When HBO launched the eponymous TV show, I took the opportunity to discover Westworld, the movie. The directorial debut of writer-director Michael Crichton has always been a part of pop culture, yet despite being a fan of Jurassic Park and reading a few Crichton novels, I never knew about Westworld.
So I didn’t get the Simpson’s scene where Principal Skinner chases Bart in The Boy Who Knew Too Much (1994), let alone the episode Itchy & Scratchy Land from the same year.
The Original Terminator
Michael Crichton wrote the novel that Steven Spielberg turned into Jurassic Park (1993), which is essentially the same story as Westworld if you substitute dinosaurs for people. When Malcolm (Goldblum) in that movie says the “Pirates didn’t come to life and kill people”, he is obviously referencing Westworld. Another one I had missed.
A major character in this film – and in our clip below – is The Gunslinger (Yul Brynner). As homage to The Magnificent Seven, he wears the same outfit as in the Sturgess western: all black, like the TV version’s Man In Black.
The fans often refer to the Gunslinger as the original Terminator. Schwarzenegger reportedly based his performance on Brynner’s. You get it: for an overall better entertainment experience, watch Westworld. You’ll definitely have more fun if you watch the HBO show after savouring this feature.
Have We Got A Vacation For You
The movie did well at the box office. It cost only $1.5m to produce, made nearly three times that amount during its first release, and it took even more during the re-release a few years later.
You wouldn’t think this success came as a surprise, given the terrific high concept. Nobody had seen anything like this before: a thousand-dollar-a-day resort where people go on a holiday to act out their forbidden primal desires. Then, of course, things get out of control.
The truth is: despite the great concept, Crichton struggled to get it financed, the film was troubled with all sorts of production nightmares and the story doesn’t really hold up very well today.
Even back then, writer/director Crichton completely re-edited the first cut of the movie because he was depressed by how “long and boring” it was.
After Westworld, he learned a thing or two about basic screen story structure.
Westworld’s Structural Malfunctionings
[SPOILERS] Westworld’s realism, its tremendous attention for detail, and its slow build reminded me of 2001 A Space Odyssey.
It seems Crichton wanted it to look like pure sci-fi. If you can appreciate this, and you can transport yourself back to the 1970’s, you’ll enjoy the movie. If you prefer fast-paced however, skip straight to HBO.
Until the movie’s mid point, nothing really happens that is out of the ordinary in Westworld. In fact, the encounter with a malfunctioning rattlesnake is the real (and much overdue) Call To Adventure. How so?
Everything before this moment really belongs to the world our characters have been in during the entire movie. As long as it is functioning properly, the resort is the movie’s Ordinary World.
Doesn’t Anything Work Around Here?
A strong Call to Adventure (CTA) is an event that has never happened before, that has an impact on the main character, and that calls for action. It is always an Event happening to the hero, never an Action by the hero.
Here, in response to this CTA, our heroes should no longer trust the safety of the park, and the appropriate action would be to leave.
Remember Jurassic Park? That structure worked. When you’re developing a feature, it is always helpful to find successful precedents with a similar concept, and study their structure.
To make a screen story work for today’s audiences, the story catalyst should sit at least half an hour earlier.
Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, creators of the HBO’s show understood this, and introduced the inciting incident/CTA (the first on-screen malfunctioning ‘host’) within the first half hour of Episode 1.
Bring In The Gunslinger
Apparently Yul Brynner was one of only two actors in Hollywood who wouldn’t blink during the firing of a gun. Okay, that’s a piece of totally useless trivia, but still fun(*).
In this clip from Westworld, Brynner delivers an extraordinary blend of cowboy cool, and techno cold. “Get this boy a bib,” he taunts Peter (Richard Benjamin)… “He needs his mama.”
The moment is retained in the TV series, when one of the heroes spurs the other on to start a fight. They’re invincible anyway… Even though we know that the Gunslinger’s bullet can’t hurt our heroes, the tension is palpable…
Oh, and in case you were wondering, yes that is indeed Christian Bale who traveled back in time to play John Blane (James Brolin).
(* the other one: Clint Eastwood)
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.