Friday, January 7, 2011

1970s Classic Sci-Fi Double Feature: Westworld (1973) and Solyaris (1972)

Key Examples of the Sci-fi Genre

         Although I didn’t actually do a ‘true’ double feature in watching these two back-to-back (since Solyaris itself is nearly 3 hours long), I nevertheless recently watched each of these classic science-fiction movies which are both from the early 70s and are still highly regarded among sci-fi’s best. Interestingly, they both have remakes which I haven’t seen.  The George Clooney condensed remake Solaris, and there is a Westworld remake planned for 2012 with Russel Crowe.
       I had no clue this movie existed until reading about it in a “Top Sci-Fi Movies” article.  It is written and directed by the great Michael Crichton (the man who wrote the original novel for Jurassic Park).  Watching Westworld it is clear that this was his warm-up for that dinosaur adventure.  
       The plot of Westworld is that rich people are given the opportunity to stay at a resort/amusement park (for a steep price) where they can live in an authentically simulated wild-west kind of world.  They dress up as cowboys with all the necessary props to make it seem as real as possible. The main grab for visitors is that the world is filled with life-like animatronic cowboys who interact with the guests.  But eventually and inevitably, the robots go haywire and their ‘safety mode’ gets switched off and they attack the guests.  Sound familiar?  Replace the robots with dinosaurs!
      Although dealing with similar themes of Jurassic Park (man desiring complete control over nature/technology), this movie actually is more akin to the Simpsons episode where they go to Itchy & Scratchyland and the robots go berserk. The episode has numerous references to Westworld and they both deal with the nature of violence as some extent. 
I had put off seeing this film for a long time.  Often regarded as one of the best sci-fi movies ever made, it always interested me, but knowing that is was almost 3 hours long, more slowly placed than 2001: A Space Odyssey (ya, believe it!), only 3 characters and in Russian with subtitles seemed to keep me from ever watching it.  But it was definitely worth watching. 
The movie is somewhat about a man who is sent to a satellite orbiting a far away planet to investigate the hallucinations of the crew on board. The people onboard are trying to analyze the planet’s mysterious powers only to discover that is causing them to see visions of people from their past.  
The film is a slow burn and is very similar to 2001 in tone and atmosphere.  The main them of Solyaris however is a meditation on the effects of our memories and dealing with our past problems.  It is a very thoughtful film and has many things to say but in a very subtle manner.  
Summary: Both films are fine examples of the kinds of sci-fi movies that exist: the slow thoughtful ones that try to answer deep questions, and the unsubtle action romps that are high-concept.  Westworld is okay, but interesting if you want to watch a good ol’ robot rebellion or see the early ruminations of Jurassic Park; I have it ranked at #543 out of my 1414 movies on  Solyaris is insightful and beautiful at times but ultimately very slow and not nearly as great as 2001; this one is ranked at #359.

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