October 31, 2016

Android Hero

Justin Slaughter

POV



The theme park at the center of Westworld—HBO’s new series, adapted from the 1973 sci-fi film written and directed by novelist Michael Crichton—is a simulation of a dirt-on-the brow, snake-in-the-boot nineteenth century frontier town where the only consequence of sin and murder is profit. The park’s hosts are sentient androids covered in impeccable artificial flesh, ignorant of the fact that the “new comers” to the park’s central town of Sweetwater are human guests who pay $40,000 per day for the chance to lay a saloon prostitute or shoot a man just to watch him die. But as expected from Crichton’s theme-park-gone-wrong motif, first used in the original film and nearly perfected in Jurassic Park, the Westworld staff quickly lose control of their creations.

But unlike Crichton’s forgettable film version, where a code malfunction spreads like a disease through the robot hosts and leads them to kill almost all of the humans in the park, executive producers Jonathan Nolan, J.J. Abrams, and Lisa Joy turn the humans-versus-their-creations storyline on its head, showing the androids’ revenge as heroic instead of cold-blooded. Westworld unravels mechanically, much like Jurassic Park. But the show is a more cerebral science fiction thriller, more akin to Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? than Crichton’s 1990 magnum opus. Layered and slowly paced, the show muses on our relationship to a world that we are ceaselessly changing in the name of progress.

In the Crichton theme park stories, the creators of Westworld and Jurassic Park have the same tragic flaw: the belief that nature will submit to our will no matter what, as long as we create and apply the right technology. But in the end female dinosaurs breed, machines realize free will, and nature does not bat an eyelash as it remains outside our full understanding and control. As Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote in his New York Times review of Jurassic Park, “In Mr. Crichton’s frightening vision, if we are gone tomorrow, the earth will be just as well off with whatever made us extinct.”

Westworld’s founder and creative director Dr. Robert Ford (played by Anthony Hopkins with a haughty, Hannibal Lecter-inspired air of wicked genius) carries this weakness. Ford goes to any length to perfect his world, filling it with hundreds of android hosts that act out scripted storylines or “narrative loops” with minor improvisations, while park staff inside the futuristic headquarters summarily purge the all of the robots’ short term memories before the next train of guests arrives. When Ford surreptitiously slips new emotional enhancements or “reveries” into several of the hosts, allowing them to conjure repressed memories from previous experiences, some of the androids break down into fits of madness, hallucinations, or wanton violence. But Bernard, the park’s head of programming, is too fascinated by the “reveries” and the potential to expand the horizons of these artificial beings to recall the update.

Reminiscent of the Blade Runner “Voight-Kampff” interrogations that weed out replicant androids using abstract questions only humans can respond to, Bernard starts questioning select updated hosts to study their behavioral changes. He learns that these androids’ thinking has become unscripted, introspective, and metaphorical. “I feel spaces opening up inside me, like a building with rooms I’ve never explored,” says simulated rancher’s daughter Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood). “I think there may be something wrong with this world, something hiding underneath.” Newly armed with skepticism and a desire for truth, the machines now have all the tools they need in order to break free.

In this sense, Westworld flips the script on the boilerplate man-versus-robot sci-fi plot that grossly limited Crichton’s original film. Instead of man battling machine for humanity, the Westworld machines battle humans for self-realization, truth, and purpose. Like Dolores, Maeve, the saloon madam played brilliantly by Thandie Newton, begins to suspect that her nightmares about being murdered and operated on by surgeons in hazmat gear are not just dreams. The two women plot to uncover the truth and fight back. HBO’s Westworld shines a more sympathetic light on Dolores, Maeve and their kin, who are constantly raped and killed by the park’s sadistic one-percenter guests. “You see, the guests enjoy power,” explains Ford. “They cannot indulge it in the outside world, so they come here.” By the time the machines turn on our fellow man, we’re already rooting for the machines.

So if the robots are heroes, and the park guests are the unwitting boobs, then what kind of villain is Ford? Crichton didn’t write Ford into the original movie, but he does resemble John Hammond, the president of Jurassic Park, another old man enraptured by wealth, power, and discovery. Although Steven Spielberg’s version of Hammond bore a more optimistic worldview, the novel’s Hammond was cynically driven to create his theme park. “Nobody needs entertainment. That’s not a matter for government intervention,” says Hammond, explaining why he left the pharmaceutical business for dinosaur-based amusements. “If I charge five thousand dollars a day for my park, who is going to stop me?” Ford is just as manically obsessed with his work and contemptuous of his customers, but his determination is less about money than it is about power. “It is not a business venture, not a theme park, but an entire world,” says Ford to Theresa, his head of quality control whom he derides for doing her job for the salary alone. “In here we were gods, and you, merely our guests.”

Ford’s last name is not a coincidence. His world recalls the grit and glory dreamed up by the Western cineaste John Ford in the classic 1939 film Stagecoach, where everyone’s a stranger starting a new life freed from their past like the Westworld hosts, and the underground android assembly line, with black marble floors and glass walls, is a futuristic rendering of Henry Ford’s revolutionary streamlining of human labor and technology in pursuit of profit. Compared to Velociraptors, Ford’s villainy is a smarter, more quintessentially American adaptation of Crichton’s “frightening vision” from his 1990 classic: that an indifferent nature will always outmaneuver the Hammonds and Fords of the world who try to master it.

Despite the reality that the earth will be just as well off without us, the Western world has held on to the idea of nature as our servant for so long that we truly wouldn’t know ourselves without it. “Of course we’ve managed to slip evolution’s leash now haven’t we . . . and one fine day perhaps we’ll resurrect the dead, call forth Lazarus from his cave,” Ford tells Bernard, as they watch an assembly line robot apply muscle and flesh to an android skeleton in the pose of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. “But do you know what that means? It means that we’re done.”

Justin Slaughter is a critic and journalist in Brooklyn.