September 3, 2009

Theater Thursday-ish

This will be my first attempt at a Theater Thursday. Today's subject is "Westworld." (1973)

I watched Westworld last night. It was written and directed by Michael Crichton. Yes, that Michael Crichton. You will see some similar themes between this movie and a certain other series he wrote.

Westworld is one-third of a place called Delos, "The vacation of the future - today!" It's like an adult version of Disney World. And by Adult, they mean mature audiences only. Delos is divided into three worlds - Romanworld, Medievalworld and Westworld.

Romanworld is the world of carnal pleasures. Medievalworld is the world of luxury and fantasy. Westworld is the world of action and adventure.

When you go to Delos, you are completely immersed in the world, made up of "robots" (what we would consider andriods powered by Artificial Intelligence) that are almost indistinguishable from humans, in every way. They breathe, they bleed, they do pretty much everything. You are encouraged to indulge your every impulse, live out your every fantasy, all for only $1000 a day.

And then one day, everything goes horribly wrong....and the guests have to try and fight their way out with their lives....

Sound familiar? It's a good meme that Crichton works as well with robots as he did with dinosaurs. And for a special-effects 70's movie, it was really pretty good. Of course, there is a bit of cheesy acting and, yes, the computer technology they use is 40 years old (the "hi-tech" robots have very pixalated vision! That was funny!) but overall, not bad.

Watching Westworld, though, a thought struck me. I am a loud and proud sci-fi geek. It's been in my blood ever since childhood. When I was a kid, I would stay up late and watch Star Trek with my dad. That was the gateway drug, and I've been hooked ever since. I've even slightly infected SoldierMan - he now watches LOST and Fringe with me as an interested party. :)

Then I got older and realized that the world isn't very tolerant of people who actually admit they like things like Star Trek. Star Wars is a bit trendier, so that's safe. But anything other than that - anything that lets you understand the magnificent parody that is "Galaxy Quest" or might not be so mainstream like "Babylon 5" - well then, yeah, you're a freak, and we don't talk about things like that. Even after the new Star Trek movie last Spring, to say you enjoyed the original series - still not cool.

But as I was watching Wastworld, I thought, man, if only people took sci-fi seriously, they wouldn't be messing around with all this AI-computer-soldier crap, because it never turns out well. Hello, Terminator???

And this is the beauty of science fiction - more often than not, the lessons of sci-fi predate our real life experience.

For example, next time it's on the History Channel, be sure to DVR How William Shatner Changed the World. (It's not really about William Shatner). The documentary interviews the inventors of modern technology such as the cell phone and iTunes, and they tell us how they were inspired by specific Star Trek episodes or technology. So next time you feel like dissing Star Trek fans, give your iPhone or your Crackberry a nice cuddle and imagine life without it.

Sci-fi brings us more than technological advances, though. Sci-fi has a way of communicating transcendant truth better than other genre fiction, like romance or comedy. (Crichton's work is the perfect example of this.) Sci-fi reminds us that man is not god, and that there are still powers - nature, alien or machine - that are beyond our control. This isn't (typically) the message of mainstream "realistic" entertainment. "Realistic" entertainment tells us that once we get that job, get that guy or get that prize, all the pieces will fall into place and we are the masters of our universe. Sci-fi, while operating from the assumption that the individual is the product of his experiences and choices, understands that the journey is never really over, that you never really "arrive," that as long as you are still alive, there is still more to do and more to accomplish. For more on this, see this fabulous article over at Commentarama. It focuses on Star Trek, but the overall analysis of sci-fi is still applicable.

So, it boils down to, I am a proud sci-fi geek. And Westworld isn't heavy on the sci-fi elements, so if it isn't really your thing (yet), you should check this out.

And I'm not kidding about that AI soldier stuff. We really should just let well-enough alone. But, as the majority of society still refuses to accept the lessons of sci-fi, we may just have to learn the hard way.

And remember, keep an eye out for my upcoming giveaway - within the next week!


  1. That movie always reminded me of Logan's Run. "we must get to sanctuary" :)

    I also love that program "How Shatner changed the World"...he is so funny in it too.

  2. JG, I loved West World -- great flick! What it lacked in effects, it made up for with a really cool theme.

    On your bigger point, not to sound snobbish, but I think that many people don't like science fiction because they don't "get it." What I've often heard from people who don't like science fiction, is that they see the stories entirely literally. In other words, they have no ability to see how the story about the robot could have any application to their own lives because they don't know any robots. It never occured to them that the robot was an analogy for how we treat minorities or prisoners or each other. And I think, as is far too common in our species, rather than trying to figure it out and join the club, they would rather dismiss the club as beneath them. It's sour grapes.

    On your second point, I agree entirely. In many ways, science fiction is the philosophical debate about the future of ethics, and we should pay attention before we do something really, really stupid(er).

    P.S. Thanks for the plug!


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