By Dev Agarwal
Westworld landed on TV in 2017 and set genre cognoscenti’s tongues wagging. The consensus is that in ten episodes it has sealed its place in our current Golden Age of Television, and surpassed the original film from which it jumps off.
The current HBO-produced series had a long gestation period. It began with the original film by Michael Crichton in 1973, followed by fits and starts that may be better forgotten – the misfiring 1976 sequel Futureworld, plus a TV series, Beyond Westworld, that appeared in 1980 and was quickly cancelled – and the long haul of dormancy for the concept until 2016, when the first season of the contemporary reboot appeared. Season two is awaited this spring.
Overall, the 1973 Westworld was more a monster chase movie than a meditation on what it means to be human – the central theme of the current re-incarnation of the story. The Westworld reboot series so far has focused on just one park, the West, largely ignoring the film’s orgiastic Romanworld and castle-based Medievalworld (albeit there have been some allusions to samurais). However, fans of the original film should find that the rebooted series remains faithful to the original concept.
In both incarnations, 70s film and modern TV series, Westworld is squarely a science fiction idea (our genre gave the film nominations for the Hugo and Nebula). It’s hard SF in that technology is central to the premise: advanced AIs engage with people as “hosts” in a theme park. But it’s certainly also soft SF, in that the drama unfolds by exploring the social implications of technological change rather than by examining how the science works.
The television version explores these social implications in significantly more depth (but then it should do, given there are ten episodes of about an hour each, rather than a single film of 88 minutes). In the film, any social commentary is abruptly curtailed before it really gets anywhere. It’s a film composed of two halves. First, an introduction to the premise, with wealthy people, mostly male, discussing the park and informing the viewer of the “rules.” They then play in one of three settings until the explosive midpoint where the robots malfunction and begin massacring them. An intriguing point for the film historian is that the 1970s scientists in their underground lab debate the idea that the robotic malfunction is spreading “like a disease” through the park – they lack the modern language of computer viruses to define it but feel that they are experiencing one.
Vector reported on the film in 1973. Christopher Fowler observed that the film is “an exploration of the nature of reality.” Fowler captured the era’s preoccupations (which persist in the USA) when he observed that Westworld embodies “the fantasy of the gun.” And this fantasy was commonly played out in the 1970s through westerns. Modern audiences may need reminding that the western was the dominant genre in Hollywood from the 1930s to the 1960s and still popular into the 1970s. The genre is now enjoying a renaissance which allows the Westworld series to explore contemporary science and science fictional themes while dressing its characters in the iconography of the Old West.
Fowler observed that the science fictional premise of Westworld also allows the characters to travel to a time when a man was “a real man.” Macho nostalgia is what drove the customers – in the original film, mostly men – to the park’s fictionalised past. Significantly, Fowler criticised this set-up: “And a woman? A woman was just there to satisfy the man’s need for food and sex.”
In the film, a married couple of guests play out a gag for us. The husband is going to Medievalworld to holiday in a castle. His middle-aged wife, however, is heading for a vacation-length orgy in Romanworld – without him. The movie tries to play her sexual desire for laughs. Her husband is later seen having sex with robots, and nobody’s joking about that. Our primary point of view characters in the film are Martin and Blane, and the main depiction of women in the film are as the robot “hosts,” with whom Blane encourages the newly divorced Martin to have sex. Martin hesitates. Not because they’re sex workers, but because they’re machines. Besides the guests, the film’s only other real point of view is that of the technician/scientist hidden behind the scenes. Unlike in the HBO version, the perspective of the AI host was never represented. Unsurprisingly, the original film is missing other voices too: it is exclusively cisgender, heterosexual, white and mostly male.
If we roll on over forty years later, we find that women and people of colour have greater presence in Westworld. In the first season, several of the key protagonists are women. Women are part of the one percent elite guests “on vacation,” they are also AIs serving as hosts, and they are techs working in the background of the park. There does, however, seem to be a correlation between how important a female character is to the narrative, and how much physical, sexual, or emotional violence she encounters. In contrast, the key male character is the majority shareholder of the Westworld corporation, a man whose daily entertainment is a rape (although sometimes he also goes for torture or killing a child in front of its mother).
So perhaps the male violence which Christopher Fowler criticised is still what Westworld is selling. Fowler summed up his review by observing that “Westworld is a fantasy within a fantasy, and what is most interesting is the way Martin accepts the fantasy of Westworld as reality.” A key difference this time is that the robots are more sympathetic in human terms, as well as visibly indistinguishable from us.
In the film, the primary host is Yul Brynner’s nameless, hostile, gunslinger. Brynner’s casting is deliberate, as he still resonates from his iconic role in The Magnificent Seven, from 1960. (A detail that is oddly missing from Fowler’s review). The gunslinger’s transition from obedient robot to something more deadly – but also more intelligent – lacks explanation or even perspective. What does it mean to the nameless gunslinger if he can kill human beings? What motivates him to do so? The only moment from the gunslinger’s point of view is when we see that his vision is thermal and that he tracks Martin by his heat signature. This special effect, however, is only used for dramatic tension – it actually distances the viewer from the machine rather than providing increased subjective understanding of him. In the original drama, the robot remains inscrutable, only his actions apparent, not his motives. Brynner’s gunslinger functions to thrill the viewer responding to our cultural fears of robots who we allow to insinuate into our lives. They will, of course, turn on us, and try to destroy us.
Despite this reductionism, Fowler posited that the film’s overriding conceit was “what is the nature of humanity?” (Fowler had the advantage over mainstream critics as he was deeply familiar with Philip K. Dick’s writings).
Molly Cobb, writing for Vector last year, suggested that the new Westworld series is also concerned with the question, “What is the nature of humanity?” Rather than turning homicidal at the earliest opportunity, the park’s hosts explore self-awareness first. Yet, as Cobb also notes, “[t]he more self-aware or the more memory some of the androids gain, the more violent they also become. This commentary on the state of human nature is coupled with discussions of the park itself and the type of people who visit it.”
In this way, Westworld taps right into our cultural zeitgeist. It arrives at the moment of the #MeToo movement, a moment when the conversation around toxic masculinity and rape culture is widening by the day. And it arrives at time when – between Brexit and Trump – public consciousness is not only filled with the politics of privilege and identity, but also shaped by a deepening scepticism of long-held certainties, and another deepening scepticism of traditional sources of news and information. All these themes push their way into Westworld, as hosts and guests question their respective realities … and perhaps, so do we.
Cobb also commented on the aesthetic aspects of the series. The design of the androids deliberately evokes “Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man,” and draws on “black or white cowboy hats […] to denote heroes and villains,” in a nod to Western conventions. The intro sequence includes a mechanised player piano which, as Cobb points out, “is used to connate the programmable machine,” and also to shape the series’ musical score. This makes programmable music “integral to the sound and mood of the show.” Cobb found the effect, overall, both evocative and occasionally lacking in subtlety.
The viewer travels in time. We may have experienced the Westworld film like Fowler did in its moment in 1973, or later, on late night TV as I did, or now, as part of a retrospective when reminded of it by the TV series. As always, how we come to the entertainment adds layers of meaning across our viewing. Both versions function on the level of entertainment and (to very varying degrees) as philosophical and moral explorations. Stepping back from the social commentary, the question is whether either version is worth our time now.
I found the original film stylistically dated (but in a good, 70s take on the future – moustaches, white coat scientists and computers the size of rooms), narrow in its sexual politics, but well-paced, and playing with some interesting satire on the rich and their amusements. Like Molly Cobb in last year’s review, I found much more to like in the rebooted series. HBO had taken the original idea and jumped off from it with more depth and detail, rewarding the viewer more fully. Key science fictional concepts appear to have pushed through the film’s simpler chase thriller story. They present us with questions of what happens to thinking machines that begin suffering psychosis of memories of past violence and their own deaths. Or what happens if you develop AIs sophisticated enough to hold notions of loyalty and betrayal.
It is those questions that Fowler was perhaps looking for back in 1973 – the good news is that they have finally arrived now.
In forty years, Westworld will possibly be recycled for a new form of home entertainment. The BSFA may find itself revisiting this article and reflect on how all three of us: Christopher Fowler, Molly Cobb and I, were revealing our own cultural preoccupations as we analysed someone else’s.
Dev Agarwal is a science fiction and fantasy writer. He has been published in a variety of magazines and anthologies in the UK and US. He is currently editor of Focus, the BSFA’s magazine on writing and edits fiction for Ireland’s SF magazine, Albedo One.