Guest Blog Post by Brandon Engel
It’s always disconcerting to hear about people dying in Disneyland. If you can’t feel safe in the happiest place on earth, where can you feel safe?
But remember: without danger, there would be no carnivals. The nausea and adrenaline rushes we feel on roller coasters are biological responses to perceived dangers. Rickety old rides and haunted houses with harmless animatronic puppets are one thing. But what about situations where theme park attractions hunt guests like wild game?
One of the first films to explore this concept was Michael Crichton’s WestWorld(1973). The film tells the story of a futuristic theme park named Delos, which is divided into three time-period specific areas. There is the Medieval World (with swordsmen in armor running around) , Rome World (which transports guests to Rome pre-Christianity), and there is WestWorld (which replicates the “wild west” as it existed in the United States). Guests get to interact with, even battle against, the elaborately costumed robots who have been engineered so that the they can not harm human guests (i.e., they’re sensitive to temperature, and can easily discern a person from a robot based upon their body heat). The film’s primary characters Peter (Richard Benjamin) and John (James Brolin) are vacationing in WestWorld, and everything is hunky dory for a little while. And then the robots begin to malfunction. Hardware issues start to spread robot to robot, almost eerily like computer viruses. John becomes weary when an animatronic rattlesnake bites him. Things get really out of control when an intimidating robotic cowboy (played by Yul Brynner) opens fire on the two guests.
We come to learn that the computers are self-replicating, and therefore, error prone and highly unpredictable. The viewer might even begin to wonder, at some point, whether or not the technology knows precisely what it’s doing. Is it really a fluke that the robots in the film are misbehaving, or are the machines simply taking over? Movies about fighting robots are fairly commonplace now, but try to remember, this sort of thing would have been much scarier to viewing audiences in the seventies. This setup calls several works of science-fiction and genre pulp to mind. For example, Stanley Kubrick’s film (and Arthur C. Clarke’s screenplay for) 2001: A Space Odysseyalso muses about what could happen when technology is endowed with the ability to make decisions autonomously. It’s also reminiscent of the classic Fritz Lang film Metropolis (1927), where it is suggested that the heart must act as the mediator between the mind and the body.
WestWorld marked Crichton’s first outing as a director, and the film tackles many of the same themes that Crichton would revisit in later works, especially his novel Jurassic Parkwhich,of course, inspired the film directed by Steven Spielberg. The story follows an eccentric scientist/entrepreneur who has developed a method of genetically cloning dinosaurs that are exhibited in a theme park. They were made using the DNA from the bellies of prehistoric mosquitos, with other reptilian DNA thrown in the mix for good measure. The dinosaurs we’re all made male, to ensure that the scientists would have control over their breeding. The problem, though, is that some of the frog DNA that they “cut” the dino DNA with belonged to a special breed of frogs who are capable of changing gender. So then you’ve got a bunch of artificially cloned dinosaurs having sex and procreating on their own terms.
Are dinosaurs and marauding, murderous cowboys one and the same? Certainly not. But one similarity that we do see, in both stories, is that they just don’t belong in theme parks. When people in the amusement park business “play god,” there are always variables that they can’t account for. The question becomes: at what point does our creativity and curiosity become our liability? And in both cases, we learn that human’s can only ever possess a finite degree of control over certain pet projects.
While it couldn’t ever possibly measure against the Steven Spielberg directed Jurassic Park in terms of box office receipts or rentals, Westworld has retained a special place for cult film/old school sci-fi enthusiasts. J.J. Abrams is even working with HBO on a new television show, and the original film is being show regularly on El Rey Network, which is available through DirecTV Specials and Comcast. The film is mandatory viewing for any genre fans who dig Westerns or science fiction films.