Robot reboot a gripping tale
Hold on, cowpokes: HBO’s ‘Westworld’ is a big, fat homework assignment
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.