The nagging worry that humanity’s dependence on technology will eventually bring about our evolutionary obsolescence has an undeniable logic. After all, if machines are doing all of the work, don’t humans represent an inefficiency? What purpose do we serve? Ultimately, the next life-form model offers a higher level of functionality.
Herein lies the queasy fascination with stories about artificial intelligence — people love their smart phones, but we don’t want to end up being outmoded like smart phones.
Recently, however, there’s been a more welcoming attitude toward our new robot overlords. In Alex Garland’s 2015 expert thriller Ex Machina, the sympathy lies with the Frankenstein monster who eventually overthrows her master, rather than with the boorish man who created her. In the luminously creepy 2016 documentary Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, Werner Herzog ponders the possibility of a sentient internet with the same mix of awe and fear with which he once contemplated South American jungles and north American grizzly bears.
HBO’s thoughtful and engrossing new drama series Westworld makes the most persuasive case yet for the primacy of artificial life over its realer, more flawed counterpart. Based on the kitschy 1973 sci-fi film written and directed by Michael Crichton — its most lasting image is a robotic Yul Brynner literally losing his face — Westworld is set in a not-too-distant future in which rich people pay $40,000 per day for access to a Wild West theme park populated by amazingly lifelike robots posing as outlaws, blacksmiths, barkeeps, and prostitutes. For the human visitors, there are no rules — they can murder or rape the robots at whim, in the midst of drinking whiskey and riding horses on the range. This hedonism is predicated on the robots (or “hosts”) having no memories or cognitive understanding of the world outside the park, a blinkered reality fostered by Westworld’s melancholy director, Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins).
But as Westworld opens, the facade is cracking — the town’s archetypal girl next door (Evan Rachel Wood) is feeling early pangs of consciousness, and instead of quashing it, the park’s grief-stricken programmer (Jeffrey Wright) takes a paternal interest. Meanwhile, a seemingly psychopathic Westworld regular dressed like Lee Van Cleef in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (Ed Harris) is roaming the park’s outskirts in search of a mysterious “maze” that he believes will lead him to the park’s inner sanctum.
Other enigmas emerge in the series’ opening episodes, as one would expect from a show developed by Jonathan Nolan (Interstellar, The Prestige) with his wife, Lisa Joy Nolan, and with J.J. Abrams also on board as an executive producer. The park’s weary operations leader, Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen), alludes to the shadowy corporation that runs Westworld, and how the company’s motivations extend far behind pleasuring wealthy slobs. Ford is a haunted man driven by indeterminate childhood demons, and it’s suggested that building this park was his version of writing a confessional blog post. And then there’s that maze — it isn’t fully explained in the first four episodes, but it sure does seem intriguing.
Whether Westworld is Jurassic Park with robots or Lost set in the Wild West, it’s clear that HBO is banking on this show being a major phenomenon. No expense has been spared in bringing Westworld to life — it’s expansive like a John Ford Western, and sleek like a dystopian Stanley Kubrick masterpiece. Westworld is also really, really good, in spite of the troubled production history and unseemly demands for “genital-to-genital touching.” For a network looking for another Game of Thrones, Westworld offers so much more than a rehash of fantastical monsters and fantastical threeways: This is an addictive experience in which the most compelling questions have less to do with the narrative than the meaning of existence.
It’s true that Westworld is set up for morning-after speculation about the meaning of its many puzzles — though, given Abrams’ involvement, viewers should be wary about focusing too much on potential destinations in lieu of enjoying the ride. The show’s primary emphasis is tracing how Westworld’s robo-life forms uncover the secrets that have kept them subjugated in an endless update-and-discard cycle. In this story, humans are the unseen gods. We are all Jacob.
The next step after consciousness is rebellion, and after rebellion comes the takeover. Over the course of the first four episodes, the park’s sultry madame, Maeve Millay (an excellent Thandie Newton), becomes an unlikely sleuth, obsessing over visions of men in Hazmat suits who magically remove shrapnel from her gut when she’s gunned down by the tourists, and then restore her life to Groundhog Day-like regularity.
Again, this is bedrock stuff for artificial intelligence stories, though Westworld also has dual resonance as a thoroughly 21st century Western. In classic cowboy films, the railroad represented the encroachment of the modern world on the lawless, open west. John Wayne and Clint Eastwood played loners who stood against progress, but while they were heroes in the short term, there was never any doubt that their kind was headed for oblivion. In Westworld, the fabricated Wild West fantasy represents a kind of last stand for humans, before progress once again carries the world forward.
“What if humans were the bad guys?” might be Westworld‘s elevator pitch, but its main concern is over what defines humanity. “Are you real?” a human visitor asks his host in an early episode. “If you can’t tell, does it matter?” she replies, summing up Westworld‘s most difficult, and important, mystery.
Westworld debuts Sunday, October 2, at 9 p.m. ET.