The comparisons between HBO’s Westworld and Jurassic World are obvious just as they were between the 1973 original film and 1993’s Jurassic Park. Immediately on the surface are issues of man playing God with science for amusement and profit, the idea that “life finds a way” even through impossible conditions, and that things will get ugly for the human visitors when technology and science outwit the people trying to tame them.
The first episode of this brave, new Westworld, of course, attempts to tell a much deeper and spiritual story than the action movie that inspired it. It is told in ten parts and its characters are much more developed. Right now, however, these automated “hosts” are little more than the harmless herbivores on display in Jurassic Park. Even the bad guys are scary but they can’t harm the guests. (English, Rich, Visionary Genius) John Hammond, is re-imagined as (English, Rich, Visionary Genius) Robert Ford* who has worked on recreating humanity in machines for a long time. Most recently, he’s been tinkering with upgrades again and his latest module, “reveries” might have put the park beyond the humans’ ability to control.
On top of the Jurassic Park vibe, there’s also parallels to Blade Runner and Battlestar Galactica. I fear we will have some of the same philosophical conversations/arguments in this series that were covered by all the “life finds a way” morality tales that came before.
It’s a familiar scene: we are introduced to corporate drones and their sinister corporate enforcers. We meet the usual band of cocky military types who will inevitably underestimate the threat of the hosts. Of course there are the scientists who will lose control, many of whom will end up being the “red shirts” of the series and demonstrate the cold, murderous capabilities of our Promethean adversaries. Then we have the clueless idle rich “newcomers” on vacation and ready to indulge their darker sides (and thus doomed to pay the price), deeply philosophical machines who contemplate eternity beneath the vast indifference of Heaven before knifing and shooting their creators. We even have that magic dust of “chaos” to bring about the inexplicable conflict…all these things are common tropes to the monster survival horror genre. These were on display in the original film and throughout the Jurassic Park franchise.
Those are not spoilers, by the way…just predictions.
But then that’s the concept of Westworld as an experience as much as a passive television venture. As the park’s Head Writer Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman) reminds us throughout the episode, Westworld relies upon hundreds of established story lines for each character that are flexible depending on how the newcomers interact with them. Newcomers are there to have fun and complex plots or developments are not part of the experience.
From the look of it, the adventures span one day in the park. As the sun sets and rises, the story arcs rise and fall. Like the film Dark City, the staff come out at night to clean up the mess and prepare the next daily cycle. (I could be wrong and the timeline might be condensed for storytelling purposes, but if so it gives the park a definite Groundhog Day vibe.) So there’s just enough time to hunt down the fugitive killer, have your bar fight and showdown, patronize the brothel, or rape and murder your way across the region. There don’t seem to be any relationships in the stories or complexities that would require strain the chaos of an infinite number of story interactions that would result.
Keeping it simple and short, it seems, prevents any sort of attachment between Hosts and Newcomers. They remain game pieces to be used. As viewers, we see that the hosts are capable of complex relationships and interactions. It would be easy for a newcomer to experience or a host to emulate deep feelings (positive or negative) for one another. That could be problematic, as we see with the character of the Gunslinger who has developed a long relationship with characters over repeat visits. Even though he sees them as machines to be used (or animals, as his interactions suggest) he expresses a fondness for his one-sided relationship with them.
There should be, Sizemore suggests, limits to the complexity of a Host. If a story becomes too convoluted or twisted it loses fun and searching for meaning becomes an intellectual scavenger hunt. It becomes like like every season of Lost (also a Bad Robot production) where a weak story was masked by new, intriguing character concepts and clues to some greater, grand unified mystery that will never be revealed much less solved. While that’s LIFE, it isn’t the kind of dramatic storytelling that works.
So the series, like the experience, must find a balance. Oversimplification and artificiality will kill the experience. Over-complicating will make the experience too arduous and being unable to distinguish between humans and robots will force people to re-engage their morality filter.
Guests don’t want a complicated relationship with robots. They want to be impressed by their realism but not convinced of it. We cannot cross the uncanny valley that removes their ability to distinguish them from other people, to fully trick us into real emotional response or connection.
Am I talking about the park or the show? I’m talking about both. Everything comes back to one name on the show’s marquee: JJ Abrams.
My hope is that the series doesn’t become so enamored by its mythology that it begins using it to excuse plot holes or invent motivations that would not otherwise be there. It doesn’t seem that way but as the hosts begin their Cylon or Blade Runner type emergence to self-awareness, it makes me wonder how this will all play out. What is the real goal of the corporation? Who truly knows about it? That’s the mystery right now because there’s a lot of money going into detailed research and I don’t know I’m seeing how a small rotation of rich people can fund it all.
Westworld’s purpose, or at least its potential, seems to reach far beyond the amusement of wealthy hedonists and history buffs. With each update, Ford and his scientists push harder against the uncanny valley separating artificial life from the real, drilling into the subtlest nuance of human emotional and physical characteristics. Does it hope to replace soldiers or servants? Improve on humans? “Host” their minds in immortal bodies? Right now we don’t know. But OF COURSE something is up.
By episode 2, I believe the storytellers begin messing with the timeline. Where we met the Hosts as out initial point-of-view characters last time, we’re introduced to two Newcomers who seem an awful lot like the Richard Benjamin and James Brolin characters in the 1973 film. William, we learn, is new to Westworld, more reserved and cautious (he picks a white hat!) while Logan is a veteran tourist who enjoys the violent and hedonistic thrills of the park (he has the black ensemble, naturally). They don’t share the same names but they sure seem like intentional nods at least and reboots at best of John Blane and Peter Martin.
After this episode I wonder if these characters aren’t 30 years in the past based on the premiere episode’s timeline and are part of that terrible incident referred to by park managers. I will have to watch again to see if the malfunction overlaps any activity from the newcomers or if this might be a trick of editing.
EDIT: On re-watch, I didn’t see any overlap of William and Logan with the rest of the narrative. I’m thinking William might even be the Gunslinger.
So far, I’m loving this.
Questions (with spoilers):
- We’re seeing the same day over and over. The principle of allowing a Host access to previous incarnations in a “subconscious” sense seems a little dangerous, even sadistic. In episode 2 technicians mention that “dreaming” is a concept programmed into the Hosts, particularly the idea of nightmares which would explain any bleeding of memories from being fixed in the underground labs or past life experiences. Why wouldn’t they let several days play out for newcomers and allow the story “arcs” and cumulative experiences inform their personalities? They mentioned “recasting” robots into new roles which seems strange. I would think that being one identity over many years and decades and limiting those experiences to one small town would be a more organic way to create a realistic and mature AI.
- Further, why not simply write their program to acknowledge what they are on some unconscious level and emulate human interactivity? Why deny the AI some level of self-awareness but limit how they interact with humans using a variation of Asimov’s laws of robotics?
- Is The Gunslinger staying through story line arcs? He cut The Dealer’s neck at night and had him in the mountains the next morning. The train, I believe, arrived again between those scenes. Or are the arcs longer than one day?
- He has also enlisted a condemned criminal and is dragging him along across several days. While we’re told the Gunslinger gets what he wants and perhaps can outstay the daily cycle, does this mean that the host he’s carrying will reset? Or will his family still be alive when the sun rises again?
- Why aren’t the hosts monitored better? They are advanced AI yet they can go missing. You would think the value of one Host would be worth putting some kind of tracker on it. And if the dead are removed and fixed, wouldn’t they miss one that allegedly only works in town? Wouldn’t it be easy to remote boot a host and see through its eyes (or link its position to a nearby monitoring camera?)
*Robert Ford. Interesting choice. The “coward” who shot Jesse James.