Wednesday, July 16, 2014

SMOAT Double-Features #2!!! (Westworld/Death Race 2000)

More and more lately, I have been thinking that if I were ever to try to write some kind of popcult-inflected memoir about what was on the airwaves and in the multiplexes when I was a kid and how it influenced me personally along with wide swaths of my generation, the title of said work would probably be "On the Brink of Dystopia". The trope of the terrible yet plausible future of human society felt like it was everywhere when I was growing up. When I heard firehouse sirens, I thought about incoming nuclear warheads. When I saw helicopters in the sky, I thought about fascist police states. I'm well aware now that dystopian fiction has been around since long before I was born and persists as a (highly lucrative, see Divergent, Hunger Games, etc.) sub-genre to this day, but I feel like there was a big peak for the notion in the 70's and 80's. Then again, maybe everything evergreen always seems to hit its highest highs during any given individual's formative years, thanks to the subjectivity of personal memory.

In any case, the double-feature at hand this week would slot in nicely in the memoir I proposed above: 1973's Westworld and 1975's Death Race 2000. It is by no means coincidence that the flicks happen to bracket the year of my birth. As I was coming into the world, there was no shortage of differing views on what that world would look like once I was a young adult.

Westworld is the latest entry in the long line of entertainments that I've taken the time to actually, belatedly experience firsthand after spending most of my life at least being aware of what they signify, what the elemental iconography they contribute is, and so on. Everyone knows that Westworld is about tourists to a futuristic theme park populated by lifelike robots, who end up terrorized by a mechanized gunslinger, played by Yul Brynner, whose programming goes rogue. I can confidently say now that if that is all you know about Westworld, you're good. There's more to it, of course, but not necessarily anything worth the investment of time to gain insight into.

I have been evolving a scale for gauging the quality of a movie based on its inherent compulsive watchability, which is greatly facilitated by my habit of watching movies on a portable dvd player as I commute to and fro on the VRE (which puts the T in SMOAT, after all). I can only watch about 50 minutes at a time, which is generally enough time to watch an entire feature-length film in a single day, the first half in the morning and the second half in the afternoon. Because I'm forced to take an eight or nine hour intermission at the midpoint of the movie, I'm able to evaluate how eager I am to keep going and/or return to the movie as soon as possible. For a middle-of-the-road movie, I'll get on the homebound train and settle into my seat and maybe check a few internet destinations on my phone while the signal is good before firing up the dvd player. The better the movie, the quicker I'll switch on the player, which for some movies means I actually resume watching on the train platform and semi-awkwardly climb into the vestibule and make my way down the aisle with one eye on my fellow commuters I'm trying not to bump and one eye on the screen. The worse the movie, the less of a hurry, and sometimes half the commute home goes by before I flip to movie mode. Westworld proved to be in the "no particular hurry" category.

The movie is, for the most part, incredibly slow, verging on boring. On the one hand, that's a symptom of a certain commitment to verisimilitude. In order to facilitate the suspension of disbelief, the behind-the-scenes goings on for Westworld (and Medievalworld, and Romanworld, which we'll get back to) are shown in numerous scenes, scenes which remind me of being at work: lots of dorky engineers sitting around in windowless, soulless rooms going through the repetitive tasks of their respective job duties. To a certain extent it does make Westworld seem like a real place and not just magical sci-fi, but it's all so mundane.

The scenes in Westworld themselves aren't that much more interesting. There's a glimmer of an idea about exaggerating modern angst and projecting it into a future where amusements like Westworld would be possible. Richard Benjamin plays Peter Martin as a sensitive new-age guy who is still hurting over a recent divorce, while James Brolin plays his best friend John Blane as a happy, laid-back bechelor. On the plane trip to Westworld Peter is full of questions that give away how excited he is to experience the place for the first time, while John is too cool for school, having been there before. After they arrive, they switch attitudes somewhat, with peter having a hard time getting into the spirit and John becoming more enthusiastic.

But Peter seems to have it right, because what exactly is the point of Westworld? That was the question I kept returning to in my mind as I slogged through the movie. It's basically a sanitized, Disney-fied version of the Old West, where the clothing is vaguely period-accurate but also immaculately clean, and where everyone is given a "real" six-shooter but those irons have advanced computer sensors which prevent them from being fired at human targets. That's where the robots come in: if you want to get into a shootout in Westworld, you can only shoot at the lifelike machines. (Similarly, if you want to have sex with a lady of the evening, she'll be a robot too, which is presumed by the movie to be "fun" even though I thought it would be creepy as anything. But this never gets explored.) Yul Brynner's gunslinger picks a fight with Peter, and peter shoots the robot "dead". But overnight the technicians repair the robot and he is back among the "living" the next day, whereupon he goes after ... John, for some reason, giving Peter the opportunity to come to John's rescue. Then Peter is arrested for "killing" the gunslinger, giving John the opportunity to break Peter out of prison. Later, the two buddies get into a prolonged, cartoonish barroom brawl with some other robots, with real punches thrown and real furniture broken, which leaves both peter and John unconscious on the saloon floor for the night.

Perhaps you begin to see the fundamental disconnect in the core concept here. Westworld is billed in the story world as an "authentic" experience, but everything about it is fake and resets in the morning. It's a lot like LARPing, or playing a virtual reality video game, though, for all the consequences. Until the consequences start becoming all too real, as when the gunslinger returns yet again and shoots John dead, then proceeds to hunt Peter down. Due to some defect, which even the technicians don't understand because their own robots were created with computer-assisted design and no human being "really" understands how they work, the gunslinger is able to override its programming prohibitions against killing humans. OK, except why in the world did the gunslinger ever have a real gun and real bullets??? Why not give everyone, guests and robots alike, perfect replica light guns or something else essentially harmless?

Again, there's a glimmer of an idea buried in here somewhere. Take the barroom brawl: is a good barroom brawl fun to watch, in a western? Absolutely it is. Would it be fun to take part in one, one in which you were actually getting physically assaulted with minimal regard to your physical safety, one in which you ended up cold knocked out? With all due respect to Chuck Palahniuk, I think not! Is it more fun to have a fake shootout with a robot that can't hurt you, knowing the robot is still nevertheless inexplicably packing actual heat? Again, I think not, but then again I don't have a death wish or strong self-destructive desires. If the movie had gotten into the psychology a little more deeply, of why exactly people would want to escape from polite society and enter a manufactured world of violence and lawlessness, I think the movie could have offered a lot more. But we never really see the world outside the resorts, the way that people who can't afford thousand-dollar-a-day vacations live. Instead it's just a bunch of privileged nonsense, and not even enough nonsense to be confined to a single theme park. Romanworld and Medievalworld seem to exist solely to pad out the running time, to show other nerfed historical reenactments and the people playing around in them, before the robots go all murderous on everyone.

Ultimately the story lost me when the gunslinger at one point has Peter dead to rights, almost at point blank range, and misses his shot. So Peter is able to run away again and stumble onto a scientist who delivers some extremely convenient info about robot weaknesses, which gives Peter a fighting chance to take down the gunslinger. The climax of the movie plays out like a bad slasher flick, where Peter runs, the gunslinger pursues, Peter fights back, the gunslinger proves unstoppable, over and over and over until the gunslinger's ultimate destruction, which of course turns out to be the penultimate destruction just before one last jump scare reappearance just before the real, ultimate destruction. It all takes the fundamental question "what if an unstoppable machine designed to be a harmless antagonist suddenly became an actual antagonist" and answers it in the dullest way possible: "well you'd have to outrun it for a while and keep throwing acid at it or setting it on fire until you finally broke it enough that you stopped it." The end.

For a movie with such a reputation of being cool, and presenting Yul Brynner as such a badass, it's fairly disappointing to actually sit down and watch Westworld trying so hard to be serious and meaningful only to wind up dreary and meaningless. If you want to see Yul as an awesome cowboy, watch The Magnificent Seven.

Death Race 2000 has multiple elements in common with Westworld in addition to its near-future setting. Both lean heavily on violence for its own sake, and examine the potential entertainment value of such violence. As a result, both have a lot of the same special effects of the era, including fake blood that looks nothing like blood, but rather has the color and consistency of primary red tempera paint. Both make unapologetic use of character archetypes to leave more room for advancing the plot, trusting the audience to bring with them everything they need to know about a "brooding divorcee" or a "stoic man of mystery". Having said all that, the two movies could not be more different, nor could my separate viewing experiences. After watching the first 65% or so of Death Race 2000 on the way to work one morning, I actually took my half-hour lunch in the park across the street so I could watch the rest of it as soon as possible. Granted, there was another factor at play as well, namely that Death Race 2000 is a gratuitous shockfest and I didn't want to offend the sensibilities of whomever I ended up seated next to on the way home. But it was not what I would call a slog.

The premise of Death Race 2000 is gloriously simple: once a year the United States holds a cross-country automobile race, with the champion earning a certain amount of wealth and celebrity, and the people of the U.S. appeased in their bloodlust for another year. The race consists of five drivers, each with a navigator/mechanic, and the winner of the race is determined by points, with some assigned for finishing the race first (or at all, as the drivers are essentially encouraged to take one another out en route) and some assigned for running down and killing pedestrians. Complicating matters in the race in the year 2000 is the fact that a growing resistance to the reign of Mr. President has developed, and they have infiltrated the race with one of their own, a pretty blonde girl named Annie, as the navigator/mechanic for the most popular driver and favorite to win, Frankenstein.

If that sounds stupid, I assure you it is supposed to. This is a movie that glories in its own stupidity, presenting itself as nothing less than live-action Looney Tunes with the "adult" sensibilities of a stunted adolescent. The very beginning of the movie shows a stadium full of screaming fans, as the drivers are introduced one by one. First is Calamity Jane, driving a car decorated to look like a bull, complete with longhorns suitable for stabbing the unwary. (All of the cars are small open-top sportsters like Fiat Spiders and VW Karmann-Ghias, all of which I simply thought of as "modified Mach V from Speed Racer" models, because again, this is all very cartoon-like.) Next is Matilda the Hun, bedecked in Nazi regalia (Time Ghost Alert: Death Race 2000 was made closer to WWII than to today), and I smiled a bit at the wordplay. Next up is Nero the Hero in his lion-shaped car, and holy crap it's the guy who plays the evil dojo master in The Karate Kid! He's followed by Chicago gangster Joe Viterbo and HOLY CRAP IT'S SYLVESTER STALLONE!!! His car is black with a knife blade in the middle of the grille and machine guns in place of headlights. Finally, Frankenstein arrives in his monster car, a Vette which Wikipedia says is supposed to be styled like an alligator, although the teeth and scales look more creature feature than nature documentary.

And after the intros they're off, and the orgy of vehicular mayhem commences, totally and intentionally and unapologetically over the top. This is a Roger Corman-produced film, after all. Unlike Westworld, which got bogged down in minutiae and ponderousness, Death Race 2000 goes from punchline to punchline with pitch black humor. The question of when and how Frankenstein's new co-pilot is going to betray him in fulfilling her mission to assassinate the president is of course answered by having the two fall in love, and revealing that Frankenstein is as much a victim of the system as anyone, with his own plan to assassinate the President. Frankenstein and Annie win (read: are the lone survivors of) the race, kill the President, Frankenstein is elected new President and restores liberty, he and Annie get married, and everyone lives happily ever after. That last sentence plays out over about the last three to five minutes of the movie. Everything before that coda is non-stop sex and violence and burning rubber.

And yet, for all its juvenile presentation, Death Race manages to come across as smarter than Westworld, too. It's a scathing satire of government and sports and social issues, and how the media covers those things while serving or being outright controlled by them. The movie has a point of view, which is a fairly cynical estimation of the human condition as a mindless mob howling for ever-escalating spectacle, but a point of view nonetheless. And as hilariously breathless as the coda is, it at least acknowledges that not all hope for civilization is lost, that change is possible and we can be ruled by our better natures. Westworld, by contrast, is a bone-dry examination of a high concept that challenges few assumptions: out-of-control technology is dangerous, no kidding. Death Race 2000 doesn't just get its hands dirty, it wallows around in filth, but at least its provocations land a few good shots against worthy targets.

Once again I seem to have written far more about what I didn't like about a mediocre movie than what I did like about a highly entertaining one. It's easier to be a critic than a fan, I suppose, though I keep trying to balance the two.

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