I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Robot Apocalypse: Michael Crichton's Paranoia

by Eric Magnuson
June 26, 2011

Michael Crichton was an intensely paranoid man. Between fearing Japan’s domination over the United States (see his 1992 novel Rising Sun) and his sinking suspicion that the U.S. was heading toward a Big Brother-like police state (as he alluded to in interviews), Crichton’s body of work was a conspiracy-laden catalog that warned of one sinister plot after another -- something was always lurking around the corner, waiting to turn everything to shit. But he showcased his paranoia most regularly when writing about technology (which, like most things, led to the downfall of humanity).

One of his earliest works exploring the theme was 1973’s Westworld, his motion-picture directorial debut. The action thriller follows two middle-aged men hoping to get their fix of Wild West violence and sex at an adult theme park populated by a cast of human-like robots. Something goes awry in the control room, however, and the robots end up turning on their human creators, killing nearly all of the park’s guests. So, yeah, it’s basically like Crichton’s Jurassic Park --but with robots!

“A trademark of a Michael Crichton story is that the more complex a society becomes, the greater the danger of something going wrong,” says the narrator in the making-of featurette for Westworld. No shit. Crichton milked that idea for three more decades. In the forward to his 2002 novel Prey (the murderous technology came in the form of nanotechnology this time around), Crichton wrote that, "sometime in the twenty-first century, our self-deluded recklessness will collide with our growing technological power." Although it wasn’t written or directed by Crichton, Westworld’s sequel, 1976’s Futureworld, took this technological paranoia a step further: Not only is the park populated by robots, but its masters are now robots as well---and they’re trying to replace humans in the outside world with robotic duplicates of themselves!

Both films are very much products of their era. As Time Magazine said in 1974: “The paranoid thriller is an expanding genre in movies and popular fiction.” Some associated the expanded paranoia with the public’s growing cynicism toward government. In the wake of three high-profile assassinations, scandals throughout the Vietnam War, and the Watergate break-in, a healthy dose of paranoia from the public was likely warranted. It spawned movies like the Parallax View and All the President’s Men -- even Futureworld features a pair of reporters trying to get to the bottom of the film’s conspiracy. Though, in its incredibly sexist portrayal of Blythe Danner as airheaded eye candy to Peter Fonda’s hard-nosed journalist, they’re definitely not Woodward and Bernstein. As Seventies cinema delved deeper into the fears and suspicions of what actually controlled the world, Crichton injected a technological flare into his audience’s paranoia.

Talking to American Cinematographer, Crichton contended that Westworld was inspired by astronauts and Disneyland: “I’d visited Kennedy Space Center and seen how astronauts were being trained---and I realized that they were really machines. Those guys were working very hard to make their responses, and even their heartbeats, as machine-like and predictable as possible. At the other extreme, one can go to Disneyland and see Abraham Lincoln standing up every 15 minutes to deliver the Gettysburg Address. That’s the case of a machine that had been made to look, talk and act like a person. I think it was that sort of a notion that got the picture started.” Maybe. But the basic premise of Westworld was already more than fifty years old by the time it hit theaters. The plot of the 1921 Czech play R.U.R. followed the rise of a race of artificial humans called “robots.” The robots end up revolting against their human creators and destroy the human race all together. In fact, the very term “robot” originates from R.U.R.

Humorously, or at least contrarily, for all of the fear that Westworld and Futureworld have for technology’s dominance over humankind, both movies utilize some of the era’s newest, most technologically advanced special effects. Westworld was the first Hollywood movie to use two-dimensional CGI -- which is so primitive that it’s difficult to believe that it’s actually computer generated -- and Futureworld was the first film to use three-dimensional CGI. Yes, an image of Peter Fonda’s giant head made cinematic history. They must have been pretty amazing effects at the time. Referring to Futureworld, Popular Mechanics went as far as to say that the movie’s “electronic wizardry and computerized high jinks create mind-blowing visual tricks.” They also called the movie a “special effects holiday” and a “visual blockbuster.” To give you an idea for how old that Popular Mechanics article is, the word “pixel” was so new at the time that the magazine put it between quotes in every single reference.

The movies are definitely quaint in their antiquity. Thirty-eight years have past since Westworld first premiered. Nearly one hundred years have passed since R.U.R. first arrived onstage. But have the paranoid fears borne out? Are we being ruthlessly murdered by the technology we’ve create? Well, no. People regularly argue that we’re imprisoned by our cell phones or that Google is making us dumber, and there are a subset of idiotic people who need to be airlifted out of national parks when their GPS devices break down and they didn’t have the sense to pack a real, hardcopy map. But the machines aren’t going completely berserk and killing us with guns. Well… except for that one time… in 2007… when an anti-aircraft cannon malfunctioned and blew away nine South African soldiers. But that was just one time! That wouldn’t happen again, right? Right? Come to think about it, I am getting a little suspicious about this computer I’m typing on right now. And my smart phone? Damn you, Michael Crichton! How will we survive?!

Crichton unwittingly gave sage advice on how to defeat the oncoming robot apocalypse in Electronic Life: How to Think About Computers, a 1983 how-to book he wrote that was supposed to get computer novices acquainted with their newfangled machines. “In my experience, you assert control over a computer -- show it who’s the boss -- by making it do something unique,” he wrote. “That means programming it….If you devote a couple of hours to programming a new machine, you’ll feel better about it ever afterwards.” All right, then, break out the C++ books. Let’s show these robot motherfuckers who’s boss!

Eric Magnuson is a freelance writer. His journalism has appeared in numerous publications, including Rolling StoneThe Nation, and Spin.com. His fiction has appeared in The Los Angeles Review.