As you’ve probably noticed, HBO’s Westworld is a hit. It’s led viewers to suggest theory after theory about what’s going on while engaging with the philosophical themes that undergird the series. What makes us human? Why do sex and violence dominate our escapist fantasies? Would Radiohead songs sound cool on a player piano?
It’s not like it was a series that seemed destined to work, however. It’s based on a 1974 film written and directed by Michael Crichton that’s today best remembered for featuring a robotic Yul Brynner and other android residents of a near-future theme park glitching out and killing visitors. As a narrative, the film’s almost as straightforward as that description, but in some ways, the original Westworld doesn’t get enough credit. Many of the series’ key elements and themes can be found in the original film, even if Crichton breezes past them on the way to robot-on-human bloodshed.
Which raises a question: Are there any other science fiction movies from the same era that would translate to a contemporary series? Let’s break them down into the three types of films that dominated science fiction filmmaking in the pre-Star Wars era and see if any could be the next Westworld in the right hands.
The Post-Apocalyptic Nightmares
In the wake of Planet of the Apes, and in keeping with the general pessimism of the era, post-apocalyptic visions had a pretty good run in the 1970s. The first few years of the decade alone saw the release of films like Roger Corman’s Gas-s-s, Cornel Wilde’s No Blade of Grass, and Jim McBride’s Glen and Randa. Each is compelling in its way, though none scream out as worlds to be visited on a weekly basis.
What’s left? Planet of the Apes is one possibility. Though the original appeared in 1968, its sequels dominated the early 1970s, each one managing to be a little bleaker and more pessimistic than the one before (a pretty remarkable achievement given that the Earth explodes in a fiery ball in the first sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes). But with a film series still in progress, the timing seems off for Apes on TV. Besides, the ape cast members would probably be prohibitively expensive, and it’s been tried a couple of times before with limited success.
If not Apes, another Charlton Heston-starring apocalyptic vision might work: 1971’s The Omega Man, in which Heston plays (probably) the last living man on an Earth overrun by vampire-like plague sufferers. We’re deep into The Walking Dead’s turf with this premise, however. And The Omega Man, like Apes, had a big-screen remake a few years ago in the form of I Am Legend, which kept the title of the Richard Matheson story that inspired both films. (And the Vincent Price-starring Last Man on Earth, whose title wouldn’t work on TV for obvious reasons).
So why not A Boy and His Dog? Released in 1975, the L.Q. Jones-directed film adapts a Harlan Ellison novella in which a young man named Vic (Don Johnson) wanders a scorched, post-nuclear wasteland accompanied by his much smarter dog Blood (voiced by Tim McIntire). Honestly, the big question is why isn’t this already a TV series. The film’s highlights include Vic’s descent into an underworld run by Jason Robards that attempts to mimic an idealized vision of small-town America. A series could take Vic and Blood to one strange location after another. Plus: As mentioned above, it features a talking dog. Find the right dog, and this is any network’s next buzz show. (It would probably be a good idea to cast the boy role carefully too.)
The Dismal Dystopias
If there’s one thing ‘70s sci-fi audiences liked more than wastelands it was dystopias. Again, we can probably rule out a few notable films at the start. A Clockwork Orange and THX 1138 are both visionary science fiction landmarks from important filmmakers — Stanley Kubrick and George Lucas, respectively — and that’s exactly why any attempt to turn them into TV series is destined to fall short. (Counterpoint: Fargo. Counterpoint noted. Let’s move on.) And though Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running remains an underappreciated classic, the time’s probably not right for a series about a plant- and robot-loving misanthropic hippie floating through space.
Logan’s Run, on the other hand, might work. The 1976 film imagines a future in which everyone lives in shopping mall-like geodesic domes and devotes themselves to pleasure — until they turn 30 and they’re forced to “renew.” In truth, they die thanks to a draconian system put into place to keep the population in check. The film ends (spoiler) with the system getting overturned, but a series could offer a more drawn out and complex rebellion. (Of course, it would have to improve on the short-lived CBS series from 1977.)
Soylent Green wouldn’t need that much in the way of alterations. Starring, again, Charlton Heston, it’s set in a future in which diminishing supplies and overpopulation have forced society to make some pretty drastic adjustments to how they live their lives. In some ways, it already feels like a prestige TV series. Heston plays a detective who follows a mystery that takes him from the overrun streets of New York to the privileged realms that look down on those streets, luxurious apartments where the posh eat real fruits and vegetables. Squint a little, and this take on how the greed of the haves affects the have-nots looks like a sci-fi take on The Wire. The biggest problem: Everyone knows Soylent Green’s big twist. A series would either have to change it, throw it out, or hope viewers don’t mind knowing in advance what the film’s hero doesn’t find out until the final scene.
Another possibility: Death Race 2000? Sure, it’s seen its own big-screen remake, of sorts, in recent years in the form of the Jason Statham-starring, Paul W.S. Anderson-directed Death Race in 2008, a film that inspired some low-budget sequels. And it’s about to get remade again with the 2017 film Death Race 2050. But the premise of the film — written by Robert Thorn and longtime Roger Corman collaborator Charles Griffith and directed by Paul Bartel (Eating Raoul) — begs for expansion. In the not-so-distant future of the year 2000 (small adjustments might have to be made), cross-country drivers with outsized personas wear over-the-top costumes, drive suped-up cars, and earn points by taking out innocent civilians — all as a way for a corrupt government to distract the populace with a gasoline and blood-drenched variation on bread and circuses.
A series that maintained its combination of larger-than-life characters, high-speed action, and a wickedly satirical sense of humor could become the next big thing. Or, if that proves too expensive, maybe it’s time to revive Rollerball again, which offers a more straight-faced take on sports, violence, and corporate control. Better yet, set them in the same universe, one in which the populace thrills to bloody sports of all different kinds. Now there’s a series!
After a decade dominated by giant monsters until the arrival of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the 1970s saw science fiction films trying on one heady idea after another. A bizarre one-off like John Boorman’s Zardoz, in which a barely dressed Sean Connery discovers his barbaric existence is part of a larger scheme created by impotent immortals, probably has little series potential. Ditto Demon Seed, a Donald Cammell film in which Julie Christie is held captive, raped, and impregnated by a super-computer. As grim and dominated by sexual violence as prestige TV can be, rape-y computers might not play.
The Man Who Fell to Earth, however, could easily make the transition. Though it will be tough to find a lead as perfectly suited for the role of a beautiful alien trying to pass as human in an attempt to save his home planet, other elements of Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of Walter Tevis’ novel would be easier to stretch out across multiple episodes. In the original, Bowie plays Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien who lands in the American Southwest and sets about using his knowledge of advanced technology to build a financial empire, all in an attempt to bring water to his drought-stricken home world. It’s a set-up that lends itself to an episodic treatment as those around him try to uncover Newton’s secret. And, done right, a series wouldn’t even have to jettison the film’s exploration of how addiction and comfort can undo youthful genius.
Failing that, there’s always Phase IV, the sole directorial effort of Saul Bass, best known for designing the extraordinary title sequences for films like Psycho and Anatomy of a Murder. The plot’s a classic what-if scenario: What if ants became super-intelligent and started to work together to overthrow the human race? Though that sounds like a film straight out of a ‘50s matinee, Bass uses eerie atmospherics and stunning close-up photography of ants in action to tease out the scenario’s unsettling implications. Overlooked in its day, the film picked up a well-deserved cult following over the years. Adapted well and it could be a slow-burning, philosophically rich exploration of the fragility of the environment humanity’s place in the cosmos. In other words: Ants could be the next robot gunslingers. Or talking dogs. Or murder cars. You read it here first.