It’s easy to assume that the popular 2016 TV Series, Westworld, was the first spinoff piece of media inspired by the Michael Crichton original.
In fact, the Westworld franchise has been slightly more prolific than one might expect. The new HBO show isn’t even the first TV show based on the futuristic theme park. It was actually Beyond Westworld, a 1980 TV series starring Jim McMullan and James Wainwright. Unfortunately it was pulled from the schedules after only 3 episodes had aired.
Of course, before the 2016 series, arguably the most famous of the follow-ons was the sequel Futureworld. A sequel, however, that did not involve Michael Crichton or most of the original’s characters or primary crew.
Doesn’t bode well, does it?
Set two years after the events of Westworld, the theme park known as Delos has reopened to the public. Having spent $1.5 billion in order to improve public safety, the park also now consists of four worlds: Spaworld, Medievalworld, Ancient Romanworld, and Futureworld. Westworld, meanwhile, has been abandoned.
Though doing reasonably well in terms of visitors, the park wishes to improve its publicity. Thus they invite reporters Chuck Browning (Peter Fonda) and Tracy Ballard (Blythe Danner) to review their operation.
Browning, being one of Delos’ most famous critics after the Westworld Disaster, refuses to believe in the changes, especially after an informant with inside information is murdered.
Together, Browning and Ballard are determined to do what it takes to uncover the secrets of Delos.
On its face, Futureworld is a far greater visual accomplishment than its predecessor. The addition $1.25 million budget has been used to great effect by creating a far more expansive world than the original.
That said, the visual distinctiveness is more or less restricted to the film’s first half. Later scenes are instead set in the bowels of Delos, which strangely (and boringly) look like endless miles of pipes, valves and boilers. As the character of Ballard perceptively remarks:
“It is about as exciting as a visit to the waterworks.”
But this visual failure in the second half is not the film’s most glaring problem. That honour instead belongs to the utter lack of an antagonist. While overtures are made to the evil and despicable nature of the Delos organisation, it’s in no way a suitable replacement for having an actual physical representation of a villain.
In some ways, it feels that the desire to have “the system” be the main adversary was inspired by the political and cultural situation of 1976 America. Being only two years after the Watergate Scandal; the film’s decision to have two investigative journalists try to uncover a conspiracy is a blatant reflection of Woodward, Bernstein and their real-life pursuit of the truth.
That said, this change of direction can somewhat be appreciated. It would have been easy to do another “theme park going crazy” type of plot (a la Jurassic World). But the decision to go for a more sinister and low-key approach, while not entirely successful, does at least make Futureworld stand out compared to other sequels.
But this change of direction does also make the film’s ending slightly unappealing. While reasonably built up to, it seems oddly “positive” and is a titanic turnaround from the downbeat and ominous finish of the original.
Unlike what seems to be the general consensus, Futureworld is not a lesser film than Westworld. But neither is it better. Rather both films merely take vastly different approaches to the idea of a robot theme park, resulting in a variety of positive and negatives outcomes.