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...
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.”
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.
“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.