Those names involved behind the scenes of Westworld have strung me along in anticipation for the series for months now. I watched the 1973 movie years ago–a great idea, far ahead of its time in context and execution–but now, within our age of tech immersion, advancements in robotics and virtual experiences, and the overall sense of depravity rampant in our culture, it’s the perfect time to look down the rabbit hole at the dangers our culture will likely face on multiple levels.
I should preface this piece by stating that Westworld is unequivocally adult. As a child, I was a massive fan of all things written by the late Michael Crichton. I was actually reprimanded in elementary school, because while other children were reading at their age level (or mostly not reading at all), I was reading his novels, such as Jurassic Park, The Lost World, Congo, and many, many more. His fictional takes on science “what-ifs” were exactly where my young mind wandered, and little did I know then, in the pre-IMDb age, that my favorite author had written and directed a movie starring a Hollywood legend who died before I was born. Westworld, starring Yul Brenner as the Man in Black, seems almost archaic by today’s standards, and after years of Terminator movies, it’s almost impossible for me to see how groundbreaking that film really was at the time.
The premise of that movie, as well as this show, is a theme park (Crichton got a lot of traction on that idea) where paying guests engage in period-specific role-play. While the film opened it up to multiple time periods, the park in the TV series is centered solely around an idealized version of the American West (think Hollywood, not history book) and is filled with sophisticated androids, each there to play a role in an expansive, complex narrative that guests can run amok in. In the television, show, a train rolls in each day with new participants, and the narrative loop is repeated after the android “hosts” are reset daily. Through this process, the android’s minds are erased, and they are dipped in a milky white bath (a “baptism” of sorts), absolving their minds and bodies of the sins endured the day before.
While the androids are strictly bound to the rules of programming, no matter how high their level of technological sophistication, humans are not bound by anything, really. Choice is theirs to make, but since their gun-toting assailants can’t harm them, they daily go on “killing sprees,” either in-line with the narrative or just for kicks. While this is the Wild West, don’t think that guests come only to quick-draw. In this world where normal rules do not apply, humans CAN engage in a family-friendly trip to catch the sights and sounds of a by-gone era… or they can let their deepest, darkest inhibitions loose in a world without consequence to them. At the end of day, all is reset, as if nothing ever happened. No harm, no foul. While the film told a story in a couple of hours, this new HBO series has much more time to dig into the concept and further ideas that were only hinted at over 40 years ago.
I don’t want to get into the plot, as I know from watching the premiere twice and reading creator commentary that is absolutely necessary for full enjoyment. If you want to look over such things for yourself, the internet is full of retellings the plot in episode recaps. I have no interest in that. I do have interest in writing my impression of a series whose own Facebook page calls the show “a dark odyssey about the dawn of artificial consciousness and the future of sin.” If that tagline doesn’t necessitate spiritual consideration for our society (and I would say by pop-culture aware Christians), I don’t know what show could.
It’s worth noting that while this isn’t a review, I cannot stress enough how absolutely ‘adult’ this show is from a content perspective. The ideas are sophisticated beyond an elementary level, yes, but I can tell from the premiere that this show is going to go down some roads that will be problematic for many viewers. I work in a profession where human nudity is common, so I see things that do not stir me, but many are shaken by images and led to sin because of them; I know that fact and understand it.
Nudity is rampant here; the “hosts” of Westworld (the android creations that exist there) are meticulously made to appear human, and when diagnostics are run behind the scenes of the park, they are fully nude (usually in concealing shots, but not always.) The dark side brought out by guests leads to a scene or two within the Westworld experience involving nudity, which I expect will be common in this show. If this doesn’t sit well with your spirit as a believer, I urge you to flee. Violence is commonplace here, as well as language, with the harshest things said by the humans (intentionally so, I’m sure). There is already controversy over a scene in the premiere, where an act of rape is implied, but in presenting that idea with regards to a character who isn’t human, the show starts off playing with ideas of what is right and wrong in a world without morality, especially if it involves a machine. If a person can pay a fee to go in and exact whatever they desire in a world without consequence WITHOUT harming another human being, is that sin?
Matthew 15:11 (NKJV) Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.”
I, personally, believe it to be sinful to engage in going “full evil” (as one guest puts it in the premiere), but this is the conversation at play here in this show. This concept might seem so out of place for some, but in our current world, apart from the ideals and nightmares of science-fiction, we see places of legal prostitution, a rampant porn industry that has pervaded our world, products made in conjunction that are made to appear human for sexual gratification, and virtual experiences being created right now in our time that are chasing those same ends, so the eventuality of all this is a place like Westworld. Still, for such dark ideas and realities shown, Westworld is gorgeously shot. This isn’t set in gritty, grimy Deadwood; this is a full-blown, beautiful Western epic, a’la John Ford–sweeping vistas with a bright color palette.
Throughout the entire premiere I couldn’t stop thinking of the overall concept in video game terms, and I know I’m not alone there. It’s established that people may never experience Westworld the same way twice. The town of Sweetwater in the show is set up just like a game with scripted scenarios that are programmed to happen, day-in and day-out. One day, a guest may be there to “accept a quest,” for lack of a better term; on another day, there may not be a guest standing there at all to engage in that conversation or to do that action, so the experience adjusts itself to what is happening presently.
I remember when The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion was in development years ago. The game’s developers promised a revolutionary feature that NPCs in the game were programmed with routines they would do daily, whether players were there to witness them or not. I remember walking behind a character, observing their goings-on, regardless of anything I did. That mechanic is core to the Westworld experience, but with a much higher level of sophistication. Every day, the hosts exist on a pre-programmed journey. Think of the film, Groundhog Day, yet with no hope outside of what the hosts are programmed to do within the confines of the experience. That idea of a programmed “destiny” will surely be tested further along in the series, as the rides surely begin to “derail” later.
Well, the creator of the park, Dr. Ford, played impeccably by Sir Anthony Hopkins, is on a quest to better his work for the Delos Corporation–the company behind the experiences of Westworld. There are others in the company who feel that guests don’t necessarily want the hosts to be as human as possible (a valid point, because atrocities committed against something more human would create guilt for the guest), but Dr. Ford seems to see the hosts as the only hope of advancement for sentient life. He suffers an obvious god-complex and sees that humans can go no farther as a species, but his “hosts” can, so in the latest update to their operating procedures, Dr. Ford has enabled what the show calls “reveries,” the little quirks that make real human beings unique and charming. These are randomly created within the hosts by “dipping” into old “memories” (or save states that exist without them having full access). Think of saving documents on a cloud drive: as changes are made to the document, past versions are held, which are ordinarily inaccessible. They exist and sit ready if needed, but users often give them no mind.
The show seems to be set on exploring what happens when creatures that are manufactured to be disposed of and abused “remember” what happens to them after their daily memory wipe, causing them to ponder the injustices of their existence. I think you can tell that the possibilities held within these ideas are very intriguing and valid concerns for our oftentimes cruel and vicious society. Internet trolling reflects the heart of man, and this playground allows full manifestation of that anonymous sin.
If there is one other character that I want to discuss briefly, it’s the Man in Black, played by Ed Harris. While, in the original film, the Man in Black was an android, it appears that, in the TV version, he is a guest who never leaves. While his wealth would have to be enormous to do so, he isn’t intrigued by the apparent game presented by the architects of this illusion. He is searching for something more, and due to a lengthy time in this simulation, he is unfettered by things that should make a person recoil. He knows the rules of this place all too well, and it apparently bores him. This long-time user is like a person who has played one game title far too long, with the only thing left being searching for Easter Eggs. He sees the “hosts” as beneath him for his service, and why shouldn’t he? This land has surely changed him into a dark, dark being. While I don’t know what he’ll find, it is his journey that most intrigues me in this series. He seems to be a man who has full power and knows it, but still, he is thirsty for something more. From the snippets of previews of episodes to come, I honestly think we may see meditations on the existence or illusion of free will from his character.
The board has been set for a dark and engaging look at what it means to be human, what it means to be good in a land where all things are available to say and do, where the line is drawn between what is “real” and “virtual,” and how over-relying on technology can possibly lead to a dangerous position. If my mention of anything, content-wise, gave you reason for alarm, know that I warned you of such, but I reckon there isn’t another show this fall with as many ideas at play as here, especially done with as much sophistication. The trip to Westworld looks to be an unforgettable one.
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