HBO’s Westworld is not Jurassic Park with robot cowboys, though that’s probably how you’ve heard it pitched by people who remember the original 1973 Michael Crichton film.
The show is set in an ambitious high-tech theme park populated with robot cowboys that exist to give tourists an authentic wild west experience, but Westworld the show has more in common with ensemble driven sci-fi mystery shows like Battlestar Galactica and Lost – only with a lot more cool hats and gun massacres. The series is set wholly within a massive outdoor theme park in which tourist pay top dollar to have an authentic wild west experience, humans interact with the aforementioned robot cowboys and cowgirls and cow children, in what equates to a live action open world video game experience. But all is not well in this wild west fantasy utopia. The latest update rolled out to the park’s AI inhabitants has them acting a little strange, giving them access to memories from past story lines and dreams of another, more real world. A violent Man in Black (Ed Harris) is eviscerating robots in search of clues that will lead him to a secret level to what he calls “The Game.” And the park administration are overworked and overwhelmed, unable to get a handle on the effects of the bug and keep track of the park’s mysterious (possibly scheming) founder, Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins). Now that I spell it out like that, it does sound a lot like robot-cowboy-Jurassic Park, but there’s just so much more to Westworld than the makings of a traumatic Yelp review.
About half of Westworld’s cast are animatronic characters, called hosts, with AI modeled after Western genre cliches. They are programmed with a script that repeats on a loop, written by the park’s head narrative artist, and that can improvise and course-correct based on input received from park guests. Standing on the shoulders of the aforementioned Battlestar Galactica, Westworld presents its most interesting aspects by using its high concept to explore ideas of humanity. The hosts are robots that can be programmed and told to do whatever guests (or their makers) desire, but that algorithmic nature is buried under so many layers of performed humanity that it is impossible to decipher what motivates any given machine. Is it programming or is it sentience? The cast members are so adept that every scene – even ones that don’t involve any known hosts – becomes a take home Turing test.
If that sounds complicated, that’s because it is. Westworld does have all the action, adventure, and intrigue of the ideal Western film, but that’s all a veneer for tourists, under which lies a rich maze of philosophy, science fiction, and genre criticism. The cinematography, the dialogue, and the violent set pieces are all well worn tropes, but because they are designed to be that way in the world of the show, you are encouraged to give yourself over to the character archetypes, the cliches, and the sort of style that in a regular straight up Western might otherwise be criticized for its derivative nature. Many scenes take place between two hosts, with no guests to be seen for miles, and so when brothel operator Maeve tells her employee about a bad dream she had, the real kernel of the scene is trying to empathize with the thing spouting a pre-written script that you’ve already heard a few times before.
The Western isn’t the only genre employed here either. The other half of Westworld that doesn’t deal with hosts takes place on the administrative side of the park. The bug in the AI update seems to be messing up certain storylines, causing hosts to diverge from their scripts. Unsettling situations are borne of the bug in which some robots seem to go insane, while others are stuck in an absurd Waiting for Godot situation. The next lines in their algorithms have gone on a walkabout and the hosts forget to chop the bit of wood needed to progress the theme park’s overall plot. As the business and science teams try and address the glitch, they walk through cold blue and white hallways, fully immersed in the genre of speculative science fiction, and the parts where admin teams venture into park grounds appear as interplanetary adventures. Anachronistic clashes in clothing and technology giving the whole affair an alien feel. With token camerawork and deep philosophical diatribes on the nature of sentience delivered by the likes of Anthony Hopkins, it’s all so genre-perfect I am left wondering if the park staff maintaining and programming the hosts are just another layer of automation in a never ending clockwork onion.
The overall effect is magnetic. Layer after layer of metanarrative makes every scene work on multiple levels, like looking at sheet music while sitting at a player piano, automatically clinking along to nineties alternative rock or the Rolling Stones’ ‘Paint it Black’ played honky-tonk style. When a certain character begins his day once again, unaware that it always ends in an unthinkable death; when a mysterious Man in Black predicts the motions of the hosts he goes on to dominate; when a guest asks a host about its true nature — these situations take on an existential quality that elevates them to the most prestigious ranks of genre storytelling.
As captivating as Westworld is, it does demand your full undivided attention. Viewers don’t have to be asking themselves about the nature of human thought and existence, but the show does not hold your hand. If you miss a key detail, or look away too long during one of the show’s repeated scenes, you’re apt to miss the point and land in a confused desert of deja vu. But if you’re not willing to engage with its high-minded calls for mechanical compassion, Westworld probably doesn’t want you anyway. The depiction of its hyper violent and horny brodude guests is unflattering for those who are just looking for the cheap pulpy thrills of unearned bloodbaths and TV nudity (which are both aspects of Westworld, but presented in a satirical context).
For all its critique and rumination, it’s the show’s call for robot sympathy that has me thirsting for another trip to Westworld. The victims of oppressive makers, trapped in a world of unimaginable violence set on repeat, the hosts have won me over. As the bug progresses and they begin to take memetic steps toward an inevitable revolutionary crisis for the tourism industry, I’m right there with them. Giddyup, cyberpokes; ride on, cowbots.