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Where Nothing Can Go Worng

By

On Film

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We’re not spying, but it feels like we are. Each moment is tracked on surveillance monitors, recorded, studied. On one screen, a man, dressed moments ago in cowboy gear, is now postcoital with a robot prostitute. She soon makes herself scarce, heading back to recharge her circuits in the break room. The cowboy stares up at the ceiling, his six-shooter cooling in a holster draped over a chair. He’s luxuriating inside a simulacrum of an 1880s Western whorehouse, one situated within a network of amusement parks in an unnamed desert expanse. It’s the end of the first act of the 1973 film Westworld, written and directed by Michael Crichton, a master of the techno-thriller novel whose occasional forays into filmmaking—he directed a half dozen features over two decades—yielded more modest, earthbound results than the fantastical predictions he packed into his paperbacks. But Westworld, his feature debut, continues to haunt. Its vision of a pleasure dome with exploited, humanlike robots as moving targets has been reprogrammed into a highly anticipated HBO series, premiering Sunday.

Back at the robot bordello, the cowboy, played by Richard Benjamin, continues to bask. His travel buddy, James Brolin, saunters in from an unmade bed in a nearby room. “Boy, machines really are the servants of man,” he guffaws. They riff on the gunshots that ricocheted across town throughout the night, evidence of robots being obliterated in duels down below. Victory is assured with the price of admission. But will the targets ever return fire? As in many of Crichton’s cautionary tales, the illusion of safety has yet to be broken. In The Andromeda Strain, published in 1969 and released as a film in 1971, a microorganism from space, which scientists believe they’ve contained in a desert research station, eventually slithers out to eat the Earth. The dinosaurs of Crichton’s Jurassic Park, assumed to be housebroken and eager to host gawking tourists, inevitably spit in the faces of their captors and mob the food court. For now, the controlled environment of Westworld—billed as “the most extraordinary vacation spot in the history of man”—remains calm, seductive.

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Benjamin is a convert. It’s his first day in Westworld and he’s already won a duel, ditched his dry martinis for a whisky bottle, and bedded a droid. He’s finally shaking the jitters that followed him from his hometown of Chicago, which, perhaps not coincidentally, is also the city of Crichton’s birth. Chicago would later serve as the setting for ER, Crichton’s most successful television creation. In the pilot script, he offsets the barrage of medical emergencies at the fictional County General Hospital with private moments of a drowsy doctor seeking refuge in a vacant recovery room, on an unused bed. The door closes, the room goes black, though his power naps last mere milliseconds. In Crichton’s 1984 sci-fi caper Runaway, Tom Selleck plays an overworked cop who wrangles malfunctioning robots menacing society in the daytime, only to resort to having a robot nanny tuck his son into bed while he works extra shifts. Never a moment to recharge. Crichton always had a penchant for burnouts.

In Westworld, there’s time to unwind, to indulge—to take advantage of a robot’s advances. Despite the exhilaration of indiscriminate gunplay, the trip doesn’t truly kick into gear until the tourists seek what Brolin calls “companionly entertainment.” HBO is primed to take this concept to its furthest extremes. When trailers for the adaptation began circulating, reports seized on the graphic depictions of sex, sequences that even prompted warnings from the actors union, long before the series’ much-delayed completion this year. While Crichton’s onscreen sexual encounters in Westworld are chaste by comparison, the questions he raises about desire and exploitation remain relevant, even prophetic.

In 1981, Crichton took aim at the sexually charged world of television advertising with Looker, which he wrote and directed. The film envisions a near future where naturally beautiful television models and product spokeswomen undergo extensive plastic surgery to create an ideal facial structure. The modifications, ratcheted down to the millimeter, help induce an “autohypnotic, suggestible trance” among the dopes glued to their TVs at home. To maximize the effect, the models’ pupils are tweaked in postproduction to glow neon blue—a sexier, pixilated equivalent of swinging a pocket watch. The corporation behind the scheme soon realizes that 3-D computer-generated models are more effective than human ones, and women start disappearing, tossed aside like Westworld scrap.

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Sex sells, and it also deceives. In The Great Train Robbery, which Crichton adapted in 1979 from his 1975 novel, thieves in Victorian England must secure four keys, each held by a different keeper, in order to crack a safe on a moving train. To outwit one particularly gullible key-holder, the group leans on the seductive powers of the mastermind’s mistress, portrayed by Lesley-Anne Down. In a sequence played for laughs, she distracts him while loosening her corset. On cue, Donald Sutherland’s hand pokes out from behind the curtains to fish through the man’s dropped trousers.

Other seductions aren’t always as inventive. In Physical Evidence, a 1989 legal thriller (or a “thriller that doesn’t thrill,” according to the Los Angeles Times), the romance between Burt Reynolds, a Boston cop framed for murder, and his lawyer, Theresa Russell, reaches its anticlimax when Reynolds finally makes a move. “No way, Jose,” Russell rebuffs. Reynolds delivers his verdict: “I ain’t Jose.”

In fairness, Physical Evidence is the only Crichton film not based on his own screenplay. It also lacks an undercurrent of technology and its capacity for deceit, which Crichton often applied, with success, to human (and robot) relationships. His novels Rising Sun and Disclosure, for example, are concerned with sex but hinge on how the act was captured on surveillance equipment. Adaptations of Crichton’s novels are too numerous to examine here, though director Philip Kaufman’s take on Rising Sun, released in 1993, warrants mention. It tells the story of a sexual encounter in a Los Angeles high-rise that ends in murder. (The woman’s body lies cold on a conference-room table, evoking the cadavers suspended by wires in Crichton’s medical mystery Coma, from 1978.) Most settings in Rising Sun are confined to the offices of a Japanese corporation, but the film inexplicably opens in a smoldering western town, where a woman held captive by bandits weeps on horseback. Her savior, a Japanese gunslinger in a black hat, keeps watch. It’s soon revealed to be an illusion—merely a short film playing as the scenic backdrop on a karaoke monitor in a seedy club. The man who will be revealed as the film’s prime suspect croons a Roy Rogers tune as the lyrics tumbleweed across the screen. The opening credits roll.

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Kaufman’s flourish is vintage Crichton: deceptive, tech savvy, staged. The gunslinger may also slyly reference the droid in black from Westworld, memorably made flesh by Yul Brynner. A decade before Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, Brynner was the original glutton for human punishment. After he provokes Benjamin in a saloon, Brynner is riddled with bullets, his back spraying tomato soup in slo-mo. It’s a raw, messy death. There’s actual weight to be dragged off, boots that scuff the floorboards.

In moments like these, Crichton summons his full powers as a filmmaker. While breaking away from the carefree travelogue and exploring the aftermath of a routine day in the park, he creates cinematic set pieces that rise above his often workmanlike output. A maintenance crew working the graveyard shift rolls into the town square. Working under portable klieg lights, they begin the daily grind of sweeping bodies from the streets and carting them off for reanimation. The bodies slide by conveyer belt into a triage unit, each one painstakingly rewired and cared for by technicians in a kind of robot ER. With a growing and perpetual body count, technicians must be skipping naps to stay afloat.

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The crudeness of the circuitry beneath the skin, which we see in lavish close-ups, brings the carnage home. The surfaces and textures of the future in Crichton’s films are undeniably dated: the floors are carpeted, not sleek; mustachioed heroes infiltrate sprawling corporate headquarters in search of evidence that would now be stashed in the cloud; plots move according to face-to-face confrontations, not keystrokes. But that quaintness and tactility contributes to the empathy we feel for the characters, and machines in particular, when they suffer abuse. The prop-robot innards of the original Westworld were painstakingly made by hand, forged at the altar of RadioShack, not created digitally, with budgets beyond measure.

Though Crichton’s films remains preserved in amber in the DVD dollar bin, his onscreen predictions have quietly endured, especially with regard to the hardware that shapes our daily lives. In Runaway, for example, the world is populated with drone cameras, driverless cars, and smartphones. The real-life deployment of these wonders has become increasingly surreal and destructive, even banal. This summer alone, humans have used robots to hold their place in line to buy the latest iPhone; public Wi-Fi kiosks in Manhattan were suspended after complaints of pedestrians skimming porn in plain view; and a speech-recognition robot dubbed Promobot twice escaped from its laboratory in Russia, ostensibly seeking freedom in the outside world. While the robot reportedly caused traffic jams during his breakout, he didn’t suffer the fate of HitchBOT, the famed robot hitchhiker beat to shit by pedestrians in Philadelphia last year. HitchBOT was programmed to keep his thumb in the air, not at his side. If only he’d been quicker on the draw.

James Hughes is a writer and editor in Chicago.