Fantasy and exploitation

by Gerald Mead and Sam Applebaum

from Jump Cut, no. 7, 1975, pp. 12-13
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1975, 2004

“I've always acted alone. Americans admire the cowboy leading the caravan alone astride his horse, the cowboy entering a village or city alone on his horse. He acts, that’s all: aiming at the right spot at the right time.”—Time magazine, September 3, 1973, quoting Henry Kissinger’s remarks to Oriana Fallaci.

Most science fiction films tend to disguise, and thereby reveal more schematically, the present’s social or psychological preoccupations . That is what Michael Crichton attempted in his two books, The Andromeda Strain and The Terminal Man, and that is what he undertook in WESTWORLD, his first directorial effort. Here again his subjects are the fears and fantasies of the U.S. psyche. Unlike the two novels’ sometimes ambiguous irony, however, WESTWORLD develops an explicit moral perspective.

Although the film does not dismiss or even question the existence of fantasies, it does attempt to point out the dangers of a certain type of fantasy. More directly, the film criticizes the commercial exploitation and the technological dependence through which these fantasies and desires are or might be gratified. Its analysis, however, is confused. The solution it offers is at best misleading. The problem is not so much one of the filmic materials or structures but, as we shall attempt to point out, the ways in which they are used and the conclusions to which they are forced to lead.

WESTWORLD opens with an advertisement for a vacation at a unique resort. For $1,000 a day a guest is invited to live out his or her fantasies in one of three made-to-order dream spots: “Romanworld,” a re-creation of the images of decadence and sensualism of a villa in Pompeii; “Medieval world,” a vision of romance, intrigue and rivalry set in a 13th Century English castle; and “Westworld,” the realization of an imaginary western U.S. town of the late 19th Century, including bar, bordello, boarding house, and bank. The inhabitants of these fantasy worlds—slaves, knights, wenches, barmaids, gunslingers, and even horses and snakes—are all marvelously real robots, watched over, repaired, and recharged nightly by a crew of underground scientists and computer technicians. The robots are controlled with a kind of programmed spontaneity to respond “authentically” and satisfyingly to the anticipated desires of the guests. The film follows mainly the activities of two such guests, John Blane (James Brolin) and Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin), who, after some initial self-conscious hesitations, soon learn to indulge fully in Westworld’s pleasures. Cuts to the villa and the castle reveal that the other guests have also adjusted to their materialized desires.

Crichton’s perspective on the spectacle is external and critical at this point. He shows that the fantasies the guests at Westworld are urged to act out are foolish and often degrading stereotypes of human dream life. They are petrified images of childhood desires—cowboys, knights, Roman or medieval beauties—animated by impunious destruction and sexual assault. The victims of these objectifications, however, are not real persons being treated as objects (sex objects, aggression objects, authority objects, etc.), but mere things (robots, in fact) cast in the role of human beings treated as objects. They only appear to be real, living persons.

This deception forms the basic structure of Crichton’s ironic commentary on the current state of society’s efforts to pander to and to realize such stereotyped views of the human psyche. We want to realize them without recognizing or facing them for what they are. The viewer is kept more conscious of the illusionary nature of these realizations through frequent cuts to the video monitoring and technical jargon of the computer control room. The control room scenes reveal not only the guests’ willing self-deception, but also the consumer research and programming that form the real controlling forces behind guests’ “spontaneous actions.

By developing this double point of view—“Westworld” as seen by the guests and “Westworld” as seen by the programmers and technicians—Crichton expands his critical view. As the guests sleep, we see the victims and debris of their day’s fun carefully gathered up by workmen in white coveralls, to be resuscitated and restored in an assembly line operating room. This is so that by morning yesterday’s barroom brawl has been erased, and the same gunslinger or tempting lady can swagger down the street as new victims for the day’s activities. Obviously, Crichton here is deploring the extravagant use of science and human skill and effort to create a childish and not even very imaginative playground for adult self-indulgence. And, at the same time, he is exposing the profit making impulses behind certain kinds of scientific exploitation of human prejudices or weaknesses.

But is he making a more subtle, more penetrating comment as well? Does the destruction-restoration sequence which characterizes the day and night cycle at “Westworld” call into question the all too familiar notion that U.S. technology, backed up by seemingly unlimited economic resources, can totally restore or even erase the most violent acts of cruelty, waste, and destruction? Such, at least, are the implications of these scenes. They are echoed by various other instances of the dual perspective in the film. But this commentary on U.S. moral strategy and policy, if indeed it is a criticism, remains only latent, overshadowed by the dominant dramatic conflict of the film.

WESTWORLD’s operational structure—the gratification of base fantasies for fun and profit—occupies nearly the whole first half of the film. But that is only background material, an exposition to the drama that lies ahead. It is in the dramatic struggle and its outcome that Crichton’s moral voice becomes obvious and explicit. It’s no surprise to anyone, except the characters in the story, that the resort’s reassuring slogan, .”.. where nothing can possibly go wrong,” becomes a terrifying irony. The complications begin with an unexplained increase in instances of “central malfunction” in some of the robots, a breakdown the resort directors do not consider serious until a few of the robots refuse to respond “logically” and begin to function naturally: A rattlesnake strikes and wounds a visitor. A programmed peasant maid refuses the advances of a repulsive would-be seducer. The gunslinger outdraws and kills a clumsy human challenger. Efforts to shut down prove useless and the “dream” turns to “nightmare.” Guest after guest is destroyed in the holocaust of machines gone haywire.

Is this the price people are to pay for the commercial gratification of their media-induced desires and fantasies? That is the scary spectacle Crichton puts on the screen, like so many science fiction moralists before him. His is more credible, perhaps, because Disneyland and Bibleworld do exist. And computer errors and machine breakdowns are real. Here it is more frightening, perhaps, because the machines look and act like humans. Crichton’s solution, too, follows the rules of the genre: When the robots who are programmed to satisfy the anticipated desires break down and begin to attack the guests, when the dream turns to nightmare and the illusion becomes real, it is up to people to fight back. It is up to Richard Benjamin, the last human alive at the resort, to avenge his friend’s death and that of all the other humans by destroying the human simulacrum, Yul Brynner, the robot gunslinger gone mad, who is now intent on killing instead of being killed.

The last half of the film follows this drama. Benjamin tries first to escape the gunslinger and then, when that proves impossible, to destroy him, first with bullets, then with acid, and finally, strength and will nearly exhausted, by burning him “to death.” (The published script calls for the gunslinger to be “literally pulled apart” on a medieval rack, but this sequence, along with a number of others, have been changed or deleted in the screen version.) The film ends with a close up of the bewildered but triumphant hero sitting on some steps near the robot’s charred remains while an off-screen voice ironically echoes the opening advertisement for “Westworld,” .”.. where nothing can possibly go wrong.”

What we are to understand seems clear: Machines and technology pose a potential threat to people, they can and do become our “enemy.” Therefore, in order to protect ourselves from this threat, each of us must be on our guard against the invasion of plastic, mechanical, electronic culture. Each of us must heroically assert his or her fundamental “humanness” for simple survival in the face of the disguised alien force. The attitude here is no different from countless other science fiction films where scientific experimentation or expertise is shown to result inevitably in the release of forces determined to annihilate humankind. One has only to think of GODZILLA, RODAN, ON THE BEACH, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, etc., where atomic energy is identified with evil. Here, as in those examples, the distinction “human“/ “nonhuman” (monster, machine, scientific device) is shown as an antagonistic opposition, leading naturally to a death struggle.

The difference is that Crichton’s film does not delete or even naturalize the reality behind the myth: the source of the antagonism in WESTWORLD is clear. The problem is that Crichton does nothing with this perception. Rather, he uses it as a simple ironic commentary, ignoring its analytic or critical value. It is clear, for example, from the opening shot, that the very existence of the “Westworld” complex is the result of a conscious human decision to exploit men and women—and the reasons for that particular style of exploitation are irrelevant. And it is even clearer that the decision to keep “Westworld” open, even after some potentially dangerous malfunctions are recognized, is made in the interest of the economic health of the organization, the corporation.

Yet Crichton seems to use this structure simply as an ironic point of view to reveal the guests’ naiveté. In the end, the directors, programmers, and technicians are themselves, along with the guests, “innocent” victims of an inexplicable robot disease, a kind of “natural” epidemic (an “unpredictable,” mass short-circuit or an “act of God”). In other words, initially we are given a basis for understanding the economic sources of the human/ machine conflict. In the end, however, this proves to be a simple inoculation, the admission of a small wrong. The original explanation becomes insignificant as the distinction between human and machine is deformed to lead away from an economically motivated conflict and into a dramatized natural antagonism. The drama turns on “good” person versus “evil” machine. The result is that WESTWORLD ends up by reinforcing the same myth and endorsing the same ideology as these other films: Technology is the enemy of humanity. If humanity is destroyed, it is the fault of each individual for not having fought hard enough against the common enemy. We are left in the position of the punch press operator who is beating his machine with a wrench while cursing its designer for his fatigue and anger. And we have no opportunity to step out of this ideological structure to consider the possibility of men and women using science or machines to better their lives. Crichton’s film turns out to be an exploitation rather than an illumination of the human/ machine distinction, an exploitation of conflict and fear.

The human/ machine conflict is compounded because the machine in WESTWORLD is a human simulacrum, robot look-alikes and act-alikes. This relation, which is the film’s single most constant statement, is also the source of the viewer’s attitude—whether it be fear, horror, or indignation—as well as the basis for the moral triumph which concludes the story. The simplest expression of the relation is provided by the characters themselves, by Richard Benjamin’s innocent curiosity, “How many of them are, uh ...?” and by his inability to distinguish, right up to the end of the film, between human and robot. At one point, in fact, he himself is mistaken by a technician for a robot. The viewer, of course, inasmuch as he or she enters into the fictional world of the film, shares this curiosity and confusion although to a lesser degree because of the ironic crosscutting to the technician’s point of view. Imposed on the human/ machine conflict, then, is a second structure: human versus “human” machine. This opposition, because of the similarity of its opposing terms, frequently disappears—you can't tell the humans from the “non-humans—dissolving along with itself the human/machine conflict or opposition. We, characters and spectators, are given signs by which to recognize the non-humans, some of them obvious but unexplained: There is a prominent ridging at the finger joints, which, according to the script, “gives the whole thing away.” We see frequent shots of the robots’ “expressionless” eyes (due to one-way contact lenses). And there are other simply obvious signs, such as the total submission to the clichés of the guests’ imagination and desires. But because of the nature of the opposition and the dynamics in which these signs are involved, they represent, in reality, signs of a human relationship.

Although the identity question is posed in terms of a robot/ human opposition, it functions, both for the guests and for the viewer, as a strictly human question. The film’s images and events, which determine the characters’ attitudes and which provoke our emotional participation and identification (comprehension) are, of necessity, human images and events. Only when Benjamin succeeds in suppressing his embarrassment at exploiting machines and begins to believe fully that he is dealing with people does he begin to enjoy his vacation. “You know something? This place is really fun,” he remarks after a session with a (robot) prostitute. And the illusion works the same way for the other guests. It is not their conscious awareness that these are robots, non-human machines, that determines their reactions, but rather their feeling and conviction that these “others” are some kind of less-than-human humans, real, living objectifications of their fantasies. So what we have in fact are the beginnings of a rather thinly disguised racial perspective, an exploitation justified by an explanation—the “others” are less than human—and by an economic right—the “guests” pay. The finger joints and eyes are not simple tooling marks or manufacturer’s tags. They are the structural equivalents of “slanted eyes” or “kinky hair” in any racist ideology or psychology. They are racial characteristics. At this affective or psychological level, the underlying technological “reality” functions only as a reassurance to the guests.

The spectator’s attitudes reinforce this perspective. First of all because we are urged to share, in spite of the early ironies, the perceptions and feelings of Benjamin, Brolin, and the other “humans.” But more importantly it’s because we know that these “others” are not the creation of a Hollywood or Disneyland fabricator. We see and we know that Crichton is filming real rattlesnakes and horses, real people playing roles, at least real actors and actresses. This awareness is not the same as that which allows any viewer to discredit the narrative in any fictional film. At least it is functioning here within the framework of the fiction of WESTWORLD by providing support for the characters’ attitudes in the form of signs of real life, reinforcements of their enjoyment through belief in the illusion. The robot shots showing plasticized skin and transistorized viscera are simply metaphoric inserts, studio effects: We view a robot breast or blood spurting from a robot stomach with the same credibility or interest as when we see similar images in other fictional films. Their value is a human value. For the spectator too, then, the science fiction adventure is only a thin disguise for images and events whose meaning and impact are determined by a human value system.

The structure’s dramatic and moral potentials are obvious, and Crichton’s choices in these areas are revealing. WESTWORLD’s makers and its publicity campaign claim to offer us the entertaining spectacle of an accidental catastrophe. It warns of the risks of a not too distant future where people’s foolish desires and technological skills may succeed in destroying them. But this spectacle’s   events and images, and the discomfort and fears they evoke, are drawn from the most dramatic contemporary sources. What we are actually shown and what we are asked to respond to is a vision of oppression followed by an enraged revolt and subsequent suppression of the “other,” the terrifying, fearful spectacle of these less-than-human humans who refuse our programming.

It seems hardly coincidental, for instance, that Crichton should choose to burn his deranged gunslinger away, especially at a time (released summer 1973) when most Americans were haunted, or maybe just pestered, by the image of some “madman” igniting himself in front of impassive onlookers, or by visions of napalmed “fanatics” thrashing their charred bodies in the debris of battle. Nor does it seem coincidental that for the leader of the robot revolt Crichton should cast the former king of Thailand, the leader of the mad Huns, Mexican radical, inscrutable hired killer, the suggestively Mongol-featured Yul Brynner. Along with infrared sensing devices, weapons that kill only the “enemy,” willing, thankful prostitutes, etc., WESTWORLD simply provides the triumphant, guiltless hero that Indochina didn't. The avenger and moral example is Richard Benjamin, who brings his boy-next-door honesty, sensitivity, and automatic courage (from GOOD-BYE COLUMBUS) to WESTWORLD to destroy the berserk enemy. He is the hero who will return to Chicago to tell us of the horrors he has lived through and to warn us of our own danger. In reality he simply represents a terrified act of self-preservation. His moral lesson is nothing more than a reassuring and misleading coverup of critical and real human prejudices and conflicts.

Nor does Crichton seem to be any more aware of these problems than his hero. His remarks in the introduction to the WESTWORLD script, “I like to think that audiences have fun with this film. We had fun making it,” are hardly those of a director conscious of the fears and prejudices he is putting on the screen. They suggest, rather, a somewhat unreflective consciousness, mystified by its own mystifications.