“These violent delights have violent ends.” ~ Peter Abernathy
Like millions of other viewers over the past few weeks, I’ve been gripped by HBO’s latest drama ‘Westworld’, based on the eponymous 1973 film by writer and director Michael Crichton.
Trailer for the original film with Yul Brynner:
The current Westworld airing on HBO differs in plot and characterisations compared to its earlier, less sophisticated film version, but the premise is basically the same: for an exorbitant sum guests can enter a futuristic wild west theme park where there are no rules, to live out their wildest fantasies.
In Westworld they can maim, kill, rape and plunder at will and without consequences. The murdered and brutally raped inhabitants of Westworld are the creations of Dr. Robert Ford (played chillingly by Anthony Hopkins), co-founder of the park, and are designed to be indistinguishable from humans. Their technology has created highly sophisticated organic robots, programmed with certain memories and narratives that serve the human guests.
These humanoids are referred to by the park’s creators and programmers as ‘hosts’.
In the first episode we are acquainted with the pretty, sweet-natured Dolores Abernathy, (Evan Rachel Wood), and her loving rancher father. Dolores was the very first host made for Westworld; always youthful and unspoilt, thanks to her constant repairs and ‘upgrades’ after each episode of rough treatment she suffers at the hands of the park’s guests.
We see her going through the same motions at the start of each day, but how each day goes depends on her interactions with the human guests in the park. Her mutual affection for fellow host Teddy, (played by the handsome James Marsden), draws you in to the one beautiful aspect of her world. At first, despite the violence she witnesses on a daily basis and the rapes that she has endured, she does not appear to recall these harrowing incidents.
Or does she?
As glitches are becoming apparent in some of the hosts’ programming they are promptly questioned and either returned with adjustments or taken out of service.
Despite the staff’s efforts to curtail these glitches they only seem to become more widespread and frequent. Trouble is brewing in Westworld…
One of the most harrowing scenes for me was in episode 3 when Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton), who is currently the madam of the brothel, awakens during her repairs. She sees strange men in hazmat suits hovering over her, gets up and runs off with the wound in her stomach still unrepaired, staggering around the factory in confusion. To make matters worse she stumbles upon the naked, lifeless bodies of her fellow hosts that were also slaughtered in Westworld as they are being hosed down.
It seems she cannot compute what is happening as it is so alien to her normal world. When back in operation within Westworld she begins to draw the hazmat men on pieces of paper to try and make sense of it.
Maeve also has other distressing memories of being scalped and being killed in other settings away from her current role. It’s not easy viewing.
Although you know she and her fellow machines are not human – Dr. Ford makes a big point of telling Bernard not to forget that they are ‘not real’, you start to feel for them as though they were.
In episode 3 Robert Ford tells Bernard (his chief programmer), the story of his original business partner Arnold, who helped him to create Westworld some thirty years prior. Arnold perished in the park under mysterious circumstances, and we learn from the rather cold and detached Ford that Arnold became too attached to the park and obsessed with being able to help the hosts experience consciousness in a similar way that a human being would.
Rather cruel when you witness the atrocities they go through every day. The internal monologue he tried to imbue them with did not appear to succeed, until now perhaps… I’m sure his motives and fate will become clearer as the series progresses.
But with errant hosts and even innocent Dolores showing signs of cognition and questioning of her reality, you just know that, along the lines of the original film, the ‘hosts’ are going to rebel against their treatment sooner or later!
The hosts are unable to hurt or kill any of the human guests, but I’m not sure this will remain the case for long. And you can’t help thinking that the guests deserve whatever retribution is forthcoming from the hosts.
Newcomer William (unlike his friend, seasoned park visitor Logan), seems to be the only decent guest in the park who wants to stay true to himself and uphold his values. The park is billed as a place where guests can explore their deepest, darkest desires whilst acting in their chosen story lines and scenarios, and in most cases the free reign to do as they please in Westworld, with no repercussion, brings out the very worst in them!
The most enigmatic human guest in the park is the ‘man in black’ (played to perfection by Ed Harris), a veteran of 30 years in Westworld. In the first few episodes he comes across as pretty ruthless, but now I’m starting to suspect there is more to him than meets the eye and his agenda clearly goes beyond personal gratification. He does not act as a friend to the hosts, but could he really be on their side?
Behind the scenes look at Westworld:
It’s brutal, tender, intelligent, character driven and thought provoking; a great mix of sci-fi and good old western mixed into a mind-bending thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat.
Artificial intelligence going wrong isn’t a new idea in films, although I think the original 1973 film must have been quite ground-breaking in its day, but the moral questions it raises are very pertinent to society.
I think that was the genius of Michael Crichton. He makes you think.
Is it okay to act in a way that you never normally would, in a setting that allows depraved fantasies of every kind to be played out?
Even though these interactions are with robots, they look and react like humans, and surely it begs the question that if you indulge in your absolute worst behaviour, it is going to affect you on some level.
There has been debate over whether the prevalence of violent video games adversely affects players and therefore makes them more prone to acts of violence. Imagine being immersed in a real world and acting in the same manner…
The insidious premise behind the park is pandering to the wealthy and morally corrupt guests of Westworld. If you wouldn’t do it to a real person, why do it to a robot that may possibly develop the senses to experience pain and suffering?
It’s a pretty compelling drama, and no doubt the lack of ethics at the heart of the park will ultimately cause the hosts to exact a bloody revenge!
I’m going to end with the opening credits, which are also brilliant and eerily congruent with the theme of artificial intelligence, violence and suspense:
“You can’t play God without being acquainted with the devil.” ~ Dr. Robert Ford