In the darkest depths of science fiction culture, there is a place where the adults can come out to play. This is WESTWORLD. Westworld is an American science fiction western thriller television series created by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy for HBO. It is based on the 1973 film of the same name, which was written and directed by American novelist Michael Crichton, and to a lesser extent on the 1976 sequel Futureworld. Critchon also wrote Jurrassic Park, and some of the themes are the same. Man plays God. Disaster ensues.
Imagine if you were wealthy enough to go to an amusement park where you are free to do what you like without consequence. Let your inner dark side or light side out and not only have real effect, but maybe learn something about yourself.
I have been unable to track down the feature film or sequel, as they were slightly before my time. My earliest memory of any knowledge of the film comes from some hard core science fiction fans mentioning it. In a way, it was a precursor to the Terminator and Bladerunner. For the purpose of clarity, I am only referring to the new HBO television show.
So far, the show delves into territory that is usually the stuff of lower budgeted B movie ideas. Killer androids who use their unique existence to wreak a perverse revenge on the creators and guests who abuse and manipulate them. There are references of Alice in Wonderland, and some themes that were touched on by Ex Machina, although with less time to explore such themes. Also, of note, this series is a harmony of the western adventure mixed with the doll like god complex and artificial life android stories rolled into one. Usually, these two genres never blend, but it is done here and with much rejoicing.
What do I take away from the show? That humanity is explored, yes. But some of this behavior I have seen before. Where? In a video game. Stay with me here.
There was a video game from the makers of Grand Theft Auto called Red Dead Redemption. A long involved game where you played in a sandbox world. A western sandbox. You were free to do missions, go on bounties, shoot people at will, and basically be as evil or as honorable as you wanted. The choice was up to you. This is confirmed by one of the creators.
Abrams suggested that the show be told with the perspective of the “hosts” in mind. [Nolan took inspiration from video games like BioShock Infinite, Red Dead Redemption and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim to deal with the narrative’s moral component on a spectrum. He explained the show would explore why “violence is in most of the stories we like to watch, but it isn’t part of what we like to do” through the characters known as guests, who give payment to satisfy those urges. The autonomous existence of non-player characters in video games influenced the approach to the individual storylines in Westworld that are reset in a continuous loop. A recitation from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – “These violent delights have violent ends”.
This is basically the same situation that our human characters of Westworld find themselves in with the androids or hosts. But as the show progresses, the impending host revolt is like a ticking clock. You are kind of just waiting for it to happen.
That is not to say the show is not without merit. It carefully balances the future world with the scenes in Westworld, and pulls it off for the most part. There are modern music tracks that play on the piano to also remind us that this is a fantasy world, and not a western. If it were a legit western, the costumes would probably be a bit dirtier and aged, and the off the rack hats and boots would not look so polished.
Much like Bladerunner, which had a revolt happen off screen, this world shows us the conditions where a sentient being with no real life could adapt and revolt in real time, of sorts. There is a lot of back story to the characters that plays out in flashbacks, match cuts, and several other cinematic tropes.
The show is getting pretty favorable reviews. My personal take on it, is that I actually enjoy this a bit more than The Walking Dead right now, as it is commercial free, more adult, and doesn’t string us along for entire episodes with more commercials than content. Although it might be a bit of a slow burn for some audiences, I am enjoying it.
One of the key lines from Bladerunner, from the android’s point of view is: “Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave”. This line is uttered by Rutger Hauer to Harrison Ford just as his character is about to meet a gruesome demise. Bladerunner scratched the surface of cyberpunk in a feature film. Westworld is playing with these notions and taking it further than has been imagined before.
The androids are given a past to make them more believable. This show is aimed at people who have a basic grasp of some of the high concepts, while also appeasing those with more escapist tastes. For example, Sir Anthony Hopkins comments on the hosts taking the Turing Test. What is that? “The Turing test is a test, developed by Alan Turing in 1950, of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human.”
That being noted, we see some rather creepy imagery when some of the androids are halted in their activity and are frozen in time. Like true clockwork, sometimes their off putting answers or behaviors will certainly remind you that they are not human, but are close enough to provide genuine emotions and reactions of real humans.
The interesting note is when a cast member who is a host is “retired”, they can be reprogrammed and placed back into rotation with a new identity. The fly in the ointment, is some of the hosts are remembering things very vividly, and are recalling older roles they have played. Thandie Newton is the Roy Batty of this story.
The cast is stellar, some we have seen in many other films, and some are new faces. The cinematography is lush in the Western scenes, while the scenes in the park’s operations and elsewhere are clinical and cold. It’s a very well crafted show.