So out of pity for my poor blog that never gets attention, I’ll download myself out of the iCloud in which I reside to report that I’m jazzed about the new HBO series Westworld. For one thing it takes me back, back in time, to when dinosaurs ruled the earth . . . . Um, wait: Nope, not that long ago. Back only to the glorious and oft-misrepresented 1980s, when I was living on Palisade Avenue in the Jersey Heights section of Jersey City, NJ, working at various editorial jobs in Manhattan (back in the day when I could see the Twin Towers from our living room window), and before cable came to our street. (Hard to believe but I think that’s true.) It was in the era of less-technology options (how we suffered! and were free, yes, free!), and our TV viewing options were either network channels or some indie stations in the NYC area. One of these stations was like Netflix only different: It’s “playlist” included about eight films (it seemed) in the late-night options, and one of those was the original Michael Crichton Westworld (1973), which starred James Brolin and Richard Benjamin as the humans, and the incomparable Yul Brynner (you have to love him for the name alone) as the bad guy robot. Crichton actually directed the film, based on his own script. (Note that in the original film, there was also a Medieval and a Roman World.) I saw it over and over again, a kind of guilty pleasure. It’s no great movie, but it’s certainly fun. Brolin and Benjamin together was a nice bit of casting, as one is the more macho type, one the more bookish (guess who survives), and Brynner as the stony-faced Gunslinger.
Flash forward to October 2nd, 2016, and the debut of HBO’s new Westworld series, which seems to have one-upped the original concept. The debut is both bloody violent and conceptually fascinating. As we have advanced in our notions of what A.I. is capable of—think of Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near (2006)—the stakes have risen on what might happen if we create these robots for our pleasure and amusement.
Judging from the first episode, here’s a good theory of what’s taking place in the series: the Anthony Hopkins character (Dr. Robert Ford, a bland-enough name) is the brains behind the Westworld theme park, and has become an aging, hoary god-like figure, improving his technology so that the “hosts” (what they call the robots) are not exactly machines anymore, but sentient beings, who are being tortured and raped and killed for the amusement of the “newcomers” (what they call the humans who visit the park). And as the hosts have advanced, they’re no longer so cool with playing this game. Essentially we humans have inadvertently created a Hell for robots: They do the same thing over and over again, suffer and die and love and yearn over and over again, and a glitch in the updating process has made them realize and recall their past lives, so they are beginning to realize what is happening to them, and to really feel it.
I was leery of the show when I read that J. J. Abrams was involved, as I’m not a fan, but so far it seems addictive. James Marsden and Evan Rachel Wood are two of the central host characters, and both are doing a good job, while the Gunslinger role is now craggy-faced Ed Harris’s, who uses it to great scenery-chewing affect. Even the setting is rather cool, a mash-up of famous Western locales, principally Monument Valley in Arizona.