Westworld review: HBO’s intriguing sci-fi show has humans playing God with androids
Not since Lost has a sci-fi TV show had so many fan theories — until Westworld!
In 1973, Michael Crichton wrote and directed Westworld, a sci-fi Western thriller film about an amusement park that’s run over by malfunctioning androids that start killing visitors. Twenty years later came Jurassic Park, and you can spot similarities in Crichton’s premise for both films: humans, taking science and nature in their own hands, “creating” androids/dinosaurs for their own enjoyment and monetary gain; these creations soon turn on their creators, thereby shattering the assumption that humans are in control. Because let’s face it: they’re not!
The computer technicians in the Control Room at Westworld couldn’t contain the Gunslinger, and John Hammond’s crew couldn’t control the T-rex (or the raptors) at Jurassic Park. It’s a premise that we’re all too familiar with, and yet our fascination with artificial intelligence (AI), having humans as creators granting consciousness to androids, has never been so pronounced as it is now. The TV show Westworld, Crichton’s story brought to the small screen by Jonathan Nolan and JJ Abrams, is HBO’s larger-than-life production about a Western-themed amusement park catering to humans and their basest desires, about toying with consciousness and AI, about playing God to the androids. It raises questions far more intriguing than anything science fiction has thrown at us so far. In fact, it might do for the sci-fi genre what Game of Thrones did for fantasy. Beware fellow humans, it’s an android world, and we’re just living in it!
In the first episode of Westworld, an alabaster-skinned Dolores Abernathy (played by Evan Rachel Wood in quite possibly her best role to date) lets a fly walk right across her face over her eye; it’s our first look at the “hosts”, the android beings that inhabit Westworld. As the oldest host in the park, Dolores begins each new day repeating the same scripted lines. She has been the girl next door aspiring to travel and see the world for the past 35 years! Created by Dr Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins, brilliant as always, in a role tailor-made for that cold, steely blue gaze of his!) and his partner (the mysterious Arnold) over 35 years ago, the hosts are now maintained at Westworld by Ford’s team of experts, led by Bernard Lowe (played by Jeffrey Wright: fans will know him from the recent James Bond films, and as tech geek Beetee from The Hunger Games) who’s head of the Westworld Programming Division.
The others include: Theresa Cullen (head of Quality Assurance); Ashley Stubbs, the head of Westworld security, who’s charged with monitoring interactions between the hosts and the humans and ensuring the safety of the guests. And there’s Elsie Hughes, from the Programming Division, who’s tasked with remedying odd behavior in the park's artificial beings.
The odd behaviour in question here are a series of glitches occurring in the hosts: Ford’s latest update (called “reveries”, to give the hosts more depth when they interact with the park guests) through the android network is enhancing a bug in their original code, causing the hosts to go off script and remember things from their other “roles” in the past. Dolores’ father warns her of looming danger (he quotes from Romeo and Juliet: “These violent delights have violent ends”); when he’s brought in to be checked at the Westworld Programming headquarters, he starts spewing threats (“By most mechanical and dirty hand….I shall have such revenges on you both, the things I will do, what they are yet I know not, but they shall be the terrors of the earth….Hell is empty, and all the devils are here”). Ford’s logical explanation for this speech is that a previous version of Abernathy was a professor from a horror story that quoted Shakespeare, which would explain why he quotes from a mishmash of the Bard’s works: Henry IV, The Tempest and King Lear.
That explanation doesn’t seem to convince Bernard, and it doesn’t convince us: is this the robots’ call to arms against their human oppressors? When Dolores (who like the others, has been programmed with a “do no harm” core code), swats and kills a fly, it’s a metaphorical shift (sidenote: Reddit obviously has some amazing theories about the importance of flies in Westworld: whether it’s pure symbolism, a literal bug in the hosts’ code, or something more). And it’s not just the Abernathys: there’s Maeve, a madam at one of the brothels in Westworld, who’s starting to draw connections in the most fascinating manner. Or even Teddy, a gunslinger in Westworld, who dies at the end of each day to play the same Wild West charade the day after, and the day after, forever after. There’s a moment when Teddy wakes up and lightly touches his chest (where he keeps getting shot) which conveys his own path to realisation.
To watch things unfold on Westworld (we’re only done with four episodes) is like solving one part of an incredibly difficult and intriguing puzzle. The mythology on the show is vast, and character histories need to match the depth of such a richly-woven universe. Like Battlestar Galactica (BSG) did so well, Westworld also delves into its characters’ past to understand their intentions and motivations. What’s different is that unlike BSG (or any other show, for that matter), some of the characters on Westworld are responsible for creating the personal histories of other characters, making it almost impossible to know for certain. We watch things transpire with the nagging suspicion that these glitches have been introduced by the creators themselves: by Ford (because he wants to play God, and see his creations become self-aware) or Bernard (because...he himself is a host?).
And that’s what makes Westworld different from other TV shows, even from its sci-fi predecessors. Humans and robots are not on opposite sides on the show; there’s a fluidity that allows both to be on a spectrum — questions about humanity and our desires, religion, philosophy, morality, free will notwithstanding. This fluidity, along with the symbolism on the show (eg white stetsons worn by the “good” guys, black by the “bad” guys), characters like the Man In Black (a gleefully sadistic Ed Harris), the music on the show (think a piano version of “No Surprises” by Radiohead and orchestral covers of “Paint It Black” by The Rolling Stones!), its literary references, and its willingness to break away from sci-fi and technology tropes (e.g. On Westworld, programming is not typing on a keyboard, with luminescent green lines of code showing on a dark screen; on Westworld, programming is a series of verbal commands and psychoanalytic interviews) has led fans of Westworld to become hyper-invested in the characters and the show’s overarching mythology. Not since Lost has a sci-fi show had so many fan theories!
You’re so enraptured by the storylines that you forget these characters are being played by an all-star cast led by Anthony Hopkins, and including Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, James Marsden, Jeffrey Wright, Luke Hemsworth, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Rodrigo Santoro, and Ed Harris. We forget these are actors who have played iconic characters from Hannibal Lecter to Xerxes; on Westworld, they’re humans and androids, hosts and guests, programmers/coders, artists, brothel owners, gunslingers: whipping out their weapons, scalping people for maps to potentially mind-freeing mazes, discussing the bicameral mind, and generally playing their part in the onscreen discussion of whether or not robots will eventually kill us all. And in its own twisted way, that’s magical!
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