future in which robotics and artificial intelligence have advanced enough to enable a new market for entertainment and leisure. The futuristic vacation resort Delos is a forerunner to Jurassic Park: an experience adventure for the affluent, powered by untested advanced technology. Imagine Disney World-like animatronics taken to the next level: semiautonomous robots roam an immersive environment to serve as interactive servants, sex toys, and target practice.
Crichton skips over the entire issue of how these machines achieve consciousness, making the common movie fallacy that robots = artificial intelligence. If they are basically animatronic machines, how did they evolve an instinct for self-preservation? If these droids are not feeling actual rebellion and murderous vindictiveness, is it a virus or malfunction? On a more practical level, there appears to be a plot hole in how all robots but The Gunslinger (Yul Brynner) appear to completely vanish after murdering the Delos’ staff and visitors.
Brynner’s may wear the same costume as in The Magnificent Seven, but The Gunslinger’s true analog is closer to Jaws and Moby Dick. He pops up again and again, seemingly unkillable, possessed of an unexpressed, inexplicable motivation to hunt one single man. He fixates on tourist John Blane (James Brolin) and remorselessly pursues him to the death, not unlike the implacable demons that haunt Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, All the Pretty Horses, and Blood Meridian. Brynner isn’t given much in the way of dialog or character, but you can see he worked very hard on his physical performance. His bearing, posture, gait, and gaze are all unsettling. Far from a cartoonish robot figure, The Gunslinger is really inhuman, weird, and creepy.
Westworld, like Jurassic Park, seems to be a vague cautionary tale against toying with advanced science. The famously science-minded Crichton (an M.D.) is not simply demonizing science itself, but rather its arrogant misuse. If the first mistake is to build machines more complex than the human mind can understand, the second is to bet our lives upon them.
Delos is a fantasy world where people can kill or fuck anything they want. In other words, a recipe for disaster. Later science fiction stories like Tron, The Matrix, and Caprica would typically stage similar morality plays in virtual reality. But I don’t get the sense that Westworld is criticizing the indulgence of humanity’s worst tendencies. Is it instead focusing on the mistreatment of semi-sentient beings as slaves? When the park is in working condition, the robots are prostituted and murdered over and over for humans’ entertainment. After they become conscious, we see one “female” robot reject a human’s sexual advances, while another is cruelly chained up in a dungeon. Neither seems to be expressing much in the way of grief or resentment. Instead, we are perhaps meant to see them as innocents that are simply seeking a little dignity.
The sequel movie Futureworld (1976) and TV series Beyond Westworld (1980) are not available on DVD or online at this time of writing.
Young James Brolin looks so much at times like Christian Bale does today that it’s almost creepy.
Even Delos’ animals are robotic, perhaps alluding to the moral tests regarding the treatment of animals (robotic or real) in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Even more on the nose, Blane finds a robot snake in the desert, foreshadowing the ones we see for sale in Blade Runner.
Michael Crichton’s original novel The Andromeda Strain was first adapted into a feature film in 1971, and now into a television miniseries from executive producers Ridley and Tony Scott. This 2008 incarnation is part feel-bad thriller, part wish fulfillment. As we thrill to the speculative illustration of how civilization might suddenly come to an end, we also can only hope the government does in fact have such an elaborate and high-tech procedure in place for identifying and containing new contagious disease outbreaks.
The original book is only nominally about a supervirus, evidently of extraterrestrial origin, that threatens the human race. It is actually more about how intelligent, well-meaning people can make subtle errors of judgement that may cascade into catastrophe (Chrichton would also employ Chaos Theory as a key theme in his Jurassic Park novels). But the miniseries complicates this interesting theme with added government venality (a basically honorable president is undercut by a corrupt chief of staff), the media (a drug addicted reporter breaks the cover-up), and the environment (strip mining of the ocean floor leads to the crisis). To give but one example of the diminishing returns: in the book, a simple unnoticed glitch in a supposedly perfect computer system causes a dangerous communication blackout at the worst possible time. It’s both more plausible and more suspenseful than the miniseries version of events, in which General Mancheck (Andre Braugher) deliberately creates the blackout, to everyone’s mild and temporary frustration.
The book is not without its flaws, particularly an undramatic ending in which the continuously adapting virus eventually mutates into harmlessness. But the miniseries disappoints by giving the virus a definitive origin, indicating it is expressly targeted towards humans, and showing its definitive defeat.
Miscellaneous other thoughts:
• Mikael Salomon’s direction is very boring and staid, except for a wildly over-the-top decontamination procedure that is filmed in a stylized, almost erotic fashion.
• The miniseries is probably one of the talkiest sci-fi movies and/or TV shows I’ve ever seen. The bulk of the action is set in a single interior location, and nearly every scene comprises heated conversations in laboratories or over teleconferences.
• The miniseries is laden with even more pseudoscientific bullshit than Crichton’s original novel: wormhole-enabled time travel and nanotech buckyballs from the future are the order of the day. The whole thing ends in the kind of temporal paradox that typically makes a plot point in shows like Doctor Who and Star Trek.
• The miniseries updates the book’s euphemism of “unmarried man” into “don’t ask don’t tell” territory. It seems fabulous Major Keane (Rick Schroder) is a friend of Dorothy.
• Spot the homage to Hitchcock’s The Birds!
• Why does the underground facility begin to disintegrate during the run-up to setting off an atom bomb? Wouldn’t there just be a countdown and then an explosion?
• This blogger, a longtime fan of the TV show Lost, is happy to see Daniel Dae Kim in a starring role. But the Korean actor is unfortunately cast as a Chinese stereotype.
• Benjamin Bratt is really terrible, giving the proverbial phone-it-in performance. He delivers every line with the same intonation, whether it’s saying goodbye to his family for possibly the last time or announcing humanity’s first discovery of an alien life form.