Michael Crichton’s Westworld (1973) was a film I watched over and over on Saturday afternoons as a teenager. In it, the Delos Company has created a vacation paradise for the rich, comprised of Roman World, Medieval World and Westworld, where vacationers can live out their fantasies in an immersive, historically themed environment. The big draw, for those who can afford to go there, is the presence of robot hosts who are there to be submissive to the will of the guests; to serve, to be fucked, to be killed. To enact barbarous acts against these machines is not only permitted, but encouraged in the name of fun and relaxation, despite their being physically indistinct from humans. Many vacationers delight in their exemption from morality, knowing the robots cannot return the harm
Holidaying friends Peter and John are our guides through the Westworld zone, with everyman Peter retaining a scepticism about the hosts. When challenged by the Gunslinger – the iconic role played by the steel-eyed Yul Brynner – Peter cannot quite let go of the idea that he is not safe. And indeed, he is proved right when an infectious malfunction leads the robots to begin killing the human guests, the Gunslinger becoming a relentless hunter intent on winning the ultimate gun battle against Peter.
The key tropes of this four-decades-old film remain sharp: the singularity (the technicians don’t fully know how to fix the computer-designed robots), the casualness with which guns are brandished in a holiday resort, the decisions of the resort managers to keep the resort going despite the problems, prioritising money over safety, and the entitlement and vulgarity of the moneyed classes, who arguably deserve their fate
When we have heard on the news that AI can learn from conversations on Twitter (which didn’t go too well), create paintings or compose original music, rightly or wrongly we get the impression that an AI capable of humanlike thought is within easy reach. And so many of the recent film and television concepts have dealt with the morality of this: how AI might believe themselves human, or superior to humans, or like humans with obsessive disorders (AI, Humans, Black Mirror), and the morality of humans treating them like machines. There is a high expectation for emotional complexity in this exchange. Put simply, when it comes to HBO’s new series Westworld, based on the 1973 film, white hat/black hat will not do, and the concept of AI must be both extrapolated and differentiated from previous models
In many respects, HBO have kept things simple for their new Westworld. Gone are the concepts of Roman World and Medieval World. Only Westworld remains, and its basic premise: an immersive holiday experience where the hosts are there to fulfill the desires, no matter how innocent or depraved, of the rich holidaymakers. Ahead, some minor spoilers…
The series opens with Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), an AI host, sitting still, naked and bloodied in the cold blue light of the underground room where she has been taken for repair, a fly crawling over her glassy, unblinking eyes while her voice answers questions about where she is, how she feels. She believes she is in a dream. She does not know she is a robot.
Throughout this episode, we learn about Dolores and how she came to be in the room. She is a sweet girl-next-door type, who lives on a farm a short walk from the town of Sweetwater, where the “newcomers” arrive every day. She is asked what she thinks about them: “The newcomers are just looking for the same thing as we are – a place to be free. To stake out our dreams. A place with unlimited possibilities.”
Whether all the AI would agree with her point of view is not made clear, but Dolores says, “Some people choose to see the ugliness in this world. The disarray. I choose to see the beauty.”
Dolores and her father, Peter Abernathy (Louis Herthum), are immediately likeable, as they share an appreciation of their world and an optimistic philosophy. Their bond is visibly real, and deep. And then there’s Teddy.
Teddy (James Marsden) arrives in town on the train, like any newcomer. A repeat visitor, Dolores always remembers him, and he seems set to play the storyline of chivalric suitor, hoping to win a woman’s affection rather than outright “pay”, which is the role-play he seems to be offered in the whorehouse by Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton). From the start it is clear he is playing a white hat, but there is some clever sleight of hand played with our expectations.
The iconic Yul Brynner role has been mentioned elsewhere as having been taken up by Ed Harris who plays the nameless Man in Black, a man with a mission to play the deepest, darkest game he can find, and who especially delights in inflicting pain and degradation on the hosts who don’t understand how they are unable to defend themselves against him, which is bizarrely, part of their design:
“I never understood why they paired some of you off. Seems cruel. And then I realised… winning doesn’t mean anything unless someone else loses.”
Not all the robots are unaware of their nature. In “Orientation”, guests are met by hosts who help them dress for Westworld, and acclimatise themselves to interacting with non-humans. This encounter is problematic enough for newcomers like William (Jimmi Simpson), though others take such opportunities in their stride.
Something is clearly very wrong in Westworld, but the set-up does not exactly mirror that of the 1973 film, and there are more grey areas in play. Is this a simple malfunction, or a mass murder in slow-motion, and if so, who is the killer or killers? Is it the Man in Black who wants to crack the code, or is it the owner and creator of Westworld, the mysterious Dr Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) who has invented the concept of “reveries”, gestures that robots can make at something akin to a sub-conscious? Or could it be the Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), the technician, who is secretly accessing the AI at night to ascertain how they think? Or could it be Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman), the emotionally volatile games designer, who comes up with horrific narrative concepts involving cults, slaughter and cannibalism to keep the guests entertained? And who might be the victims?
Harris, Marsden, Newton and Wood are exceptional in their roles, with Harris in particular exuding a subtle menace as the Man in Black. The lighting skilfully washes the different scenes with optimism and joy, or horror and despair, reflecting Dolores’s feelings, or ours, as her dark memories are overwritten – not that they can stay under the surface for much longer, and there are some very quotable lines, some of which may have you reassessing any romantic notions you still hold for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. This is addictive storytelling.
Sweet, too, are the little Easter Eggs of rock tunes on the whorehouse pianola (I spotted “Black Hole Sun” by Soundgarden, “Paint it Black” by The Rolling Stones and “Fake Plastic Trees” by Radiohead.) All in all, I was not disappointed, this looks to be a very compelling reworking of the original Westworld concept, and I look forward to the denouement of the rest of the series.
In the meantime, Ed Harris is appearing on the West End stage in the critically acclaimed New York production of Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Buried Child. Set in rural America in 1979 following a recession and political unrest, the play examines disenfranchisement of Americans in a dark, macabre and painfully funny family drama that is uncannily as relevant to the modern political era as it was during its first run almost 40 years ago. Starting November 14th at the Trafalgar Studios in London. http://www.buriedchildplay.co.uk/
“An American gothic masterwork. It is to the American theatre what Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming is to the British stage, the classic domestic drama”
The New York Times