“Westworld” (Boy, have we got a vacation for you!)

Over the weekend my older daughter and I watched Westworld.  Again 🙂

Although we always enjoy this film for the story itself, we also get a kick out of deconstructing its “high tech” symbolism and noting anachronisms and things so commonplace and taken for granted in the early 1970s that their appearance onscreen is entirely unselfconscious.

For example, the accommodations on the hovercraft ride across the desert to Westworld, are reminiscent of the Pan Am 747 first class lounge (the one with the spiral staircase and fancy dining – video here).  It’s hard to imagine now that air travel could once have been so pleasant, even glamorous.

The scientists/engineers/technicians running the three “worlds” of Delos (WestWorld, MedievalWorld, and RomanWorld) all wear white lab coats and sit at monitors in an underground area that looks a lot like NASA’s Mission Control during the Apollo era.  The computer system that manages both the androids and all other power is characterized by whirring tape drives and blinking lights.  I don’t know if mainframes of the day actually looked like this, but that’s how computers played to 1970s movie audiences.

The “prostitute” and “sex model” androids have 1970s hairstyles, and one is wearing obvious, 1970s-fashionable blue eyeshadow.  When “slain” or otherwise damaged robots are taken in for repair or maintenance, the “shop” resembles an operating room, with all the technicians gowned and masked as if they are performing surgery instead of installing circuitry in machines.

Once the androids start killing human guests, and technicians in the central command center realize they have lost the ability to control robot behavior,  the decision is made to shut down all power to the three theme-park worlds.  Unfortunately, many of the androids continue to run on stored power – like Yul Brynner’s chilling gunslinger, whose purposeful thumbs-hitched-to-gunbelt stride contributes to one of the most memorable chase scenes in film history.  

The technicians try to turn the power back on again – only to realize that they can’t.  They are trapped (air-tight power doors that no longer open) and doomed to die (no air conditioning and no oxygen) as the temperature rises.  Apparently no one tries to contact the outside world for help, even though every computer monitor station has a phone (land line) that ought to operate even if the electricity is cut off.  When Richard Benjamin’s character is running for his life in the tunnels below Delos (brightly lit, despite no power), he finds the central control center and looks in through the unbreakable glass to see everybody dead at their posts.  The computer is busily whirring and blinking away.  Is that a metaphor?  The room is full of dead people, victims of their own hubris, while the technological monster they have created continues to function – apparently without needing electricity, without which both air systems and exits have shut down and the control station has plunged into darkness?

Speaking of computers, a couple of television shows in the early 1970s had episodes built around the premise of errors made by unreasonable computers.  There was The Partridge Family episode, for example, where 10-year-old Danny is drafted into the army and nothing can be done to halt his conscription because computers never make mistakes.  Was the general public of the pre-PC era really so gullible?

At the very end of the Westworld credits (and I like to watch the credits . . .), there is a note that the RomanWorld scenes were filmed at the estate of Harold Lloyd.  Harold Lloyd, the silent film star? 

Yes!  And what incredibly beautiful gardens he had, if what little we see of them in RomanWorld does them justice!  Thinking about Lloyd’s gardens then reminded me of Norma Desmond’s fabulous Mediterranean Revival mansion in Sunset Boulevard . . . and Don Lockwood’s similarly fabulous mansion in Singin’ in the Rain.  Silent film stars really must have lived like royalty, their melodramatic film performances but a pale imitation of the glamorous reality of their offscreen existence.

Which brings me to my main reason for posting about Westworld today.  Travel gives me perspective – just seeing that there is a bigger world and that so many other people are living their lives in it at the same time I am.  Watching movies, likewise, gives me a more expansive outlook. 

So there it is.  Westworld’s tagline is right: “Boy, have we got a vacation for you . . .”  I watched the film this weekend to be entertained, but at the same time I did some “traveling” of another sort – back to the era of jet-setting and “beautiful people,” to the early days of modern computing, to the larger-than-life film stars of the 1920s, and (last, but not least) to the hot-roller hairstyles and blue eyeshadow of the 1970s. 

A real change of scene, in so many senses of the word!

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. I also volunteer with a Milwaukee homeless sanctuary, Repairers of the Breach, as chair of the Communications and Fund Development Committee.
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2 Responses to “Westworld” (Boy, have we got a vacation for you!)

  1. I got into computers back in the 70s because I liked the blinking lights and the whirring tape drives!! Look how far we’ve come! I think we are in as much danger of being taken over by our own creations as ever! I think all the phone/internet/i-whatever technology holds us captive despite our protests otherwise! Actually is a bit scary. There was a recent Doctor Who episode, where everyone was permanantly connected to the internet with gagets stuck on their heads. And they were then able to be controled by Cyber men. Not too far off the mark!!


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