THE QUICK AND THE DEAD

The clas­sic AI tale heads to TV. Stephen Arm­strong takes a trip to WestWorld, where noth­ing can pos­si­bly go worng...

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - West World - Westworld is on Sky At­lantic from Oc­to­ber.

n its rest­less search for sto­ries to feed the big and small screen’s hun­gry maw, Hol­ly­wood has plun­dered ev­ery­thing from folk tales to videogames, tak­ing in comics, nov­els and old TV or movie ideas ripe for a re­boot. Cu­ri­ously, how­ever, there’s one set of ideas that seem al­most un­touch­able – the rich seam of pre-Star Wars dystopian 1970s sci-fi movies like Lo­gan’s Run, Death Race 2000, Soy­lent Green and Westworld. Of­fer­ing a con­fused and ter­ri­fy­ing ver­sion of im­mi­nent doom, where pop­u­la­tion growth, vi­o­lent sports and Ar­ti­fi­cial In­tel­li­gence threaten strug­gling ev­ery­day cit­i­zens, these fu­ture shocks lacked Ge­orge Lu­cas’s moral clar­ity and heroic quests. Cu­ri­ously, just as JJ Abrams picked up the Star Wars sto­ries he’s also ven­tured into these murkier wa­ters, pro­duc­ing HBO’s TV re­ver­sion­ing of 1973 sci-fi dis­as­ter move Westworld.

It’s an im­pres­sive project, star­ring Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie New­ton, An­thony Hop­kins, Ed Har­ris and James Mars­den, with a bud­get to match the orig­i­nal movies. In many ways, it vastly out­classes its age­ing par­ent.

Westworld the movie was writ­ten and di­rected by Juras­sic Park au­thor Michael Crich­ton and fol­lows the same ba­sic sto­ry­line as his di­nosaur romp – a fu­tur­is­tic theme park based on ideas the sci­en­tists don’t com­pletely un­der­stand goes hay­wire, forc­ing the staff into a locked down con­trol room while guests strug­gle to es­cape death. In Westworld, the theme parks fea­ture AI robots role play­ing as cow­boys, Ro­mans and knights in ar­mour. Yul Bryn­ner is Westworld’s T-Rex – a black clad gun­slinger (a di­rect copy of Bryn­ner’s

Mag­nif­i­cent Seven badass Chris Adams) who picks fights with hol­i­day mak­ers and al­ways loses… un­til, in­evitably, the park crashes and the slaugh­ter begins.

In re­boot­ing the idea, Westworld’s hus­band and wife ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer/writ­ing team

Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan de­cided to prune all but the old West, for very par­tic­u­lar rea­sons.

“I did see the film when I was a kid and found it pro­foundly ter­ri­fy­ing,” Nolan tells

SFX. “The orig­i­nal film was fan­tas­tic but it barely has op­por­tu­nity to ex­plore all the ques­tions that Crich­ton throws into it. JJ Abrams, who I’ve been col­lab­o­rat­ing with go­ing on six years now, sat down with Michael Crich­ton 20 years ago to talk about re­mak­ing the film, but they couldn’t crack it. Two decades later, it oc­curs to JJ that it’s not a movie, it’s a se­ries. You take the nar­ra­tive and you in­vert it, and you make it about the hosts. In­stead of con­cen­trat­ing – as so much film and TV has done – on what do we think of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, the ques­tion in the se­ries be­comes; what do they think of us? What will they make of us? That was a fan­tas­tic jump­ing-off point to re-en­er­gise all the ques­tions from the orig­i­nal.”

bad robots?

The first episode starts with the hosts – Nolan and Joy’s word for the AI robots. We see them live their fron­tier life loops, re­peat­ing pre-pro­grammed sto­ry­lines with a touch­ing in­no­cence – in­hal­ing the joy of life, all un­aware that life is not for them. In­deed, the se­ries acts al­most as cri­tique of the movie – in 1973 it was en­tirely ac­cept­able that peo­ple would want to spend their hol­i­days killing and screw­ing. When the ma­chines fight back, they are the bad­dies.

As the AIs grad­u­ally wake up in the TV ver­sion – as un­der­stand­ing and mem­ory drips slowly into their pre­vi­ously pre-de­fined brains – the first thing they feel is hor­ror and de­spair. “My char­ac­ter has ef­fec­tively been raped ev­ery day,” Evan Rachel Wood points out. “If a girl has been go­ing through that for 30 years, can you imag­ine if she woke up one day?”

In that sense, Westworld is as interested in de­con­struct­ing the idea of the West­ern, ex­plor­ing the dark­est side of hu­man na­ture and un­pick­ing power dy­nam­ics, as it is in wor­ry­ing about the Sin­gu­lar­ity.

“When I used to watch Westerns, I could ad­mire the craft but I never re­ally loved them, they never spoke to me,” says Joy. “Maybe be­cause I’m first gen­er­a­tion Amer­i­can and I’m a woman, I just didn’t see my­self re­flected in those sto­ries. Here was a chance to take this plu­ral­is­tic ap­proach to who owned the West. It wasn’t just that stal­wart, male hero. And then, the be­hav­iour of the hu­man guests adds a whole other level of scru­tiny and phi­los­o­phy. It’s a Rashomon ef­fect mir­ror that we use to an­a­lyse our­selves from the point of view of the other. That’s the kind of play­ground that I find just de­li­cious.”

The duo’s most sig­nif­i­cant switch is the black-clad gun­slinger. Played by Ed Har­ris, he’s re­vealed to be a guest – a hu­man, who’s been com­ing to the park for years, be­com­ing cru­eller and more sav­age each time. His vi­o­lent rape and mur­der of Wood’s Dolores – re­peated time and again – proves par­tic­u­larly dis­con­cert­ing.

in­ner demons

“When he first went to the park he wasn’t the man in black,” Har­ris ex­plains. “This is some­thing he’s de­vel­oped over the years. I think he re­alised, com­ing to this place where you’re free to ex­or­cise what­ever demons you have in you, that he had this side of him that he’d re­pressed most of his life. Sud­denly he re­alises, ‘This is a real part of me.’”

Joy is ready for the con­tro­versy al­ready bub­bling up af­ter ex­tras were made to sign a con­sent form say­ing they agreed to take part in “graphic sex­ual sim­u­la­tions”. “We ex­plore pa­ter­nal love, ro­man­tic love but also the basest part of hu­man na­ture,” says Joy. “That in­cludes vi­o­lence and sex­ual vi­o­lence, which have sadly been a fact since the be­gin­ning of hu­man his­tory. So when we were tack­ling the project about a park in which the premise is ‘you can do what­ever you want and ex­plore what­ever de­sire you have with im­punity and with­out con­se­quence’, it seemed like it was an is­sue that we had to ad­dress. It’s ex­traor­di­nar­ily dis­turb­ing and hor­ri­fy­ing and we wanted to en­sure the show is not about the fetishi­sa­tion of those acts. It is about ex­plor­ing the crime and es­tab­lish­ing the crime, and the tor­ment of the char­ac­ters hope­fully with dig­nity and depth.”

When he’s not shoot­ing and abus­ing, Har­ris is also on a mis­sion – he be­lieves there’s a game be­hind the park’s façade that only the most ex­pe­ri­enced vis­i­tors can find and play. “Crich­ton makes the film in ’73, and the only videogame that ex­ists at that point is Pong but it’s so much about gam­ing,” ar­gues Nolan. “It’s easy to recog­nise that it’s a role­play­ing game. We had a demo of the Valve 5 last year at HBO and we were com­pletely blown away. As a kid, I went to the Tro­cadero in Lon­don and they had the early prim­i­tive head­sets that made you feel sick. Now one of the things that first struck us was that our daugh­ter will prob­a­bly spend a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of her life in vir­tual re­al­ity. You turn off

Grand Theft Auto and all the pedes­tri­ans, hook­ers and bank rob­bers dis­ap­pear – but you don’t feel like you’ve just ex­tin­guished all those lives. As we get closer to AI and VR in our sim­u­la­tions, we will run head­long at some point into this ques­tion, and it’s a dif­fi­cult one. We’ll have to won­der – what will they do when the game is switched off? What’s the moral­ity of killing them? We don’t have the an­swers – but they’re in­ter­est­ing ques­tions, don’t you think?”

We ex­plore love but also the basest part of hu­man na­ture

An­thony Hop­kins plays Dr Robert Ford, creative direc­tor of Westworld.

Thandie New­ton and Ro­drigo San­toro.

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