Westworld, the popular 2016 TV series, is breathtaking in its multilayered presentation of reality and fiction. As the robots who serve as theme park “hosts” gradually gain glimpses of their own condition, they become self-aware. Identifying with these cyber-humans, each with their own engineered backstory and narrative loops, we realize that like them, we are locked within patterns of programmed behavior, interrupted by glimpses of the possibility of freedom.
After watching two episodes before sleep one night, I awoke the next morning like one of the hosts—“as from a dream”—wondering at my own knowledge of it now, and the capacity to create my own new narrative on the fly.
Commentary at the meta level of story creation interlaces the dialogue of the show, with frequent references to the narrative framing of the theme park’s creators (chiefly Anthony Hopkins, in a role surpassing Hannibal Lecter). As viewers we are encouraged by this ironic device to question our given reality, to see our place in our own repetitive plots and to imagine a wider world beyond our immediate lens.
As with Groundhog Day (or my paranormal adventure novella, Rendezvous at Jumbo Pass), the device of the time loop, or repeated scenes and action sequences, is critical to the growth of the characters’ dawning understanding of their condition, and to our identification with that gradual process of dawning self-awareness.
The TV series is modeled on the original premise of Westworld, a 1973 screenplay by Michael Crichton. Owing to a shoestring budget, the film’s scene construction is generic in the extreme. Chrichton himself, in notes from the making of Westworld, resigns himself to an array of token machinery merely suggesting scientific advance.
In this memo to his production design team, Michael Crichton explains the look he wants for the Westworld Robot Repair Room.
“I hesitate to state this so bluntly, but this movie is fantasy and in the end I don’t really care if the equipment surrounding each table is ‘appropriate’ or not, so long as the total effect is impressive and organized in some way. There is a fine line between a thrown-together look, and an organized look.”
From the Robot Repair room we cut to Roman world, stock characters posing in stock sets, static and patently fake—which is perfectly appropriate, since the park itself is fake.
Later the two main characters, park guests, reflect on the simulation while sunning themselves in the desert:
“It’s as real as anything else.”
“Yup, I reckon.”
This brief nod to the central metaphor of Westworld is about as meta as it gets in the 1973 film, which otherwise plays to the one-dimensional nature of the old westerns whose tropes it incorporates, without depth in character, plot or theme.
The more overt theme concerns the darker side of the park (as in the later Crichton work, Jurassic Park). The consumeristic dream, marketed as “fail-safe,” turns to nightmare when the Gunslinger (Yul Brynner) turns rogue. Twenty minutes later, wide-eyed, he discovers fire; in the process becoming more reflective (i.e., more human) and thus, vulnerable.
The death of the Gunslinger at the end of the film illustrates the wide gap in cinematography and viewer attention spans in the forty-three years between productions. The action stops for over a full minute (unthinkable by today’s standards), switching between the smoking robot corpse on the floor, and Richard Benjamin’s florid expression of finality.
Like the first film, the sequel, Futureworld, is so cardboard in its presentation, one is tempted to think the intent is ironic, fitting with the nature of the theme park’s simulated worlds. But where is the knowing wink, the stylish contrast, the flash of deeper meaning? In truth, in the absence of any visible framing, one is left to discard the effort as a tawdry genre flop.
As with the original Westworld, descriptors that come to mind include: generic, unimaginative, flat, stock, hackneyed, amateurish, laughable, shallow. Examples abound: the red plastic tape supposedly collecting biometric data on the faces of the clonees; the stultifying dialogue (“Um, yup”); the empty corridors; the computer banks with their flashing lights, whirling data disks, and rudimentary graphics (albeit state-of-the-art in that era).
When Chuck Browning (Peter Fonda) and Tracy Ballard (Blythe Danner) glimpse for the first time the clones of themselves and world leaders, Ballard emotes, “Oh my God. I don’t believe it.”
Browning then deems it necessary to explain the obvious: “They’re duplicates. They’re creating and programming duplicates of real people… politicians and commissars and generals. They’ve all been replaced by these things.” The earthshaking metaphorical implications of such a revelation notwithstanding, the presentation is delivered without nuance.
At the climax of the action, Ballard confronts her own duplicate in a showdown on the street of the deserted Westworld town: “What are you?”
Postscript: PsyBot (2014)
At first glance the chapters of virtual reality experienced by Joe Norton in the novel PsyBot (originally titled Future.Net, then Future.Con) appear like those of the Delos theme park, Futureworld. The various modules generated by the PsyBot virus are analogous to the Delos theme offerings (Westworld, Romanworld, Medievalworld, Futureworld, and Spaworld)—with the key difference that programmer Joe Norton is unwitting victim instead of paying guest. Both presentations serve to cast ironic light on the glitzy promises offered by such escapist fantasies.
In such a light the transparent artificiality of characters, setting, and plot within the virtual reality modules themselves is, to use Crichton’s term, “appropriate.” The viewer/reader is invited to understand the nature of the illusion and to apply such discrimination in one’s “real” life, so permeated as it is with confident claims of happiness deliverable for a price.
Tellingly, Michael Crichton the writer explains his preference for dealing with this kind of theme in film instead of in a novel, his usual forte:
The actual detailing of these three worlds—and also the kinds of fantasies that people experienced in them—were movie fantasies, and because they were movie fantasies, they got to be very strange-looking on the written page. (http://www.michaelcrichton.com/westworld/)
Strange indeed, then, are the scenes encountered by unwilling volunteer Joe Norton in PsyBot, as he navigates the alien Hookup Room, the Saragossa Space Station, the virtual planetoid Desertia, and the cartoonish nightmare known as Witch Bay. Patently unreal—except to the poor schmuck whose brain has been co-opted to experience them as all too real.