Michael Crichton | Critical Essay by J. P. Telotte

This literature criticism consists of approximately 16 pages of analysis & critique of Michael Crichton.
This section contains 4,656 words
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Critical Essay by J. P. Telotte

SOURCE: "Westworld, Futureworld, and the World's Obscenity," in State of the Fantastic: Studies in the Theory and Practice of Fantastic Literature and Film, edited by Nicholas Ruddick, Greenwood Press, 1990, pp. 179-88.

Telotte is an American critic and educator who frequently writes about film and film history: his works include Dreams of Darkness: Fantasy and the Films of Val Lewton (1985) and Voices in the Dark: The Narrative Patterns of Film Noir (1989). In the following essay, he utilizes key concepts from French philosopher and sociologist Jean Baudrillard in an examination of how Westworld and its seguel, Futureworld, portray the dangers of living in a technological society where the boundaries between reality and fantasy break down.

The schizo is bereft of every scene, open to everything in spite of himself, living in the greatest confusion. He is himself obscene, the obscene prey of the world's obscenity. What characterizes him is less the loss of the real, the light years of estrangement from the real, the pathos of distance and radical separation, as is commonly said: but … the absolute proximity, the total instantaneity of things, the feeling of no defense, no retreat. It is the end of interiority and intimacy, the overexposure and transparence of the world which traverses him without obstacle. He can no longer produce the limits of his own being. [Jean Baudrillard, "The Ecstasy of Communication," translated by John Johnston, in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, edited by Hal Foster, 1983.]

In the modern world, Jean Baudrillard suggests, we seem to be in the process of redefining our relationship to reality. We no longer inhabit a world of objects separate and distinct from the Self, one of objective spectacle; rather, thanks to what he terms the "ecstasy of communication" that has evaporated many traditional boundaries, we seem to move, much like a culture of schizophrenics, in a world of blurred distinctions—in fact, in a world where the real seems practically to have vanished. The result, he feels, is a kind of "obscenity" characterizing modern life, a forced and intimate mingling of the Self and the world, a confusion that can be at the same time frightening and exhilarating, and one with which we are finding it difficult to come to terms.

We can find this shift from distance to intimacy, from detachment to obscenity, precisely measured in a series of films that take as their very focus what Baudrillard calls "the loss of the real." Michael Crichton's Westworld (1973) and its sequel Futureworld (1976) depict a near future in which man's technological ability to reshape reality, even to tailor his own versions of the real, becomes yoked to the gratification of his innermost desires. The experiences that result from the loss of distance in these films suggest a kind of threatening obscenity that may lurk even in what may conventionally seem the least "obscene" of contexts: a cold, rational, thoroughly technologized modern world. As Baudrillard might put it, these films obscenely sketch the difficulty of being human—or at least of being something other than a schizophrenic human—in a technological age.

But let me clarify first what Baudrillard means by the "world's obscenity." The truly obscene, he says in "The Ecstasy of Communication" (1983) rests not in any display or abuse of the body, but in the very displayability of all things in the modern world, in their immediate openness and vulnerability. Literally, it denotes a standing in front of the scene of life, without any secure boundaries or borders for protection, with the Self left open and defenseless. In this humanly shaped, technologically defined, media-suffused environment, all distinctions between public and private space seem to disappear, as private life and public spectacle collapse together, so that everything "becomes transparence and immediate visibility" in an excessive way reminiscent of a "sexual close-up in a porno film." While the distinction we once enjoyed between public and private served a salutary function—a "symbolic benefit"—of constituting an Other for the Self (so affirming "that the Other exists"), its contemporary collapse and attendant "forced extroversion of all interiority" leave us unsure of our limits, uncertain in what the Self consists, lost in a veritable culture of schizophrenics.

Westworld and Futureworld address just such a turn of circumstance, as if reflecting a growing awareness of how much our sense of Self has collapsed, disappeared, been swallowed up by an "obscene" modern world. What these films describe is a process at work in our technologized environment—a tendency of the Self to disappear that is directly proportional to its growing ability to rework this world. Both films take place in a kind of Disneyland for adults, a place devoted to translating private "scenes" into public space. The first begins in the future with a television commercial touting a new theme park, Delos, which offers visitors three venues for their amusement: Romanworld, Medievalworld, and Westworld. The second film starts with a similar televised introduction to the theme park but emphasizes that this is a reopening of a redesigned world, pointedly different, safer yet more exciting than its predecessor, and with more venues from which to choose. In effect, it is a reconstruction of a world dedicated to reconstruction and thus a place where the very notion of limits or differentiation seems practically irrelevant.

What both films have in common—and what seems to constitute their main attraction—is not simply the quaintly different experiences they describe in these public arenas; rather, it is the human dimension they give to those experiences. As a commercial advertising Delos notes at the start of Westworld, these vacation venues are peopled with "robots scientifically programmed to look, act, talk, and even bleed just like humans do," and they "are there to serve you and to give you the most unique vacation experience of your life." In Futureworld that impulse goes a step farther, as a vacationland peopled with even more lifelike robots and partly designed by robots begins producing a next generation of genetically engineered, programed beings, completely indistinguishable from their human models and intent on taking their places in the outside world. In fact, since the original robots were already nearly indistinguishable from the guests, it might be argued that this process is already well advanced. By linking the appeal of this human similitude to the ultimate threat that every double invariably poses—namely, that it might replace the Self—these films suggest a sense of self that is rapidly collapsing, becoming schizophrenic in the face of this world's "obscenity."

At the outset, both films reassuringly suggest a context of distance, a public space quite separate from the private one about which we are often so protective. As their very titles imply, they seem to designate other worlds and other times than our own. Like Disney World, these venues simply offer visitors re-creations or spectacles for their amusement. Indeed the space they describe can only be reached by hovercraft in Westworld and by jumbo jet in Futureworld, and the trips to this isolated locale are infrequent. Delos is, in effect, portrayed as the ultimate "getaway" from the real world.

However, the real—and the nearness to which we can approach it—is the true lure of this resort. The various vacation worlds, guests are assured, are "precise to the smallest detail." In testimony to this precision, a returning vacationer gushes, "It's the realest thing I've ever done; I mean that!" Of course, this remark hints at a general impoverishment of human experience, at a common inability of the people in this world to gain meaningful access to reality in their normal lives, as if the everyday was already little more than a public space, a realm of simulacra, an unreal world inhabited by people who are increasingly unsure of their own reality. While the Delos experience is presented as a resort or vacation from the pressures of the real world, then, it seems designed as a kind of insulation against a universal "loss of the real." By offering guests a wealth of simulacra, an almost obscene surfeit of what they are encouraged to take for the real, it disguises that condition of loss and effectively re-presents itself as more real than the real.

This strange mixture of distance and intimacy, of a desire to get away from the world and a need to gain some new contact with it, says much about the project of both films. On one level, these theme parks by their very nature thrive on obliterating distance, on inviting guests to cast off—along with their normal inhibitions—any sense that what they are experiencing is different from the real. The cowboys who get shot in Westworld look like, fall like, and bleed like the real thing. The maidens who are pursued and bedded by the "knights" visiting Medievalworld feel and respond like the real thing. The slaves who are used and abused in Romanworld's orgies and circuses appear genuinely human. They seem intended to put us back in touch with ourselves, to help us regain a lost private Self. Yet on another level, these worlds encourage a kind of retreat from whatever reality they seem to represent—a retreat from pain, responsibility, human caring, ultimately from the world we inhabit.

They are, in a sense, realms that cater to—and effectively reinforce—the general schizophrenia of modern life. Delos is designed to encourage visitors to immerse themselves completely in these ersatz environments, to take on and, for a short time, live to the hilt whatever roles they might desire. As one vacationer, John, tells his partner Pete in Westworld, "You got to get into the feel of things." Yet even on the simplest level that "feel" turns out to be rather discomforting. As Pete quickly notes about the "West of the 1880s" with its scratchy clothes, dirty streets, and poor accommodations, "At least they could have made it more comfortable." Even in the antiseptic conditions of simulated spaceflight in Futureworld, the response is similar; as one anxious guest puts it to another, "There's nothing to worry about; it's all play-like. We're not really going anywhere—I think."

Of course, visitors like John and Pete are made comfortable in other ways—for instance, by the willing companionship of robot "saloon girls." Moreover, the gunslingers are programed to lose every gunfight, while at night clean-up crews remove the "bodies" and restock the venues with more "authentic" characters and future victims. Yet for all this, one can only really enjoy these worlds by becoming a kind of schizophrenic. Violence and even murder become exciting acts but only insofar as the guest puts aside his normal Self and acts freely in the knowledge that ultimately no one is truly hurt. A successful encounter with a gunslinger makes the pulse race and strokes the ego but only because the encounter is rigged from the start. As one character explains, the guns "won't fire at anything with a high body temperature, only something cold like a machine," so the guest always wins. In effect, every encounter, including a sexual dalliance with a saloon girl or Roman slave, requires that the human involved adopt two personalities at the same time: that of the participant, fully committed to this "real" experience; and that of the observer, who stands safely outside this reality, beyond the implications of his involvement, able to relish his seemingly irresistible or invulnerable self.

What Westworld proceeds to explore is the danger that accompanies this schizophrenia. As is almost invariably the case in narratives that begin by describing an achieved technological perfection, something goes wrong. Robots begin acting contrary to their programing. In a kind of technological reworking of original sin, the logic circuits on a snake fail to respond, a medieval queen programed for infidelity refuses a guest's seduction, another guest is stabbed at a duel, and the robot gunslinger starts winning his showdowns by shooting the guests. The controls go awry, leaving the technicians locked in their airtight control rooms, where eventually they all suffocate. In such circumstances the observing and participating Selves suddenly and disturbingly collapse together, and in that collapse any sense of irresistibility or invulnerability quickly vanishes.

The ultimate getaway that Westworld describes thus simply models the sort of schizophrenia toward which much of modern life seems heading. It is, after a fashion, a getaway of the Self from the Self, a splitting of the Self that, the film warns, can only end in a collapse of those identities in upon the Other—a collapse imaged in the figure of Pete, who slumps down exhausted and terrified at film's end, as he waits for the next onslaught of the seemingly implacable, infinitely renewable robot gunslinger who has been stalking him. Like the technicians who earlier asserted that they were in full control of their robotic paradise, only to end up trapped and suffocated, Pete and the other guests at Delos are left with precisely the "feeling of no defense, no retreat" Baudrillard describes; or, as one of the dying technicians simply puts it, "You haven't got a chance." To yield to that modern schizophrenia—the ultimate vacation—the film suggests, leaves one with no private space to which to retreat, and thus unable to offer any resistance, totally vulnerable to the "world's obscenity."

If Futureworld makes that schizophrenic menace more explicit, it also seems to accept it as almost a given of modern life. During the credit sequence, the camera tracks in to a close-up of a human eye, in the iris of which we see reflected an image of a man. We move closer and closer to that reflected image until all we see is his eye, the iris of which eventually matches, even replaces, that of the original eye into which we had been looking. So when the camera tracks back out to the face with which the scene began—a face identical to that of the reflected image—we can no longer tell whose eye or face we see. It is a disturbing scene that sets the tone for the ensuing narrative; it is an image in which all sense of distance blurs, in which man comes face to face with his own image, and in which an eye not only matches but eventually replaces its model. What that image quickly points to is not only a potential for alternate versions of the Self, but also the menace implicit in all duplication tales—in the blurring of distinctions between versions of the Self, coincident with a distortion of the space the Self occupies. With its opening focus on the eye, implying a threat to the very way in which we see, Futureworld challenges viewers to see clearly and confront squarely the challenge of the simulacrum.

The opening pattern of duplication and replacement is again linked to the effort to turn the private into the public. This film too focuses on the "dream resort" Delos, which has improved and expanded its operation—indeed, it even promises to expand into the ultimate private space, the world of our dreams. The main emphasis of this film, though, is on how Delos operates. As newspaper reporter Chuck Browning and television personality Tracy Ballard tour the reopened resort, what comes into focus is less its Disney World allure than its curious inner workings, less the spectacles it offers than the impulses that drive it and the way it tries to reshape everything, including its visitors, as spectacle. Everything here seems to be appropriated and publicized: every action is displayed on television screens, every robotic function produces a host of sensor readings, every interaction with a visitor is carefully monitored. Delos's latest innovation takes this universal monitoring to its logical end: it is a machine that lets one look directly into the mind, a dream chamber that can "convert thought waves back into the images the mind creates," and thereby turn one's dreams into a spectacle for all to see, even record them for later playback. So all that we normally internalize, repress, keep to the Self can be turned outward and monitored, or be replayed for others as a kind of ultimate home movie. The result is that within this ultimate vacation resort there simply is no private space.

This monitoring is only a sort of panoptic model for the larger transformation of the private into the public that, as Chuck and Tracy discover, is the final aim of the new Delos. Impelled by a sense of what a "very unstable, irrational, violent animal" mankind is, Dr. Schneider, the genius behind the resort, has devised a plan to avert what he sees as man's inevitable destruction of the planet. In it, the key leaders and opinion makers of the world will gradually be replaced by duplicates so precise that "even those of us who create them can't tell the original from the duplicate"; and all are programed to advance one fundamental agenda, namely the interests of Delos. What the plan implies is a general supervision designed to render everyone and everything transparent. The plan aims, in effect, to invert the world itself, for as all life becomes monitored and supervised, the resort itself replaces the Self as the one private, privileged secret space at the heart of life because as the embodiment of one unquestioned principle behind all supervision it is the only place free from supervision.

In its extrapolation of Westworld's original conception, Futureworld presents an even more disturbing vision than its predecessor. While Westworld, through its robots and robotic resort, forces us to look directly at the sort of physical obscenities in which we too easily take pleasure—killing, bondage, gluttony, and so on—the later film explores the impulses at work beneath these simple, personal obscenities: the widespread impulses to objectify, oversee, and dominate all things, urges typically associated with an increasingly technologized world. These impulses, implicit in the first film, explicit in the second, work to turn the world inside out, make it transparent, a public spectacle, and in the process render reality itself ever more elusive and evanescent.

Thus we might see a kind of evolution at work in these two films. In many ways, Baudrillard suggests, the violence to which we are so prone—the violence so coldly detailed in Westworld—is actually less transgressive, less dangerous than the spread of simulacra that Futureworld envisions. For violence is waged over the real; to Baudrillard in Simulations (1976–78), it is simply another way in which that common human activity of contention surfaces. But simulation, by contrast, "is infinitely more dangerous … since it always suggests, over and above its object, that law and order themselves might really be nothing more than a simulation"—even that the only order might be that of simulation. Surely that is the prospect a film like Futureworld sketches: a world governed by simulacra, all of them produced and monitored by other simulacra, and put in place precisely to extend the general order of simulacra. It is a world in which there can no longer be anything but public space, and consequently one in which there can only be schizophrenic beings, figures like those created deep within Delos. They are beings driven by their implanted "natural" memories and genetic traits—much like the replicants of a later film, Blade Runner (1982)—and they are beyond all conscious reason the psychic slaves of Delos.

It seems fitting that Futureworld balances this prospect against a more personal confrontation, that between Chuck and Tracy. He is an old-fashioned investigative reporter who plays hunches while looking for the real story behind the glamorous world around him. She is a failed reporter—Chuck had in fact fired her, despite a brief romantic fling, because she was "not a very good reporter" and did not like digging up "dirt and bad news," as she puts it. Since then, though, Tracy has become a major television newscaster who speaks to an audience of "fifty-five million worldwide," while gloating that Chuck's readership is just "a couple of thousand old prunes in the library." The human dynamic played out here, then, is that between one who suspects a hidden reality behind Delos, a privacy despite the great show of openness, and one who accepts it as it appears, as simply an enthralling and thoroughly satisfying spectacle, another extension of the mass-mediated environment in which she moves so comfortably.

To win her help in his investigation, Chuck appeals to Tracy's earlier journalistic training. In essence, he tries to reactivate another, private side of herself that she has, in a kind of schizophrenia, denied under the influence of that electronic "ecstasy" Baudrillard described. While the world of simulacra that Dr. Schneider unveils seems to have a seductive influence on Tracy—tellingly, the dream she visualizes shows her being pursued and then seduced by Westworld's robotic gunslinger—Chuck revives his earlier affection for her, in effect to challenge the electronic with a human ecstasy. In a climactic scene that recalls the science fiction classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Chuck kisses Tracy—in order to determine whether she is real or a robotic replacement—and then notes with some satisfaction, "There are some things you just can't fake."

Clearly, both of these films oppose the "fake," the simulacrum, the robotic, with the "real," the genuine, the human. They did so in the context of a culture wherein boundaries of all sorts were increasingly being eroded and even vanishing. Both appeared in the mid-1970s, the era of Watergate and the Patty Hearst affair, the period that also saw the production of the first functional synthetic genes. It was an era when the line between lawful and criminal activity indeed seemed to be disappearing, when the rapid spread of photocopying machines and the introduction of the videocassette recorder were blurring the distinctions between originals and copies, when the unprecedented pervasiveness of the mass media was making it nearly impossible to distinguish personal desires from those conjured up for us by commercials, and when a flourishing pornography industry was defying efforts to distinguish between obscenity and the exercise of free speech.

Both these films, however, express their concern with the simulacrum in terms of the robot and robotic technology, so we should consider this specific motif in the context of the broader cultural context. In fact, these films are finally not just about the confrontation between the human and the copy or double, a theme explored in such earlier films as It Came from Outer Space (1953), Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and even Forbidden Planet (1956). The robot always poses an ontological threat, one that Gary K. Wolfe summarizes well when he asks, "Once a simple function of human beings has been replaced, where will it stop?" [The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction, 1979]. Because of advances in robotics and computers, this threat was clearly coming back into focus in this period, which saw a spate of robot/android films including The Terminal Man (1974), and The Questor Tapes (1974), The Stepford Wives (1975), and The Demon Seed (1977). But in Westworld and Futureworld, at least, we might interpret the robot not so much as threat as symptom. Through their roboticized environments, these films bring into focus the kind of "obscenity" Baudrillard describes, one that threatens to become a pervasive modern characteristic. By placing their characters in a world where the difference between human and robot, real world and artificial one, private desire and public spectacle simply vanishes, these films delineate a common vulnerability while also suggesting a strategy of resistance to these conditions.

Of course, it might be argued that such resistance is pointless for it merely represents an ideological denial of an extant situation. Baudrillard at various points implies that the transformation (which these films locate in the future) has already occurred, that we already inhabit an obscene world where there is no possibility of privacy, where schizophrenia is the common condition, and where reality itself has become "hyperreal" through the dizzying proliferation of simulacra. Thus in Simulations he describes Disneyland in a way that recalls the future according to Futureworld, as a place that is "presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all … surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation." However, the absence of such resistance is also difficult to imagine, even for Baudrillard. For the result of this transformation of the real, finally, is the loss of all private space, perhaps even of all distinct identity, the individual having to live "with no halo of private protection, not even his own body, to protect him anymore" ("Ecstasy of Communication")

Moreover, we need to read this notion of resistance in light of the preexisting sense of schizophrenia in science fiction. For on the one hand, science fiction, especially as film, bases its appeal on what is public: on the spectacle of technology and scientific development, on the changes it foresees, and on the material accomplishments our culture so readily applauds. On the other hand, it has an abiding stake in the private or personal which, as Susan Sontag notes [in "The Imagination of Disaster," in Against Interpretation, and Other Essays, 1966], results in a constant anxiety over conditions that produce "impersonality and dehumanization." While it recognizes and exploits the lure of the public, then, science fiction also invariably questions those transformations and accomplishments, often qualifying its support for them as if such changes were fundamentally opposed to what is human. Ultimately, science fiction tries to mediate between these two positions, to take its own schizophrenia in hand.

Westworld and Futureworld do this by examining the seductive powers of the simulacrum. They admit to a world in which the real is already slipping away, note a certain lure in that disappearance, and then explore how we might deal with the situation, perhaps even come to live with it, like the technician Harry Cross in Futureworld, who lives deep in the bowels of Delos with an old robot named Clark. After many years, he explains, he has developed "a taste for the iron," namely a fondness for this battered mechanism. These robot-populated, robot-monitored and even robot-controlled worlds promise to make this taste easily acquired by fulfilling our age-old dream of linking the private with the public, permitting us to live out our dreams and private fantasies. Through these devices, we can create a fictional Self, craft a narrative for it, and have it act out that role in a public space. However, in creating this transcendent Self, one free to order up its own reality, we risk turning the self inside out, leaving it open and vulnerable in the public space usually occupied by our technology.

What these films suggest is that it is not so much the robot or android that we fear as a loss of the private, a loss of that place of refuge and security to which we can retreat when the challenge of the public world becomes too great. They sketch this situation by describing how we have begun to link and even to collapse the private and the public. Transcendence has a price, as marked by the robots in Westworld who refuse to play their allotted roles, and by those in Futureworld who threaten to displace humanity from the narrative that is life itself. Similarly, transforming the real into a theme park comes at a cost—that of the theme park becoming our only reality. Yet because the lure of the simulacrum is a powerful, perhaps inescapable one, we find ourselves in a double bind. Certainly, it is becoming ever harder to determine just what we "can't fake." But perhaps it is only in that almost automatic resistance, only in that stubborn belief in the possibility of the fake, only in that reflexive recoil before what O. B. Hardison, Jr. terms "a horizon of invisibility [that] cuts across the geography of modern culture," that we do, briefly, find a kind of private space for the Self [Hardison, Disappearing through the Skylight: Culture and Technology in the Twentieth Century, 1989]. It is simply our human way of coping with our vulnerability, our seeming schizophrenia, the obscenity of the modern world.

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