No one could spin a yarn quite like Michael Crichton, so it was probably inevitable that the 1973 movie thriller Westworld would be spun off for the small screen one day. The only surprise for a tale set in a not-too-distant future was that it took this long to get there.
As with nearly all successful present-day TV adaptations for the premium cable channels and streaming services, HBO’s Westworld has transcended its pulp origins. It’s a reflection of its time, and its themes — injustice borne by the idea that some people are worth less than others; the idea that money can buy you anything, legal or illegal; the role of artificial intelligence in a sentient society, etc. — are torn from the headlines of 2016.
The original Westworld came out at a time when Hollywood movies were fixated on a dystopian view of the future, from Charlton Heston battling simian antecedents in Planet of the Apes to Charlton Heston warding off vampire walkers in The Omega Man to Charlton Heston discovering that the wildly popular food source in Soylent Green is — spoiler alert! — made from people!
Social activist and avowed leftist Lincoln Steffens’ famous 1919 quote about the future after a visit to Soviet Russia — “I have seen the future, and it works” — was later flipped to, “I have seen the future, and it doesn’t work,” in the tagline for the 1974 camp sci-fi thriller Zardoz.
The futurist author and Big Thinker Alvin Toffler published his bestseller Future Shock, with its dire warnings about “information overload” — Toffler coined the expression — in 1970, six years before Westworld TV co-creator Jonathan Nolan was even born. Westworld co-executive producer J.J. Abrams was just four-years-old when Future Shock was published, seven when the movie Westworld was released in theaters.
With just two episodes to go in its 10-episode debut season — HBO picked up Westworld for a second season just last week — the small-screen version is considerably darker, more violent, more sexually explicit, and more disturbing for what it says about how far we’ll go to satisfy ourselves, if we have the money.
HBO’s Westworld, in the eyes of its creators Nolan and Lisa Joy, posits a world in which it’s not inconceivable that a high-born, well-to-do con artist and petty, vindictive carnival huckster can be elected leader of the free world, simply because he has the money and the followers to do whatever he wants.
After the twists of the episodes “Trompe L’Oeil” and last weekend’s “Trace Decay,” in which viewers learned — spoiler warning — that not everyone is who, or what, they seem, Westworld is raising uncomfortable questions about right and wrong; whether it’s possible for artificial intelligence to develop feelings; and whether, if robot “hosts” develop emotions and a conscience, are entitled to human rights and freedoms, subject to the protections afforded by human law. Robot workers of the world, unite!
In an editorial in The Guardian earlier this month — yes, Westworld was deemed important enough to warrant an editorial in one of the world’s most respected newspapers, alongside editorials about Syria, Brexit, climate talks, the U.K.’s beleaguered National Health Service, and the yet-to-be-decided U.S. election, then just days away — Westworld was held up as an example of the power and vitality of science fiction, a cracking good yarn destined for a denouement “as old as Frankenstein.”
Westworld’s themes are both obvious but difficult to think about and sometimes difficult to see, The Guardian went on to say: “Suppose there were a class of robot servants, things which were by definition not properly human, and which could not, because of the way they are made, suffer in the ways we do, even if they appeared to be anguished. What would be the moral wrong in mistreating them?”
Westworld’s oh-so-human inner conflict is between compassion and the desire to exploit and dominate; it argues that, by removing us from the real world — the robot “hosts” are not real, not in the real-world sense — we don’t have to think about such moral quandaries as whether to watch the fake violence in The Walking Dead or tune into NBC Sunday Night Football instead, with its real-world stakes and potential for serious injury.
As TV, Westworld has its detractors. It’s too slow, some say. All that talking! Others find the violence queasy and off-putting, even though, generally speaking, it’s nowhere near as violent as Walking Dead’s recent episodes, or the past season of American Horror Story.
HBO continues to take risks, despite — or perhaps because of — increased competition from Netflix, Amazon, and old rivals like FX, Showtime, and AMC. Westworld was a significant financial gamble and demanded a huge investment, as HBO looks for a viable replacement for the soon-to-retire Game of Thrones.
As promising as Westworld’s premise sounded at the time, and as compelling as some of its episodes have been, it’s clear that it won’t replace Game of Thrones in fans’ hearts, or in the public consciousness. There aren’t as many identifiable, relatable characters as there are in Game of Thrones, nor as many stock villains. How could there be? Westworld lacks Game of Thrones’ geographical scope, its dazzling array of different worlds, and different characters within those worlds. It’s more like Deadwood, crossed with The Leftovers, a boutique drama designed to appeal to a small but fiercely loyal cadre of followers.
There’s a lot to celebrate in that, though. Science fiction is invaluable as a way of thinking deeply about the present. The Guardian noted that Brave New World and 1984, two of the great classics of 20th-century science fiction, “helped their readers to understand the human implications of technology in a way that no amount of history could have done. History can numb us, whereas the future can make the present seem fresh, and properly disturbing.”
The original Westworld was about escapism — figuratively and literally. Escapism was Michael Crichton’s stock and trade, yet there’s a streak of cautionary realism to both his early novels, like The Andromeda Strain and The Terminal Man and the later ones, like Jurassic Park and The Lost World.
The TV Westworld has taken the original concept — a futuristic Club Med for fans of old movie westerns — and updated it for modern times, by showing how technology is widening the gap between the haves and have-nots. Westworld is woke, as the kids say now.