Sunday, January 1, 2017

Westworld: modern TV series + original 1973 film

Like millions of other viewers, my wife and I have become faithful viewers of HBO's latest hit show, Westworld. When there were only a couple of episodes left in the season, I also decided to watch the source movie, released in 1973 and written and directed by none other than Michael Crichton.
Yes, they're pretty faces in a pretty setting. But this is exactly
one of the points of the movie, in that the creators of the park
are giving people just what they want. But is it what is best?

TV Series, season 1 (2016)

Creators: Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy

A very solid and creative show that is right up to the standards of the sharp films that Nolan has co-written with with his brother, hyper-successful director Christopher Nolan. So solid, in fact, that I think it may have inadvertently set future seasons up for failure. Maybe.

Based on the 1973 film both written and directed by popular science-fiction writer Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park, Congo), the HBO series takes place in Westworld - a theme park set in an unspecified future (but likely a good century ahead of us here in the early 21st) where people can pay a hefty price to live out fantasies is a realistic, mythical Wild West setting. The landscapes, props, and costumes are authentic enough, but the real attractions are the synthetic but extremely lifelike androids that are fashioned in the likeness of various Wild West archetypical characters. These androids, known as "hosts", are advanced to the point that they are indistinguishable from real humans in nearly every way. This realism allows the guests to fully realize their most noble or depraved desires, whether it be to act the sterling hero or the despicable villain. Hosts are sometimes treated well, but much more often are brutally killed, raped, or otherwise abused for the amusement of the guests as they play out various storylines built into the park and its android denizens. Hosts then have their programmed memories wiped clean, their physical injuries repaired, and are then sent back into the park.

A large part of the show's intellectual meat comes from its look at artifical intelligence (A.I.), which is a core component of the hosts and their abilities to seem so very human. The original creators and chief programmers of the hosts, Dr. Robert Ford and his partner Arnold, had a true passion for their craft, though they seemed to have different ideas about the potential for their creations. At the heart of their disagreements was the notion that the hosts could and should be allowed to develop a true consciousness on par with what human beings experience. At the beginning of the series, we start to see some of these idea break through, as some of the hosts begin to exhibit signs of thinking and acting outside of the carefully-scripted and monitored loops that their human creators have programmed into them. This taps into the same themes and questions that have made Frankenstein's monster such a fascinating character for over two centuries.

Unsurprisingly, Anthony Hopkins is brilliant as the powerfully
intelligent and eerily aware Ford - one of the park's two main
creators. Ford's exact motivations and machinations are a few
of the show's several intriguing mysteries.
Like the movies Nolan has been a part of, Westworld is a carefully-crafted and multi-layered tale that uses non-linear storytelling and intrigue to great effect. If one really wants to put everything under a microscope, you can find cracks in it, but I am willing to overlook such flaws. I appreciate that the story really tried something bold and heady, and it succeeded in the most important ways. The notions about just what makes up consciousness and how humans might be able to manufacture some artifical form of it are indeed curious and relevant themes. And seeing how they might affect actual androids is a fun way to go about it. The show smartly blends current fascinations with fantasy lives (video games, anyone?) and period dramas with the larger questions about just who is studying human behaviors and why.

The one issue that sticks with me is that I didn't quite feel the level of emotional impact which I suspect the writers were aiming for. While there are some moments that begin to evoke some sympathy and empathy for the ever-more-aware hosts, for much of this first season, we are reminded constantly that they are synthetic products. For me, this robbed certain scenes and situations of the potential emotional connection one might form with certain characters. This void wasn't as pronounced as the show progressed, but it was certainly there for much of the first half of the ten episodes.

Like many of HBO's best shows, this inaugural season ends with a solid bang. There are some powerful, stylish scenes and sequences, several fun revelations, and a blazing closing scene that leaves us wondering just where the show might go next season. It is difficult to imagine successive seasons having quite the same feel and strengths as this first season, given how much it relied on the slow reveal of the various mysteries and puzzles built into the narrative. Not that the major questions have been answered, it is hard to see how the writers would employ the same techniques as the story continues. I'll certainly be tuning to see just how they do it, but I won't expect exactly the same type of storytelling wizardry as we got in this first season.


The Movie (1973)

Director: Michael Crichton

File this one under the same category as so many science-fictin films of the late-1960s through the early 1970s - some great foundational ideas presented through some pretty shoddy film techniques.

My main reason for watching this movie was obviously my interest in the modern TV show. All through the 80s and '90s, I had always noticed the somewhat striking VHS tape case for Westworld on the shelves of video stores. That strange image of Yul Bryner's glowing eyes always stood out, even if I never picked up the movie and watched it.

Well, allow me to save you all the trouble and tell you that it is hardly worth your time. It's not that the movie is especially bad. Rather, it is typical of science fiction films of the day in that is uses a really intriguing premise - that of using androids which go berserk in an amusement park for humans to live out period fantasies - and stuffs it with filler that adds little to the actual film. Nevermind that the pacing and aesthetic has aged horribly.

Just to save you the time: the movie essentially is based on the same idea the HBO series. The curious addition is that Westworld is not the only themed used in the park. There is also a Medieval World and a Roman World for guests to choose from. Guests pick which fantasy setting they would like to play in, and they live out their noble or depraved fantasies according to their desires. Problems arise, however, when one particularly dangerous android, a gunfighter, goes rogue and starts killing guests. When several other malfunctions prevent the park's operators from stepping in and rectifying the situation, it leaves guests to be murdered or scramble for their very lives.

Again, it's not a bad notion and set up at all. The problem is that the dialogue is painfully hokey, the costumes and sets are cheap, and there is nothing particularly clever about most of the scenes or sequences. One of the only remarkable features is how the scenes of the gunfighter stalking one of the guests seems to be an inspiration for James Cameron's Terminator, which would come out nearly a decade later. Aside from that, the science behind this science fiction movie does not hold up well at all, and its warts are just too large and off-putting to ignore.

Blessedly, the movie is short - under 90 minutes - so it's not much of a time committment. Those whose curiosity was piqued by the HBO show may find a small amount of value in seeing the original source, but keep those expectations low.