Movies I Want Everyone to See: Westworld (1973)

This is another entry in the Pre-Star Wars inventory of great science fiction movies of the early 1970s. While the story moves forward in some slightly clunky ways, and there are some premises that defy logic in order to get to the climax, the crux of the concept is exciting and fun. The even more important point is how significant the movie is to future films in the genre. It continues to reverberate even today and makes a visit to this retro futuristic amusement park a necessity for anyone who loves the action and adventure of films from Spielberg and Cameron.

The premise is simple and enticing for anyone with a sense of adventure and a lot of cash. For a $1000 a day, adults can play in a fantasy world called Delos. The park has three distinct themes, Roman World, Medieval World and Westworld. Visitors are fitted out for cosplay and given the opportunity to indulge the pleasures of the times they have chosen. This would include the orgies of Rome, the loose serving wenches of a castle and the prairie angels that  serviced the weary cowpokes with a poke at the end of the trail. In addition there will be gladiatorial contests, sword duels and shootouts on the dusty streets of a western town.

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Richard Benjamin and James Brolin are Peter Martin and John Blane, two affluent businessmen on a vacation designed to get Benjamin’s character over a recent nasty divorce.  John has visited Westworld before and Brolin plays the opening sections of the film as an experienced visitor amused at his friends enthusiasm and his other various trip anxieties. Peter is the naive, gee whiz neophyte who wants to enjoy all the parks amenities but is a little concerned about potential embarrassment and danger. Delos is able to provide such adult fantasy play by loading it’s parks with the latest technology, lifelike robots that are fully functional in all the important ways. The promise is that the fantasy is 100% safe. Famous last words.

Michael Crichton, the writer/director of Westworld, was a well known novelist making his directorial debut. He had written other highly entertaining films before this, including the Science Fiction technology thriller “The Andromeda Strain”. His milieu was technology and many of his well known books feature stories of technology going wrong; “Sphere”, “The Terminal Man”,”Congo”. The most successful movie made from one of his stories is “Jurassic Park” about an amusement park where science is not able to control it’s attractions. Basically, “Jurassic Park” is “Westworld” with dinosaurs.  Everybody probably remembers that great line from Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcom, “Yeah, but, John, if The Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don’t eat the tourists”. It was actually the second time such a concept was used by him. Reportedly, Crichton was inspired to write “Westworld” after a visit to Disneyland where he was impressed by the animatronics in “Pirates of the Caribbean”.

The movie would be a voyeuristic dud if they had stuck to the simple premise of the park. In order to create suspense and thrills, the rules of the park will breakdown as the technology does. As a result, that which is supposed to be a naughty rich man’s fantasy turns into his nightmare. The explanation for how things start to go wrong sounds suspiciously like a computer virus; which at that point had not really been thought of. So Crichton’s  work is oddly prescient, although his film language was a little bit crude. In the early part of his career, the film stories often feel a bit clumsy as they try to bring to life a great idea. “Coma” and “Looker” are two other examples of this failing. They each have solid premises but hit some bumps along the way. If you thought it was weirdly convenient that all the technicians  were off the island in “Jurassic Park“, you will notice how it is even more awkward the way  the employees at Delos are handled in the story.

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???????????????????????????????????Peter and John engage in the fantasy play that they paid for. The have a bar fight, spend the night with the ladies of the bordello where they are staying, they even get to do a jailbreak. On multiple occasions they face down the gunslinger character that is their nemesis. The first of those events comes in a traditional barroom standoff. It makes perfect sense. The second confrontation is more visually interesting but it is largely unexplained. The point is that Brolin and Benjamin begin to take their conflicts and the outcomes for granted. There are however some warning signs that foreshadow their danger. In a parallel story set in the Medieval section of the park, a lecherous   customer also sees some faults in the system. His animatronic paramour actually rejects him which goes against all the fantasy he is paying for. When Mel Brooks said “it’s good to be the king” he had apparently not visited Delos Medieval World before.

???????????????????????????????????It takes an hour of the near ninety minute running time to get to the real drama of the story. As everything is being set up we get a backstage view of the technology and some of the problems that the administrators faced. Like John Hammond twenty years later, they are convinced that they can manage their dream despite the overwhelming technology challenges they face.  This is another place where the story telling has to rely on less than smooth technique from the first time director. The guys in lab coats talk out problems instead of visualizing them. The futuristic aspects of the park come down to long hallways filled with inadequate lighting. There are only a couple of moments where we see the robots in their true form as they are being repaired. These moments are handled well on a limited budget but they feel somewhat stilted.

Westworld is a simple story that is told in a basic, sometimes crude manner. It was successful enough to have a sequel, “Futureworld” where the plot is more intricate and the acting and motivation a lot more polished. So if the film is not a masterpiece of cinema technique, why is it a film I want you to see? Well I have already mentioned the story line is the crib sheet for the more successful “Jurassic Park”. There is however a second feature that portends future science fiction lexicon; the unstoppable killing machine. It can’t be argued with, it can’t be bargained with and it will not stop until you are dead. Yul Bryner plays a variation of his “Magnificent Seven” character here. The foreboding shootist with few words all dressed in black.

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As our city slickers once again confront the tin target set up for them to take down, the outcome changes. This is when the movie basically becomes “The Terminator” for the last twenty minutes. Just as Sarah Conner learned, a robot is never finished when you want it to be, our hero struggles repeatedly to finish off and outwit the mechanical man pursuing him. Eleven years before Arnold Schwarzenegger donned the black leather, unholstered his weapon, and chased down his prey, Crichton had his mechanical harbinger of doom do the same thing in almost exactly the same manner. When you watch the machine like swagger of the gunfighter, it is easy to see the future Terminator walking relentlessly toward us. There is an early computerized point of view shot from the gunfighter  that consists of heat signatures and fuzzy pixels. Both of these ideas will be used in future films featuring robots or aliens tracking down their targets.

You should find it easy to ignore the plot loopholes on park safety and the scarcity of assistance toward the end because you will identify with the customers. They came for a good time and they are getting so much more than they bargained for. This film will find ways to give you your monies worth even when it frustrates you with amateur film mistakes. The story concept and the vision of the  wild west as a robot will echo forward to better films that are all well loved by the movie audience, but those films owe a huge debt to Westworld.

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Richard Kirkham is a lifelong movie enthusiast from Southern California. While embracing all genres of film making, he is especially moved to write about and share his memories of movies from his formative years, the glorious 1970s. His personal blog, featuring current film reviews as well as his Summers of the 1970s movie project, can be found at Kirkham A Movie A Day.

Movies I Want Everyone to See: Role Models

This Post was Originally Published on the Defunct Site “Fogs’ Movie Reviews” in the Fall of 2013.

I just bought tickets for three different Concerts in February for the Kiss End of the Road Tour, so this seemed like an easy pick to return to this month.

This is an easy one this week. There is no historical value, cinema language, or back story intrigue to make this a movie you should see. It is just funny as all get out with wiseacre talk, inappropriate life lessons and a cast of funny people who are just trying to entertain you for a couple of hours. If you are a fan of films like “I Love You Man” or “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” then you don’t want to miss this treat starring the slacker gods Sean William Scott and Paul Rudd. This is dumb comedy done in a smart way and it has so many quotable lines that it could easily displace Caddyshack on the list of guy movies that guys will quote incessantly.

The premise is basic. Two guys who work together get into a legal tangle and have to do some community service as a way of avoiding jail time. They get sent over to “Sturdy Wings” a mentoring organization along the lines of Big Brothers. Here they are matched with a couple of youngsters and the bonding and hilarity ensue.

I’m not sure why Sean William Scott gets the crap I hear flung at him. He has made a bunch of films that are entertaining and while he is not really a thespian per se, he is usually cast very well and “Role Models” may very well be his perfect role. As Wheeler, the less ambitious and more socially satisfied of the two, he espouses wisdom like a college student, after midnight on a three hour buzz from the hot box he got out of on his way to the frat party.  While there are some drug references, this is not a stoner film like the Seth Rogan comedies of the past ten years. Wheeler is an amiable goof who probably will not get far in life but who deserves every friend he has.

Typical Wheeler Philosophy:

Wheeler: Never stare at the boobies, kid. Once you get caught, the game’s over.

Ronnie Shields: But how?

Wheeler: It’s called training. You know, being aware without drawing attention. You don’t think I’ve noticed those 34 C’s in the camouflage tank top setting up a tent directly to the left of us? Or how about those twin cannons hiking up a mountain ridge 50 yards due west? Or the ridge itself? Round mounds of grass shaped like…

Ronnie Shields: Boobies!

Wheeler: Don’t look over there. Look here. Focus… You’ll get it.

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Wheeler’s counterpart is Danny, the spokesperson for an energy drink who despises his job. Danny is at the point in life where he is afraid he is settling and he does not like it. Paul Rudd plays him as if he has a chip on his shoulder and he uses it to justify being a douche to everyone around him.  Obviously, the events in the film are designed to be a wake up call for him to adjust his attitude. Thankfully, before that happens we get an exchange like this:

Danny: Large black coffee.

Barista: Do you mean a venti?

Danny: No, I mean a large.

Barista: Venti is large.

Danny: No, venti is twenty. Large is large. In fact, tall is large and grande is Spanish for large. Venti is the only one that doesn’t mean large. It’s also the only one that’s Italian. Congratulations, you’re stupid in three languages.

Role Models movie image Jane LynchSturdy Wings is founded and run by addict turned do-gooder Gayle Sweeny, played by the acerbic Jane Lynch. She is in the movie for about ten minutes and steals every scene she appears in. Her lines are some of the most foul and most quotable and of course the most funny. Before she was drained of all her charm by “Glee” she made this movie a comic gem by her presence.  If “Big Bird” was a human, he’d look and move like Gayle (of course that language would never come out of his mouth).

The two kids that Danny and Wheeler get matched up with are nightmares themselves. Ronnie, is a pre teen firecracker with the mouth of a sailor. In a battle of wits with Wheeler, the kid wins most of the time. Bobb’e J. Thompson has personality to spare and he plays up the part so well that I wondered how they got away with the dialogue he has to speak. Maybe I’m a little sheltered but if I met a nine year old kid with a mouth like that, I’d be looking for child protective services to take him out of the environment he is being raised in.

Christopher Mintz-Plasse is so familiar a face in movies now a days, that it is hard to remember what a sensation he was in “Superbad”. This was his next role, playing the awkward Augie. A socially maladjusted teen, maybe a little old for the program but who needs the kind of attention a good pal would bring. You get a sense of what kind of fun friend he could be when he encourages Danny to use the phrase “Whispering Eye”.  I won’t spoil it for you if you have not yet seen this.

A lot happens in the film as the two losers try to meet their hours of public service but don’t quite get how this service works. There is admittedly a cliche heartwarming plot line that takes up the second act and will have few surprises but a bucket load of laughs. Sometimes the last part of a movie is a letdown for viewers. How can the characters live up to the potential that has been created in the first two thirds of the movie. “Role Models” answers that question by bringing in the greatest plot twist a classic rock fan like me could want. A special guest appearance by “Kiss”. OK, not really but  in spirit at least.

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It’s too complicated to explain so just let the joy of the moment of arrival wash over you. I cheered and laughed and decided right there that this was the greatest movie ever made! I don’t really think so but ask me at the right time and I could commit to that opinion again.

My guess is that most of you have seen the movie so this is a reminder that it should be experienced on a regular basis. It is full of odd ball characters and incredibly funny snark. If you have never watched it, get ready for a blast. If you get to Wheeler’s explanation of Paul Stanley’s lyrics of “Love Gun” and you don’t laugh, turn off the movie and good luck to you. Everybody else should get ready to “Rock and Roll all Night and Part of Every day.” (sic)

Richard Kirkham is a lifelong movie enthusiast from Southern California. While embracing all genres of film making, he is especially moved to write about and share his memories of movies from his formative years, the glorious 1970s. His personal blog, featuring current film reviews as well as his Summers of the 1970s movie project, can be found at Kirkham A Movie A Day.

Movies I Want Everyone to See: Soylent Green

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In the world of Science Fiction, most readers of novels, viewers of television and movies will always remember a strong ending to a story. The “Twilight Zone” was famous for the twist sucker punch finale of most of the episodes. In the popular culture, when an image or a quote becomes a meme understood by all, it is clear that the work has tapped into something important to the times, politics or people. Charlton Heston is the star of many a movie meme. Moses standing at the Red Sea parting the waves, Ben Hur, either chained to the oars of the Roman Battle cruiser or with rein in hand on a Chariot. His most famous image however is as a dismayed misanthrope pounding sand on a beach in front of the ruins of one of the most recognizable symbols in the world at the end of “Planet of the Apes”.  Heston has at least one other great moment of Science Fiction history in his vita, the denouncement at the end of the movie “Soylent Green”. It is another moment parodied and understood by masses of people, most of whom have never seen the movie. I don’t want his refrain to be the only thing people know about the film so this week “Soylent Green” is the movie I want everyone to see.

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“Soylent Green” is one of those great 1970s Science Fiction movies that is more about ideas than about special effects. Before the juggernaut that is “Star Wars” came along, most Science Fiction lived in the imagination more than the vision of a story. There were occasional exceptions like “Forbidden Planet” and “2001”, but for each of those visually rich movies, there were a dozen other films that made do with small budgets, limited effects and big ideas. Films like “Seconds”, “A Boy and His Dog”, “Damnation Alley” or “The Omega Man” drew in audience mostly with interesting concepts. Sometimes like with “Planet of the Apes” there was spectacular art direction and set design, but even in that film the visual factor relies on our willingness to accept the story in order to then accept the vision. Most of these films are cautionary tales that try to speak to the worries of the times in which they were made, and “Soylent Green” was one of the finest examples of playing on those contemporary fears.

Stanford Biologist Paul Ehrlich published a book called “The Population Bomb” that predicted a coming world of Malthusian Nightmares. It spawned a whole industry of doomsayers and environmental prophets who suggested that the Earth was over populated and over polluted. The theme of “Soylent Green” is derived from this stream of fearful environmentalism of the early 1970s. This dystopian world is not threatened by nuclear annihilation but starvation and overcrowding. Of course there has also been a substantial amount of global warming to screw up the planet’s food supplies as well. Most of this is brilliantly summarized by the title sequence which uses a combination of photos, pacing and music to show us what has happened and is coming.

It was simple and to the point. It was also forty years ago, so perhaps it is a little premature to send us all to a living hell but once the premise is set up the story follows it quite well. William Simonson, a director of the Soylent Corporation is murdered and although there are hundreds of murders a day in the overcrowded world, one detective is unwilling to accept that it is a random burglary.  Simonson lives in a luxurious apartment that comes equipped with special security, a bodyguard and living furniture that he can enjoy to his hearts content. It just seems too convenient that  the bodyguard was out shopping for groceries with the furniture at the moment this important man was killed in his building. A building where the security system is on the fritz when the apartment is broken into.

Heston plays the determined cop who engages in the kind of casual corruption that seems to be as prevalent in the future as it was in the 1970s with Al Pacino’s “Serpico”. Detective Thorn is not a bad guy, but he appears to be a vulture at the scene of the crime, scooping up whatever luxury item is likely to go unmissed. Everybody gets a little taste, from his boss to the grunts that remove the body. Thorn takes some vegetables and meat which are incredibly rare commodities in the future. Most people have to survive on manufactured nutrition wafers of different composition, including the recently introduced “Soylent Green”. He also acquires a couple of rare technical books that he will not be able to make sense out of but which ought to please his partner Sol Roth, an elderly man who serves as the equivalent of Wikipedia for the future police force.

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Most of you know an old timer or two who provides a link to the past. They share stories of the good old days and relate how the world was a better place in their youth (much like your current narrator). For the most part we can dismiss those stories as the nostalgia of an older generation (you know, they walked five miles up hill to school in the snow and then five miles uphill home at the end of the day). This movie posits that the memories of the older generation are not rambling condemnations of change but accurate histories of things that have in fact been lost. The collective of older “books” is known as the Exchange and Sol takes the information from the two Oceanographic Reports that Thorn brought him to the Exchange for evaluation.

The film is a police procedural about a conspiratorial secret which the powers that be are determined to keep a secret. Most of this was pretty standard stuff, but several aspects of the setting make the story so much more compelling. The way in which the citizens have to live, on rationed water, limited food supplies, sleeping on staircases shows how the environment has decayed. The world of the dead man stands in stark contrast to the rest of the population. A rich man with a sex partner who comes with the apartment and access to items that are incredibly out of reach to the rest of the population may seem an unsympathetic victim. We have seen however that there was a sense of guilt in his death, we are aware that there is a conspiracy and we watch Thorn as he picks at each link and follows his instincts to arrive at the truth. In the process the future world is revealed to us bit by bit.

edward gThe term “bromance” has cropped up in the last few years to describe stories that are about the friendship between two men. Buddy pictures have been around since the days of silent film, and up through the point this was released so was Edward G. Robinson. The partnership between Sol and Thorn is the real relationship in the movie. Heston’s character does get involved with the “furniture” of the dead man, but all of the really emotional moments of the film involve him and the old man. From some of the earliest of sound films, Robinson played gangsters, doctors and bureaucrats. He was the definitive gangster for the first decade of sound movies as “Little Cesar”. “Soylent Green” gave him the opportunity to go out on a high note. This was his last film and he played it for all that was on the page. The scene where Sol prepares the purloined food for a meal for Heston is a good example. Sol, enjoys it with relish and equally enjoys watching Thorn, who has never had anything like this enjoy as well. Robinson waves his plastic utensils as if they were a baton and he was conducting an orchestra. The crescendo of the piece is the belch Heston gives at the end of the most satisfying meal of his life. Apparently this scene was not in the script and was improvised by the two actors with the prompting of the director. It was a special touch to show their relationship and the world of the time.  At one point Heston’s boss suggests he might need a new “book” but the detective demurs and continues to have faith in his room mate/partner/father figure.

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faith-quabius-soylent-green-with-edgar-g-robinsonThe other great sequence featuring Robinson, and one that is sadly ironic, is Sol’s decision to end his own story. When advocates of euthanasia speak of giving patients back their dignity and providing comfort at the end, they must surely envision a scene like the one that takes place at the end of the second act. Older people desiring to die, troop into a modernistic building, fill out a form and then have some final comforts attended to. Robinson was dying of cancer when the movie was made and he was almost completely deaf. We would all hope that his passing would be as beautiful as was depicted here in the processing center referred to as “home” by those seeking an end to their time on Earth. Thorn gets the final proof for the motive of the executive’s murder by following his friend through his passage home. As you watch what is really a simple sequence of wonderful pastoral scenes and listen to the comforting and thrilling classical score, you realize how devastating the loss of the world as it was would be to those able to remember it.

The themes and characters have been shared with you a bit, now let’s talk about the production. In today’s world, this would be a movie crammed with futuristic CGI vistas and sets that were created in a computer. The costumes and equipment would be imagined in fantastic ways to make us feel as if we were in the future. The science fiction films of the seventies were often done on modest budgets and almost always had to make due with creative use of location and existing props. A luxury apartment of the future comes equipped with the latest video game (here it is an early version of Pong). Food riots need to be staged on a New York City back lot, but to make it more futuristic, garbage trucks are modified to remove people rather than trash. The euthanasia center is the googie architectural structure of the L.A. Sports arena and it’s futuristic clean style lobby. The focus stays on the ideas rather than the “wow” factor of the look. Even the two books that Thorn confiscates, they are not digital readouts on an i-pad style device, they are simply over-sized volumes given slick covers to convey an advanced type of publishing, nothing fancy but slightly noticeable.

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The horrible secret of “Soylent Green” has probably been used as a punchline by thousands of people who never even saw the movie. The fact that the last line has reached into and grabbed the public consciousness is evidence of the effectiveness of the idea behind the film. We are on an environmental brink that may change the relationship of human beings to one another in catastrophic ways. The immorality of a choice might be mitigated by the exigencies of the moment. The movie is an action based detective conspiracy story, but the thought it contains is provocative and the story highlights that issue rather than pushing it aside for action. Just five years after he stands in for the sucker punched audience in front of the Statue of Liberty, Heston finishes another iconic Science fiction thought with his dire warning and outstretched hand. Another entertaining science fiction movie is capped off with a thought that is frightening and thought provoking.

Special Note:

This is the first of my series on Fogs Movie Reviews [Now, Movies I Want Everyone to See] to cover a film I wrote about on my original Movie A Day Project from 2010. If you are interested in a comparison of the posts click here, I did not refer to this earlier post when writing this so you will see  some differences in voice and view but probably not too many in attitude or style. Enjoy.

Richard Kirkham is a lifelong movie enthusiast from Southern California. While embracing all genres of film making, he is especially moved to write about and share his memories of movies from his formative years, the glorious 1970s. His personal blog, featuring current film reviews as well as his Summers of the 1970s movie project, can be found at Kirkham A Movie A Day.