'Westworld' Refresher: Take a Trip Back in Time to 1973, and Michael Crichton's Original Movie

Yul Brynner in 'Westworld' (1973)
Yul Brynner in ‘Westworld’ (1973)

Westworld, HBO’s years-in-the-making drama series from J.J. Abrams and husband-and-wife team Jonathan Nolan (co-writer of The Dark Knight) and Lisa Joy Nolan, finally debuts this Sunday on the wave of some positive reviews. It’s inspired by Michael Crichton’s 1973 movie of the same name, set at a decadent high-tech amusement park called Delos, that’s worth revisiting before the new series begins.

Westworld was the first film directed by Crichton, a former medical doctor whose breakthrough novel, The Andromeda Strain, was turned into a 1971 movie directed by Robert Wise. Its success brought Crichton the opportunity to direct his original script for Westworld at MGM (though only after every other studio turned it down).

Related: HBO’s ‘Westworld’: See Season 1 Photos

The film tells the story of two friends, Peter (Richard Benjamin) and John (James Brolin), on vacation at Delos. The park has three areas, all staffed by eerily realistic robots that guests can fight, kill, or even have sex with. The adventurous pair pick the cowboy-themed West World over Medieval World and Roman World.

But things quickly go south: Some kind of bug flips out the androids, causing them to malfunction or break down. After a knight in Medieval World kills a guest, an attempt to shut down the park succeeds only in trapping everyone inside with the rampaging robots. The deadly Gunslinger (memorably played by Yul Brynner, star of 1960’s The Magnificent Seven) stalks Peter and John.

‘Westworld’ (1973): Watch the trailer:

Beginning with an opening documentary-style commercial, Crichton does an extraordinary job of world-building, suggesting an expansive setting that extends far beyond the frame. Contrasting modern-day attitudes with Old West and sci-fi elements taps into something quite compelling, of man stripping down to his nature (similar to other films around the same time, like John Boorman’s Deliverance in 1972).

But Crichton can’t quite stick the landing, with the film becoming a more conventional thriller in its last third as the unstoppable Gunslinger (an obvious inspiration point for The Terminator a few years later) chases Peter through the abandoned park.

Related: Yul Brynner’s Daughter Shares Memories of Growing Up With ‘The King and I’

Crichton would later perfect his theme-park-goes-wrong formula with the colossal hit novel-turned-film Jurassic Park. And the new TV series intriguingly twists the idea by focusing as much on the increasingly self-aware robots, who are used and abused by the visitors, as on the people. If it works, Westworld’s promising start of more than 40 years ago finally may be fulfilled.

HBO’s ‘Westworld’: Watch the trailer: