– By Paulie Spiceflow –
*** Spoiler Alert: Westworld Episodes 1-4 ***
Until recently, most of us were not familiar with the Michael Crichton film Westworld. Creators Jonathan Nolan (wrote the screenplay to The Dark Knight and Interstellar) and Lisa Joy decided to reboot the 1973 film, transforming it into an HBO drama. The highly anticipated show has J.J. Abrams as executor producer and stars Sir Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, and Jeffrey Wright. With such a talented cast and crew, expectations were high. So far, those expectations have been met.
Critics and customer reviews alike are giving high praise for the first part of season one. The production value, writing, acting, and fascinating plot have captured the attention of millions and has given it all the makings of a potential sci-fi classic. It has hit a few popular tropes so far and has not spared the gore. While the violence and nudity seems to be a little gratuitous at times, the show definitely does not spend all its time appealing to the lowest common denominator. There is some pretty heavy themes embedded in the story as well.
The original film was about a western theme park populated with life-like robots. The robots turned on the guests, embarking on a murderous rampage. That hasn’t happened in the show… yet. Instead, we are being treated to a set of subplots involving robotic consciousness, corporate greed, sabotage, human depravity, and hidden secrets from one of the late founders of the park. Like many recent TV dramas, Westworld has an en semble cast rather than a single main character. Although there are some hints on who are the good guys and bad guys, there is just enough ambiguity to keep us guessing. The show also moves at a pretty deliberate pace. The creators must’ve thought why not? It worked for Game of Thrones right?
The first four episodes were clearly intended to make us sympathetic towards the robots, or hosts. We bare witness to the horrible atrocities acted upon them by guests, and sometimes fellow hosts. Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) is raped and murdered (don’t worry, it happens off-screen) after witnessing her family killed by a Man in Black (Ed Harris). The mysterious villain is a guest and cannot be killed or harmed but can do what he pleases to the hosts. Pretty disturbing start to things.
Hosts are kept functioning through a periodic wipe of their memory. They do not remember what was done to them the previous day. Problems arise when a few hosts start remembering. Dolores begins to have faint impressions of previous events but isn’t sure what they mean. Another host, a prostitute named Maeve (Thandie Newton) remembers being worked on in the maintenance section of the park. With vague memories, she seeks out the truth about what happened to her and what is going on in her little western town.
Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) is a senior executive at the park, focused on keeping the hosts operating properly. As things start to malfunction, he begins to wonder if the founder of the park, Dr. Ford (Sir Anthony Hopkins) is keeping secrets from him. He also engages in some sort of philosophical experiment with Dolores, putting her in an alternate mode where she can remember everything that has happened to her, then asks her a series of metaphysical questions. It is not clear where this is going, but so far it seems Bernard is on to something. Dolores is the key, in some way.
So far, it is the guests. Scene after scene show them acting out their darkest fantasies involving violence, murder, robot orgies, and destruction. The park allows them to commit such acts without consequences. The evilest figure is the Man in Black. A man with unlimited wealth to pay for countless trips into the park, he seems to be searching for some hidden secret, the greatest of Easter eggs. Either that, or his experiences in this alternate reality has warped his perceptions, making him delusional. Either way, he thinks he is slowly unraveling some great mystery.
The rest of the humans aren’t rays of sunshine either. The staff of the park are cold and deeply cynical. They are glib, with a dry sense of humor towards what they witness observing the park. They also swear… a lot. Distrust and malice engulfs them, with threats and posturing galore. All of them wonder about the mysterious Dr. Ford and what he has planned for the park’s future.
It is an excellent setup, but after four episodes it is really unclear what is really going on with Westworld. At some point, the show will have to clue us in on the conflict and what is at stake. So far, nothing. None of the humans appear to be in any real danger.
Of course, we cannot have robots without talking about consciousness. It is the inevitable and obvious theme of any AI story. Westworld is no exception. Bernard intentionally disables Dolores’s memory block, allowing her to remember everything. The exchanges between them suggest he wants to see if there might be true consciousness within the hosts. They were programmed and designed to be simple actors, lacking in the sophisticated neural net that most believe is necessary for AI to achieve consciousness. Some of them are acting a little strange but most park staff conclude it is due to a bad upgrade.
The hosts are designed to follow a narrative loop, doing and saying the same things over and over. Some variation and adaptation is also programmed in, allowing them to respond and react when something changes, such as when a guest intervenes in their loop. It also appears they have a fairly large library of programmed responses and reactions for a large number of potential situations. They look frightened when someone points a gun at them. Women shriek in terror when guests attempt to ravage them, or watch a member of their family murdered. In some scenes the hosts seem to freeze up, unable to find the proper response in their library then simply return to their loop as if nothing happened.
How can such simple programs become conscious? Bernard decides to make Dolores aware of all previous experience as well as aware that she is an actress inside a park. Her behavior changes as she is able to react to situations more effectively thanks to her partially restored memory. In terms of breaking the chains of her programmed bondage, there is only subtle hints that she intends to escape the park and live free.
According to the conventional AI gains consciousness trope, that is exactly what Dolores will do eventually. We’ll see if Westworld sticks to the common trope or attempts to do something novel.
Another trope explored in other sci-fi works is the concept of the uncanny valley. The theory posits that humans become increasingly uncomfortable with machines the more human-like they become, until the machines reach the point where they are indistinguishable from humans. At that point, the discomfort drops dramatically and humans treat the machines as conscious, sentient beings. The hosts have crossed the valley. They are indistinguishable from humans. In one scene, a new guest has to ask one the park employees if she is human or not. The same guest later struggles to see the hosts as machines, and even tries to be polite to them. Meanwhile his co-worker sees them as toys, killing several of them without a hint of hesitation or remorse.
How is it that some guests treat the hosts as beings, while others easily see them as mere toys? Even as hosts scream and cry in pain, some guests chuckle and point at the spectacle while others exhibit what can only be called sympathy for the suffering of machines. It appears the uncanny valley is not the same for everyone. Another explanation is that the guest reaction to the hosts is a reflection of their true character. The ruthless guests have a psychopathic facet to their personality that rises to the surface. The park gives them the opportunity to express their cruel, brutal nature without consequences.
I was left asking myself: how would I act in Westworld? Would I just “shoot and fuck” my way through the park, committing acts that would otherwise put me in prison for the rest of my life?
It is said that Shakespeare’s gift was his understanding of human nature. It is what allowed him to stand the test of time, remaining in influential figure centuries after his death. Characters quote Shakespeare several times in the show, which can be taken as thought-provoking, or pretentious. So far, I am not sure the Shakespeare references are adding much to the show itself; so for now, I’d have to say they are coming off as pretentious.
Dolores’s father quotes Romeo and Juliet when he says “these violent delights have violent ends.” The line seems to activate something in her code, allowing her to more clearly remember previous events. When she says it to Maeve, she also begins to experience past events, as if it was some sort of coded command. In the play, the quote is part of a larger point about moderation, and not meant as a threat or warning. It seems the words sounded good to the writer and they did not bother learning their meaning or intent in the play. In any event, why would anyone utilize a Shakespeare quote as a computer command?
Dr. Ford mentions that one of the co-founders of the park named Arnold, was deeply interested in giving the hosts consciousness. He later died in the park in an apparent suicide. One obvious read of this information is that Arnold gave the hosts consciousness but hid it in their code for it to come out later. Another is that he is still alive hiding in the park. The Man in Black is searching for something, a maze, but perhaps the real treasure at the end of the maze is Arnold himself, alive and well. Dolores’s father also declares several quotes from Shakespeare’s plays, directly threatening Dr. Ford with destruction. Is this Arnold speaking to Ford through one of the hosts?
The Future of Online Gaming?
Westworld is, in some ways, the next generation MMORPG. Here, players can physically enter a virtual world populated with robots that look and sound entirely human. They bleed, cry in pain, moan in ecstasy, and fulfill their programmed roles in their set narrative. Each player, or guest, can do whatever they want in the park. There are countless story lines, side quests, and hidden Easter eggs in the vast park. Unlike MMORPGs, there is no competition, hierarchy or leveling up. The park experience is whatever you make of it. Perhaps it is more like Minecraft than World of Warcraft.
Inevitably, there would be a debate on the negative effects of this type of gaming, a replay of the debate that took place in the 90s. Parents and conservative politicians were in an uproar over violent video games like Mortal Kombat and Grand Theft Auto. They argued such games encouraged anti-social behavior in children, desensitizing them to violence. The result would be an increase in violence, psychopathy, and other behavioral problems among the youth. If a park like Westworld existed, the same debate would certainly arise.
The Invisible Man
One more quote from the show: “Hell is empty/And all the devils are here.” It reads like an observation of the park, namely that all the guests are devils from the perspective of the hosts. From their actions, that would seem true. Most of them act without remorse or thought of consequences because they see the hosts as mere machines. Does that make their actions any less disturbing? Suppose you were in Westworld: Would you feel differently about someone if you saw them brutally murder a whole robot family while laughing hysterically?
The question is similar to the one explored in The Invisible Man. If we were free of consequences or punishment, would we all act so maliciously towards others? Morally, this question is deeply troubling, suggesting no one is truly good, only obedient to their self-interest. In other words, the only reason they do not kill is fear of imprisonment. If they were absolutely free of legal punishment, they would become devils.
Where is this all going?
If the show stays true to the movie, the hosts will turn on the guests and park employees. Safety protocols will be disabled and they will seek horrible revenge on those that have been repeatedly torturing them. All of it would become an allegorical tale about unleashing the devil inside and acting without remorse. Even if the victim is mere machine, perhaps the action is reprehensible in and of itself and must be punished. Malfunction is one possible cause, but so far it seems more like intentional sabotage. Arnold or those that think as he does, feel like humanity is showing its dark side and ought to be punished. In other words, the park should not exist. Is it being driven by Arnold and Bernard? Or are the hosts reaching consciousness on their own?
Is Dr. Ford a good guy or a bad guy? What about the Man in Black?
One problem with the show so far is the excess number of characters and the slow pace. Each episode gives us one small piece to what seems like is a very large puzzle. Conversations on consciousness, Shakespeare quotes, and hidden secrets all suggest something very big, deep, and thought-provoking is coming our way. Fans will be rewarded for their patience… right?
We will have to see.
Paulie Spiceflow is a regular contributor, movie reviewer and unbelievable smart ass. He prides himself on his excessive knowledge of movies, TV, books, internet memes, and pop cultural references. During college, he spent minimal hours studying but took full-advantage of the free internet and lack of bills to broaden his knowledge in numerous genres including spoof comedy, fantasy, Shakespeare, military history, zombies, and cartoons.