In the US: Sundays, 9pm, HBO
In the UK: Tuesdays, 9pm, Sky Atlantic
The first of anything is usually pretty ropey. Whether it’s a book, a computer program, a movie genre or a species of animal, you can usually bet it’ll be a while before all the bugs are ironed out of it.
Arguably, Michael Crichton’s 1973 directorial debut Westworld wasn’t even his first ‘theme park goes wrong’ story. After all, although The Andromeda Strain isn’t about a theme park, it still embodies the fundamental Crichton idea of a great technological construction going wrong because of imperfect human knowledge and hubris, with the whole thing subsequently doing its best to kill all the human beings in its environs.
But Westworld is still his first proper theme park and as a movie, it’s not that great. It sees a whole bunch of tourists coming to a fantasy world populated by androids and gynoids who are there to enact scenarios and interact with the guests for their entertainment. But as said robots aren’t alive and don’t have animus, the guests are able to kill them, shag them and do all manner of unconscionable acts to them conscionably and without fear of reprisal or harm to themselves.
Then one day the slaves revolt and turn on their masters, with one gunslinger in the cowboy-themed ‘Westworld’ deciding he’s going to hunt down two guests in particular.
Part of the general dystopian sci-fi of the 70s, there’s not much to Westworld. You get a general tour of the various ‘worlds’. You get to watch as our heroes have a bit of fun playing dress up as cowboys. Then everything goes pear-shaped and it’s a mad race for survival.
But that’s about it. There’s no real examination of the morals and ethics of the theme park and no proper explanation for why everything goes wrong – for that, you have to wait for the un-Crichtonesque sequel Futureworld, and you’ll have seen better explanations for unexplained computer behaviour on the average App Store update list.
Westworld‘s biggest contribution to culture was certainly not the brief spin-off TV series, Beyond Westworld, which you might have caught of a morning in the 80s on ITV if you’re an oldie like me. That was actually worse than the movie, following on from Futureworld by giving us a mad scientist using the Delos robots to try to take over the world.
No, Westworld‘s sole proper contribution to global culture was its iconic gunslinger played by Yul Brynner – a relentless implacable, near-indestructible robot, whose first person robotic POV we get to experience on occasion, he’s the clear progenitor of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator.
In fact, it took a new book by Crichton, Steven Spielberg and another 10 years before Crichton’s theme park motif could be perfected in the form of Jurassic Park.
But as Anthony Hopkins points out in HBO’s new version of both Westworld and the Crichton motif, evolution only works by making mistakes. Those mistakes enable even better versions of things to be created. And HBO’s Westworld is both beautifully made and close to genius, even though it’s quite hard to watch.
The show’s written by Burn Notice‘s Lisa Joy and her husband Jonathan Nolan, who’s not only helped to write some of big brother Christopher’s finest (Memento, The Prestige, Interstellar, The Dark Knight, he’s also no stranger to the world of artificial intelligence, having created and exec produced Person of Interest. Rather than take the Westworld plot and string it out over an entire season, Joy and Nolan instead decide to use it to examine – in much the same, but far less glossy a way as Channel 4’s recent Humans did – not only what it is to be human but what it must be like to be artificially intelligent, and how the way we treat what we regard as sub-human shows us what we’re like.
The first episode gives us both twists on the original’s gunslinger as well as a whole new set of characters, including brothel owner Thandie Newton, but principally Evan Rachel Wood – a seemingly ordinary, happy gynoid but one who has a secret revealed at the end. Through her, we’re shown what it must be like to have one’s consciousness subject to reprogramming and memories subject to constant erasure. We also learn of man’s potential for inhumanity to both man and woman when he believes there are no consequences and that’s frequently disturbing and unpleasant to watch.
Behind the scenes, we have a slightly Hunger Games vibe, with Borgen‘s Sidse Babett Knudsen trying to run the park smoothly, Luke Hemsworth trying to keep the robots in line and Simon Quarterman trying to come up with fun scenarios for the guests. Meanwhile, programmer Jeffrey Wright (The Hunger Games 2) is trying to find out why the latest update from creative director Anthony Hopkins to the robots is causing problems. Could it be his decision to allow memories to pervade as a subconsciousness in the robots is enabling them to become something more than intended?
Westworld‘s most interesting when it’s at its subtlest, musing on some aspect of human behaviour, such as how memories can inspire mannerisms, or how closed systems invariably will come into conflict with other systems and have to adjust – such as when a photograph from the outside world turns up in Westworld, prompting one android to have a Community finale moment:
But it also benefits from decades of advances in computing and familiarity with computing. It’s not mystical and abstruse as it was when the original movie came out. Upgrades, downgrades, bug fixes et al are the stuff of the everyday now, and the show is able to use that and turns them into something far more interesting. If intelligence can be artificial, what would it mean if you could be made smarter or more conscious through a simple .1 upgrade patch? Or if your free will could be turned off with a slider in your preferences settings? Westworld goes there, but questions mechanicity and asks if such a thing is even possible, or is there something more to being human – albeit something that could be reproducible?
All of which makes it sound less fun than it actually is. But there’s also comedy, pathos and more, as well as twists to keep you intrigued. You’re going to need a strong stomach, too, because even though you know firstly that it’s a TV show and secondly the characters are robots, it’s as hard to avoid empathising with them as it is to avoid feelings during the title sequence of Android. Is that what separates us from robots as Phil Dick postulated in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Or is even that difference an illusion?
All in all, an extremely promising start and I expect that Joy and Nolan are only just beginning to limber up for the real meat of the story. Fingers crossed, this will be a classic.