Thursday, October 13, 2016

Who is Most Evil: Yul Brynner or Ed Harris?

Review: Westworld (HBO Series) with Evan Rachel Wood, Ed Harris, Anthony Hopkins, James Marsden —vs— Westworld (1973 MGM Film) with Yul Brynner, Richard Benjamin, James Brolin

Based on the novel of the same name by Michael Crickton, the 1973 Westworld film (directed by Crichton) featured a loose-jowled, black-clad Yul Brynner as the cold-eyed gunman robot in a theme park designed to thrill guests with gun-fights, saloon-girls, high-stakes gambling, and outlaw-hunting. Brynner's robot was programmed to be threatening, but unable to kill any human. It was designed to lose in the end to any guest who challenged him.

It isn't until that programming "goes wrong" that robots begin to kill the human guests.

In the HBO series, the gunman who loses is still a "host" (this version's name for the robots), and the shooter is still a human. But this time, the black hat and dead-soul stare over the gunsights belong to the human, Ed Harris. And what an evil fellow he is, too! This nameless guest is determined to find a way to stay in the park, killing with abandon, and indulging all the base appetites a man can possess.

Others have commented about the rich world-building of the HBO production, and the casting of star-class film actors Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris and James Marsden, plus small-screen stars like Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright, and Luke Hemsworth. If we've seen the 1973 film, we have a general idea of the storyline and its destination. So I'd rather focus on why Ed Harris' gunman is so much more sinister than Brynner's was.

I think the first reason is simple. A robot is amoral by nature; its motivations and goals are not its own. They come from its programming, which is, in the end, a human product. Any "evil by design" host in the HBO series came from the workshop with that vileness built in.

Harris, on the other hand, has chosen to be vile. He can have a dead-soul stare because he had a soul to kill in the first place; he has stepped onto the path to hell of his own free will. As a robot, Brynner had no free will to make a choice. Even his "evil" actions are the result of human error, not his own.

In addition to the philosophic difference, the truth is that the Westworld of the HBO series is darker than the one we saw in the 70s. Even the "white-hat" guests are encouraged to indulge vices. None of them are expected to be saints, and the park is designed to offer darker and darker "narratives" to accomodate their slide from virtue. Thus, the evil espoused by Harris needs to be crueler, more heartless, than the ordinary sinners who pay to live out dark fantasies for a few days.

Finally, Harris is tall and lean, sharp-cut, a steel knife of a figure. He is physically more menacing than Brynner could be in this role. Coupled with the human evil he represents, the dire threat offered by the gunman in black is as obvious and bone-chilling as a rattler's warning. 

Or perhaps more so, in this playground where rattlenakes are mere scenery, and "only man is vile."

Liner Notes:

  1. Listening to the the player-piano music in Episode 1, I was surprised to hear the classic "Black Hole Sun" by Soundgarden (one of my favorite pieces of music), followed by the Stone's "Paint It Black." By Episode 2, I was listening intently during all the saloon scenes, and was rewarded with Radiohead's "No Surprises." 
  2. It was nice to see actor Jimmi Simpson in Episode 2, playing the nebbish part he has done so well in multiple TV shows before this. He seems more balanced in it than the similar role played by Richard Benjamin in the MGM movie version.
  3. Keep an eye on the young boy character who has shown up several times now. Is he a human guest? Or a memory of Anthony Hopkin's character, made flesh?