‘Westworld’ is one mighty depressing show, cowboy
A long time ago, when the galaxy far, far away barely even existed in the mind of its creator, there was Westworld.
That 1973 movie, the directorial debut of novelist Michael Crichton, was built on what is now a shopworn premise: In the near future, rich folks visit a high-tech theme park, assured that nothing can go wrong, but something goes very wrong. (Crichton himself was to revisit the exact same premise two decades later, much more successfully, with Jurassic Park.)
In positing a kind of real-life videogame, populated by servile actor robots who provide all the sex and violence you could ask for, Westworld was way ahead of its time. It was a hit at the box office and on the awards shelf. It sparked a sequel in 1976 and a very short-lived 1980 TV series.
But it hasn’t aged particularly well. Watching the movie in the Disneyfied 21st century, you wonder: where did these visitors to this most adult of theme parks drop off their kids? Is there robot childcare too?
Moreover, if Westworld were an actual wild west theme park in 2016, you wouldn’t be able to move for visitors pulling out their smartphones or at least, itching the pockets where their phones used to be.
So the first disappointment in the HBO version of Westworld, premiering this Sunday, is that the husband and wife production team of Jonathan Nolan (Interstellar, Person of Interest) and Lisa Joy (Burn Notice) really haven’t done all that much to update the premise.
It’s still set in the indeterminate “near future.” It’s still a massive, Truman Show-sized theme park with more Grand Canyon-style scenery than you can shake a Smith & Wesson at. We’re still obsessed with playing cowboys & Indians, apparently. (The Roman orgy and Medieval Times options featured in the original movie have been stripped away.)
Nolan and Joy have simply switched the viewpoint characters. We’re now mostly following the robots, or “hosts”, rather than the visitors and that isn’t as successful a switch as it might sound, for a variety of reasons we’ll get to below.
The park’s visitors are still, almost without exception, sadists who like to shoot and stab and have sex with robots. They’re more culturally diverse than they were in 1973 we see a few Japanese tourists and the tinny player piano in the saloon now offers “Black Hole Sun” by Soundgarden.
But the message is the same: human beings are basically awful, and they all harbor massive amounts of bloodlust. (They also happily submit to old-timey flashbulb cameras rather than Instagramming themselves, which may be even more unrealistic.)
When I raised this with the incredibly soft-spoken Nolan at a recent press availability, he pointed to the Grand Theft Auto series and his wife.”Lisa is the only person I know who obeys traffic laws in that game,” he smiled.
Ah, but as any GTA player knows, the more you disobey the rules, the more consequences are heaped upon your character. If you want to win, you have to be wily. It’s fun to be bad, but part of that fun is being chased by cops having your “made it Ma, top of the world!” moment before they gun you down.
In Westworld, visitors can leave behind a trail of corpses and even more disturbingly, have their way with the female androids, alive or dead and no one will so much as strap on a deputy badge. Wouldn’t that get boring after a while?
Apparently not for Ed Harris’ character, the not-as-mysterious-as-he-thinks Man in Black, who in Episode 2 tells us he’s been coming to the park for 30 years and “practically grew up here” (pssst, Ed, you’re 65). In scene after horrific scene, it becomes clear he still has an awful lot of anti-android sadism to get out of his system.
Fair enough if you hold the depressing viewpoint that this is what humanity secretly wants. But it really isn’t anything we haven’t seen before.
The same is true of the behind-the-scenes characters corporate cliches who talk tough, hold nothing but disdain for their bots and their “rich asshole” customers, and may as well have walked out of central casting for the Capitol in Hunger Games.
Anthony Hopkins as the park’s creator, Dr. Ford, is the only profound exception, but that’s a gimme: this is the man who could make Hannibal Lecter sympathetic. To a lesser extent, that’s also true of Jeffrey Wright, who plays Ford’s chief programmer Bernard Lowe. But the mighty Sidse Babbet Knudsen is wasted here as a corporate boss who’s hiding something, some sinister plot behind all this artificial intelligence. Her main character trait is that she smokes cigarettes.
And so we come to the androids themselves, supposedly our heroes. I say “supposedly” because for the first two episodes at least, they have no agency, no apparent desires, no motivation beyond their programming: pleasing the guests in their assigned roles.
Sure, they’re starting to remember their previous abuse at the hands of guests, rendered in brief nightmare sequences. But their behind-the-scenes masters were clever enough to have programmed them to think of these moments as, well, nightmares. So they actually don’t suspect a thing. Yet.
Obviously, these androids will eventually become self-aware and rebel, just as Yul Brinner the original and still the greatest man in black went on the fritz in the 1973 Westworld. (At one point, Lowe tells us that the park hasn’t had any major malfunctions in 30 years: cue fan theories that say both Westworlds are actually set in the same universe!)
Cue fan theories that say both Westworlds are actually set in the same universe!
Nolan and Joy need to delay the moment of android self-realization; they have 10 episodes to fill here. But they’re taking it way too slowly. Artificial intelligence emerges at such a glacial pace that you may have a hard time rooting for it; its absence leaves a big hole where the show’s heart should be. Ex Machina a movie that kept you guessing about the sentient state of its AI this ain’t.
That’s no knock on the actors playing androids, who do everything required of them and more. They are able to turn their “emotion chips” on and off at will. Says Evan Rachel Wood, who plays our nominal hero Delores, “The Singularity Is Near [Ray Kurzweil’s book on the rise of artificial intelligence] basically became my bible.” Thandie Newton (who plays the seductive Madame Maeve Millay) tells of nearly being blinded in an outdoors scene, facing into the sun, “because robots don’t squint.”
But they may be too good at playing automatons. And the script is too eager to just kill or maim or rape them, over and over, hitting the reset button every time. If you know they’re just going to get fixed up after every encounter, what’s the point? It’s easy to get desensitized when there’s no jeopardy.
Most of the violence especially the sexual violence is merely suggested and takes place off screen. But that still leaves us with abhorrent moments, such as the techie who tells his co-worker to leave a dead female android on the floor because “a guest might want to have one more go at her.”
In 2016, did we really need one more show that reduces most of its female cast to fembots? Isn’t the killing enough without adding rape? Isn’t rape enough without adding necrophilia?
In the end, Westworld tries too hard to ignore one essential component of modern human nature, something that has become way more clear since 1973: We anthropomorphize like crazy. We feel moved to cry in our millions over the death of cartoon characters. Back in that galaxy far, far away, we cared desperately for a walking trash can.
So it just doesn’t ring true that the guests, or the behind-the-scenes workers, would be so universally and utterly indifferent to human simulacrums that look so convincing, that have finally leaped over the uncanny valley. You’d wince if they so much as cut their finger.
But if the humans are indifferent, because these are machines that can easily be fixed, and if the machines give us no reason to think otherwise, then paradoxically, we are inclined to agree.
Every day, in the heart of this future western town, there’s one old man android who tries to convince guests to join a posse hunting down bandits. Nearly all visitors ignore him, the way we tend to ignore old animatronic Abe Lincoln at Disneyland.
That is a perfect metaphor for Westworld. It’s standing there beckoning us to saddle up for an adventure and because of its flaws, most of us are going to roll our eyes and walk on by.