Ro­bot re­boot a grip­ping tale

Hold on, cow­pokes: HBO’s ‘Westworld’ is a big, fat home­work as­sign­ment

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FRONT PAGE -

pay (ac­cord­ing to one cus­tomer) $40 000 a day to ride a lo­co­mo­tive into the desert West of the 1880s.

In the er­satz fron­tier town of Sweet­wa­ter, a cit­i­zenry of life­like cyborgs pro­vides a Sen­sur­round John Wayne ex­pe­ri­ence, fol­low­ing a nearly lim­it­less ar­ray of pre­pro­grammed story lines and di­a­logue. A client can im­me­di­ately set about liv­ing his or her Wild West fan­tasy, whether it’s rob­bing banks, join­ing a sher­iff ’s posse (atop syn­thetic horses) or head­ing straight to the saloon, where, in a nicely anachro­nis­tic twist, the player pi­ano plinks out old-timey cov­ers of Black Hole Sun and Paint It Black. Some guests go straight up­stairs for a romp with one or more saloon girls (or boys). The guests can be­come he­roes or vil­lains or tog­gle be­tween the two, since the ethics of the place are al­ways re­set. The fur­ther a cus­tomer wan­ders out into the chap­ar­ral, the wilder the story choices be­come.

Westworld isn’t par­tic­u­larly eager to ex­plain ev­ery­thing at once and New­ton and Joy make an un­ortho­dox de­ci­sion to be­gin their story by back­ing into it, fo­cus­ing first on the ma­chines in­stead of the hu­mans. (Some of what fol­lows may count as spoil­ers; keep your eyes peeled for rat­tlers.)

Evan Rachel Wood plays Dolores Aber­nathy, the pretty daugh­ter of a cat­tle rancher. Dolores’s nar­ra­tive loop starts each day with a cheer­ful morn­ing horse­back ride into town, where she may or may not fall in love with a heroic new­comer, in some cases played by James Marsden. Sadly, Dolores often ends her day with a vi­o­lent at­tack on the ranch by a gang of ma­raud­ers, in which she may or may not be dragged to the barn and raped.

Dolores has no say in the mat­ter; none of the hosts in Westworld are in con­trol of their fates, nor can they harm a guest. If a guest shoots them, they bleed and die; if they shoot a guest, the bul­lets bounce harm­lessly away. But Dolores does not store these hor­rors in her hard drive. Once the day’s car­nage at Westworld is judged to be over, a hu­man night crew comes along and scoops up the dead (or de­ac­ti­vates the wounded), brings them back to the shop, fixes them up and re­boots them for an­other day of ad­ven­ture as new guests ar­rive.

What hap­pens back­stage in the nerve cen­tre of Westworld is un­de­ni­ably fas­ci­nat­ing – and where this new ver­sion leaps far ahead of Crich­ton’s orig­i­nal story.

Crich­ton, af­ter all, was com­ing from the am­biva­lent “high tech/high touch” era of wari­ness and fu­ture shock, when com­puter tech­nol­ogy was not to be trusted, even if it was pro­grammed to be harm­less. This Westworld, firmly rooted in the age of Siri and driver­less Uber, cul­ti­vates and even cel­e­brates the idea that ma­chines can and will achieve higher con­scious­ness and self-aware­ness. It’s not en­tirely clear why New­ton and Joy didn’t go ahead and en­vi­sion their Westworld as a vir­tual-re­al­ity ex­pe­ri­ence rather than as a cum­ber­some phys­i­cal space pop­u­lated with ro­bots.

It’s also not ex­plained how the tourism mar­ket of the fu­ture de­cided on a cow­boy theme above all other choices, when ev­ery­thing we know about in­ter­ac­tive gam­ing thus far in­volves mil­i­tary com­bat, auto theft, zom­bies or dragons (and sex). Crich­ton’s movie, af­ter all, of­fered Westworld as one of three options; guests could also play in the Ro­man em­pire or a me­dieval cas­tle. Who among us still fan­ta­sises about the cul­tur­ally in­cor­rect ver­sion of cow­boys and In­di­ans anymore? Who will want to re-cre­ate it 100 years from now?

In the park’s nerve cen­tre, Jef­frey Wright plays Bernard Lowe, head of Westworld’s pro­gram­ming di­vi­sion, who, af­ter a cou­ple of bizarre in­ci­dents, be­gins to won­der whether a re­cent up­grade to some of the ro­bots has sparked a wave of in­de­pen­dence, an in­no­va­tion the park’s enigmatic founder, Dr Robert Ford (Anthony Hop­kins), de­plores.

Dolores, the old­est work­ing ro­bot on the premises, be­gins to show signs of recog­ni­tion that her per­cep­tion of re­al­ity doesn’t add up af­ter the ro­bot who plays her fa­ther schizzes out when he dis­cov­ers an ob­ject that doesn’t be­long in the 1880s. Even af­ter a re­set, Dolores is un­doubt­edly changed. Bernard, fas­ci­nated by her iden­tity cri­sis, be­gins to se­cretly in­ter­view her about her ob­ser­va­tions and feel­ings.

The no­tion that things are not what they seem also oc­curs to the saloon’s madam, Maeve Mil­lay ( Thandie New­ton), who be­gins hav­ing ter­ri­fy­ing flash­backs to the nerve cen­tre’s chop shop. It’s New­ton’s por­trayal of these elec­tronic panic at­tacks that fi­nally gives Westworld some ur­gency. Our sym­pa­thies are re­versed, root­ing for the ro­bots, much as we did in Steven Spiel­berg’s thought­ful (but sappy) 2001 film A.I.

But per­haps these sym­pa­thies are mis­di­rected or pre­ma­ture. The most in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ter, by far, comes in the form of The Man in Black, played per­fectly by Ed Har­ris, an ac­tor whose face has taken on the craggy hand­some­ness of canyons.

“That gen­tle­man gets what­ever he wants,” some­one in the con­trol room says and, boy, does he. At first it seems The Man in Black might be a per­ma­nent, sadis­tic oc­cu­pant who is in­tent on abus­ing and mur­der­ing the hosts in the role of arch-vil­lain; or per­haps he is on a quest to un­der­stand the most es­sen­tial, hid­den se­cret of Westworld. His free rein and im­punity sug­gest that he’s hu­man; his ac­tions sug­gest some­thing worse. All I re­ally know is that when­ever Har­ris clanks his spurs, Westworld be­comes no­tice­ably more en­gag­ing.

I’m there­fore hes­i­tant to write Westworld off as a dreary trot from start to fin­ish; parts of it are imag­i­na­tive and in­trigu­ing. It’s def­i­nitely not the cy­borg Dead­wood that some fans were ac­tively wish­ing for, nor does it roll out the wel­come mat as a riv­et­ing, ac­ces­si­ble ad­ven­ture. You’ll have to stick to your guns and dis­cover the an­swers you seek. If there are any. – Wash­ing­ton Post

James Marsden as Teddy Flood and Evan Rachel Wood as Dolores Aber­nathy.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa

© PressReader. All rights reserved.