Violent Delights: Filling In Your Post-Westworld Void
While I know this past season of Westworld was a much more divisive effort than its predecessor, when all was said and done I still found the show's sophomore year a mostly riveting experience overall; with show runners Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan thrusting their puzzlebox plotting to new heights while also occasionally taking the time for fascinatingly intimate character work. The HBO series’ penchant for both spectacle and introspection served it quite well, especially in episodes such as "The Riddle Of The Sphinx", "Akane No Mai", and "Kiksuya", all of which pushed the limits of this universe and it’s storytelling in fascinating ways. Season 2’s finale may have left some scratching their heads, but I appreciated that Westworld seemed to be taking big swings, all the way up to the very end.
With all that said, I was in no way ready for the season to be over, and if you’re like me and not looking forward to this post-season hiatus, here are a few choices to keep you occupied until the war between man and machine kicks up again.
So without further ado...
IT'S CLOBBERIN' TIME!
16. Westworld (1973)
Starring: Yul Brynner, Richard Benjamin, and James Brolin
Directed by Michael Crichton
This one is obvious, but when HBO announced their intentions to adapt Michael Crichton's 1973 film, I remember being absolutely delighted because it was a property I was already very familiar with and I had always loved it's premise, but at the same I time I could always see that it's execution was never quite up to par. On the other hand though, it's those same shortcomings that I believe made Westworld the perfect subject for a remake, especially in a long-form storytelling situation.
As for the original film, for all his talents as a writer, Michael Crichton was less gifted as a director, but this movie is still pretty fun on its own merits if you like your Sci-fi very 70s and kind of campy. Yul Brynner is the film's biggest attraction as a sort of "proto-Terminator", getting to play the dark side of his character from The Magnificent Seven. If you end up loving this, you may want to check out the film's sequel Futureworld (1976) or the spinoff TV show Beyond Westworld (1980), which only ran one shortlived season. Of course, we all know that the perfect distillation of Critchon's "amusement park gone mad" premise never got better than Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park (1993).
15. Runaway (1984)
Starring: Tom Selleck, Cynthia Rhodes, Gene Simmons, and Kirstie Alley
Directed by Michael Crichton
Now, if you watch the original Westworld feature film and happen to LIKE the direction of Michael Crichton, then you might want to also check out this 1984 directorial effort with Tom Selleck. Taking place in a near future (of which I can only assume is 1987), household robots are now commonplace, and a small, specialized police task force has been put together to stop malfunctioning before they can turn deadly. Selleck stars as Jack Ramsay, an officer assigned to this task force for "runaway" robots, and while the everyday grind of the job is starting to get to him, things get much worse when a madman causes an epidemic of cyber-malfunctions to begin happening all over the city.
While I would never call Runaway a particularly good movie, it’s a pretty fun watch if you like these types of things. The cast is pretty game and Gene Simmons makes for a particularly nasty villain. Unfortunately, the worst part of the film are the robots themselves, which look to be somewhere in between the design of PIXAR’s Wall-E and a 1980s-era home stereo. Still, if you like 80s cop movies or pre-Cheers Kirstie Alley you may want to check this out.
14. Frank Miller's Hard-Boiled (1990-92)
Writer: Frank Miller
Artist: Geof Darrow
If you've never experienced the awesomeness that is vintage Frank Miller and Geof Darrow, please do yourself a favor and give Hard-Boiled a try. Taking place in a dystopian future, the comic mini-series involves an insurance investigator named Carl Seltz who one day discovers he's secretly an android assassin and as a result goes on a homicidal rampage. This is an ultra-violent and insanely cynical look at the future, with Westworld's motifs about corporate greed and robots being a subjugated species on full display. Seltz even seems to be having problems with remembering past programming and personalities due to multiple memory wipes.
While Miller's hard-edged writing is in top form (almost as if this could be a futuristic Sin City story), the real star here is Geof Darrow. Darrow's art is so filled with minute details that one could spend a lifetime studying the panels of these three issues. It seems almost impossible just how many shards of glass Darrow is able draw in a single panel, and here he fills this world with so much gawdy and gorgeous art that it boggles the mind.
13. Into the Badlands (2015-)
Starring: Daniel Wu, Orla Brady, Sarah Bolger, Aramis Knight, Marton Csokas, and Emily Beecham
Into the Badlands feels like someone went into my brain and simply picked out a bunch of stuff that I love and threw them all together. The series takes place in a post-apocalyptic world that resembles a sort of antebellum south/western/medieval society and everyone dresses in 19th-century style clothing. The land is ruled by a small group called Barons, who control all the natural resources and have outlawed guns as a way of controlling the population. As a result, everyone carries samurai swords and knows kung fu. Have I mentioned how much I love this premise?
Anyway, if you're in need of more futuristic westerns or loved this WW Season 2's Shogun World sections, you could do much worse. The series is beautifully shot and features some entertaining political melodrama as well as the best martial arts fight scenes ever produced for television. Daniel Wu, who is a veteran of dozens of Hong Kong action films makes for a striking lead (figuratively and literally) and Marton Csokas has tons of fun as the show's heavy, Baron Quinn.
12. Blade of Tyshale (2001)
Written by Matthew Stover
Publisher: Del Rey Books
Blade of Tyshale is the second book in the Acts of Caine series from author Matthew Stover, which is about a future in which people from our world can project themselves onto a Lord of the Rings-style Earth called Overworld and have fantasy adventures. While on Overworld these "Actors" kill at will, manipulate the local governments, and cause general mayhem. I wrote about the first book, Heroes Die, in my post-Game of Thrones list and like in that book, these voyeuristic fantasies end up having dire consequences for all involved. Hari Michealson is back, but a broken man after his last adventure from seven years previous. Badly injured, his career as the adventurer Caine is over, but being stuck as an executive is even worse, making it an easy decision for him to return to Overworld after his wife is attacked on the distant planet.
Like the park owned by Delos, Overworld is simply a playground with which people can make themselves feel more powerful and often live out their darkest desires. Just as in Heroes Die, Blade of Tyshale is filled with meticulously described combat and entertaining intrigue, only this second go-round is much harsher and more brutal. The novel's best action sequence features a bloody battle between modern soldiers and fantasy creatures, which I don't think I'd ever seen or heard of before reading this novel for the first time.
11. Deadwood (2004-06)
Starring: Timothy Olyphant, Ian McShane, Molly Parker, Brad Dourif, W. Earl Brown, and John Hawkes
If you love Westworld but want to do away with all the robot uprisings and corporate espionage, then HBO already has a show for you. Deadwood, HBO's ambitious western series, which ran for three glorious seasons, is nothing short of one of the best TV shows ever created. With a dozen or more fully developed characters and David Milch's penchant for colorful language, this show is not designed for the casual viewer. It takes a little time to get used to the series' tempo, but patient fans will be well rewarded as the show's authenticity with how it treats the old west will shine through.
Standouts are aplenty amongst this cast, but if I had to pick one is would have to be Ian McShane's Al Swearengen, the foul mouthed proprietor of the town's Gem Saloon. You might not appreciate the performance at first, but as this character goes from a straight-up villain to anti-hero, you'll see that Swearengen belongs right in the ranks of the pantheon with Walter White and Tony Soprano. While violence abounds on the show, don't expect some sort of rollicking, endless shoot-em up; brutality is simply another tool with which to tell Milch's story, whether using it for punctuation, comedy or tragedy. I've watched Deadwood four times all the way through in my lifetime, and I'm sure I've enjoyed it enough to watch it all again some day.
10. Ex Machina (2015)
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and Alicia Vikander
Directed by Alex Garland
Like Westworld in miniature, Ex Machina deals with many of its same themes, including the nature and free will of artificial intelligence. To be honest, the less said about the movie the better, but Alicia Vikander is an absolute wonder as Ava, a newly created android being observed to see if she is actually exhibiting human behavior or simply imitating it. Also, did I mention that Oscar Isaac has a big dance number in this movie? It's worth the price of admission alone. At any rate, while Alex Garland's Annihilation, from earlier this year, shows a director well on his way to developing his unique voice onscreen, Ex Machina remains one hell of an opening number.
9. A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Marianne Koch, and Josef Egger
Directed by Sergio Leone
8. Yojimbo (1961)
Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, and Yoko Tsukasa
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
7. The Magnificent Seven (1960)
Starring: Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, and Steve McQueen
Directed by John Sturges
6. Seven Samurai (1954)
Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, and Keiko Tsushima
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
One of my absolute favorite moments from Season 2 was a heist sequence which took place in the Shogun World park, which ended up being an exact duplicate of a robbery that took place in the original Westworld park in Season 1, only with outlaw samurai instead of cowboys. When pressed on the situation, one of the characters on the show remarks on how difficult it is to constantly come up with original stories, which in some ways was a commentary on how Samurai and Cowboy sagas have influenced each other since the days of John Ford and Akira Kurosawa, and continue to do so to this very day.
For the best examples, one should look no further than these four classic films, each a masterpiece in their own right. On the samurai front, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Yojimbo represent two of the most imitated pictures of all time, with Seven Samurai standing not only as the basis for several movies including both versions of The Magnificent Seven, PIXAR’s A Bug’s Life, and the Roger Corman “classic” Battle Beyond the Stars, but is also considered to be the first “Team-Up” movie, in which a group of specialized characters are brought together for a unique mission. Think about every Heist film or “men on a mission” War movie you’ve ever seen and Seven Samurai is probably the Rosetta Stone for that movie. Yojimbo on the other hand, is the basis for its own batch of remakes, including the Bruce Willis vehicle Last Man Standing as well as A Fistful of Dollars, which is the film that not only made Clint Eastwood a star, but started the entire subgenre of the Spaghetti Western.
As for these two Western examples, The Magnificent Seven and A Fistful of Dollars both represent how you can take a tried and true premise and still make them all your own. Where Seven Samurai is a very human adventure with real darkness and depth of feeling within its three and a half hours of epic battles and heartbreak, Magnificent Seven is a Superhero movie in Western form. Director John Sturges’ interpretation of the story moves lightning fast, with Yul Brenner, Steve McQueen and company turning into quickdraw legends in front of you. You may not come away from the movie thinking about the human condition, but I defy you to find a Western of this period that's more fun to watch.
Speaking of fun, with A Fistful of Dollars Sergio Leone turns in his version of Kurosawa's Yojimbo with more style than any movie could know what to do with and made Clint Eastwood the premiere action star of the next two decades in the process. From Ennio Morricone's iconic score to the beautiful European landscapes standing in for the American west, Leone managed to make a Western with a dream-like quality of what these movies should feel like. Like the best of Spaghetti Westerns, A Fistful of Dollars boils the horse opera to it's barest essentials, with sadistic villains and mythic heroes facing off in operatic gunfights with red-hot visuals.
5. East of West
Writer: Jonathan Hickman
Artist: Nick Dragotta
Imagine if you will, a universe in which The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse showed up during the height of the Civil War and changed the course of American history forever. Now imagine that same society, where instead of one United States there were now seven different countries; where the Union and Confederacy now co-exist with other nations like The Kingdom, made up of the descendants of freed slaves, and The Nation, a country comprised of Native Americans. Now place that setting in a dystopian nightmare of a future, and you have the basis for Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta’s brilliant comic book series East of West.
Somewhere between The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Game of Thrones, East of West tracks the journey of a six-shooter wielding, robot horse riding version of Death, out to find those who have wronged him and his loved ones. With pages filled to the brim of epic battles, political intrigue, and visionary storytelling, this is one of the most relevant and exciting graphic series on comic shelves. For a full review on this series, check out my article here.
4. Blade Runner: 2049 (2017)
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, and Ana de Armas
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
3. Blade Runner (1982)
Starring: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos, M. Emmet Walsh, Daryl Hannah, and William Sanderson
Directed by Ridley Scott
“117 minutes of pure, main-lined sci-fi wonderment” is how I described Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner when I discussed my Top 10 Genre Films of All Time. Visually, the film remains the Cyber Punk template for all that have followed since its inception, from Akira and Ghost in the Shell to The Matrix and Ready Player One, and it’s actually quite astonishing how well the movie is still able to stand toe to toe with all those examples on a style and design level, despite having debuted nearly 40 years ago. Blade Runner and its futuristic tale of a noir-ish gumshoe tracking down outlaw Replicants is to dystopian futures what The Road Warrior is to Post-Apocalyptic movies, and keeps getting better (and eerily closer to fruition) with each passing moment.
In fact, Blade Runner is such a towering achievement that I thought it was nearly heresy when a sequel was announced, but then director Denis Villeneuve decided to make me a believer. Blade Runner: 2049 is the sequel I never thought possible; made with the love and craftsmanship of someone with a deep respect for Ridley Scott’s original vision, but willing to take enough chances with this story that it doesn’t just feel like a re-tread. 2049 comes off like an organic extension of this universe, building its world up from Scott’s foundation into a gorgeous yet unnerving vision into impending tomorrows where the next evolution of Replicant is yet again fighting for its very survival.
2. Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009)
Starring: Edward James Olmos, Mary McDonnell, Jamie Bamber, James Callis, Tricia Helfer, Grace Park, Katee Sackhoff, and Michael Hogan
While I would never argue that the original Battlestar Galactica doesn’t deserve its cult status, it still remains pretty astonishing just how incredible Ronald D. Moore’s 2004 reboot series of the property ended up being. Whereas time has not been necessarily kind to the original series’ lo-fi asthetic, making it seems as if it’s just sort of a low-rent Star Wars-knockoff, Moore’s series ended up taking the original’s template and became one of the cornerstones of this new “Golden Age” of television. No longer just a simple space opera, this new take on BSG is a deeply felt tale of survival, war, and the very nature of existence, whether the story it’s telling be about humans or androids. Much like Westworld, Galactic employed a myriad of twists and turns to tell its tales, its mysteries driving a show that fluctuated between giant displays of aerial space combat and fascinating stories of faith and destiny.
What made the show really stand out from its forerunner though, was its commitment to character. No longer were heroes like Starbuck and Apollo merely space pilots, but rather were re-interpreted as well-rounded people dealing with the horrible situation of having to make their home on an Ark-like Space-battleship after the destruction of their planetary system. Even the Cylons, originally conceived as robot storm-troopers, now had faces and names, their purpose in life no longer just destruction, but a more Blade Runner-esque search for truth. While the quality of the show may not have been at its highest level for its entire run, Battlestar Galactica remains one of the best Science Fiction series of all time.
1. Red Dead Redemption (2010)
Starring: Rob Wiethoff, Josh Blaylock, and Sophia Marzocchi
Developer: Rockstar Games
After watching the pilot for Westworld, my immediate thoughts went to Red Dead Redemption. The very idea of getting to take part in a simulated western world and getting to live out either your wildest dreams or darkest desires is at the core of both properties, though thankfully in Red Dead the cowboys can't rise up and destroy you. Rockstar's masterpiece of a game is the ultimate simulator of the Western experience; letting you even play the game as a hero who stands for justice or an outlaw cutting down innocents for your own amusement.
At least until Red Dead Redemption 2 comes out later this year, this first game is a THE essential video game experience for any Western fan. Of all the entertainments on this list, this is the only one that gets you the closest to living the experience of being in a horse opera. If you’ve ever wanted to ride the plains, save stagecoaches from bandits, collect bounties on horse thieves, or slap leather against notorious outlaws, then Red Dead Redemption is what you’ve been looking for, at least until the sequel or they actually build a Westworld theme park.