Every night, a hopeful young woman dreams about a disturbing, alternative life, one in which she is a robot answering an unknown voice’s questions. She wakes up every morning, unencumbered by the memory of this recurrent dream, ready to face the day. She wishes her father good morning, and then waits for the day to turn. She does not fully comprehend, yet, that the day will bring her unimaginable horrors, or the hope of a romance. Her life depends on how the “newcomers” will treat her.
Westworld, the new show on HBO, is a reboot of the 1973 Western thriller of the same name, directed and based on the novel by Michael Crichton. Created by the husband-wife duo of Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, the television series is billed as HBO’s next big money-spinner after Game of Thrones. The show airs in India on the Star World Premiere HD channel on Tuesdays at 10pm.
The young woman is Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), and we learn that she is a “host”, one of the many androids in the Old West-inspired theme park where newcomers – the visitors – can do what they like in return for a huge fee. In the first episode, the host is epitomised by Ed Harris, credited simply as The Man in Black, who gets his jollies raping and plundering and killing the androids who, of course, cannot retaliate.
The enterprise, run by an unnamed corporate entity, is helmed by Dr Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), who has recently overseen an update to the androids aimed at making them even more lifelike than they already are. In the tradition of the best science fiction going back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the update achieves more than it is meant to, imparting consciousness and, ultimately, a drive for rebellion, in the androids.
Crichton’s novel and film restricted themselves to the interesting plot possibilities that the awakening of artificial intelligence consciousness presents. The TV series, largely because of its format, allows for greater nuance, leading the viewer down a rabbit hole of moral and ethical questions relating not merely to AI but to humanity and truth. Is consciousness the only barometer of humanity – and if it not, who is to decide when one becomes human? What does exploiting a lifelike form for our basest fantasies tell us about ourselves? And where must the greed for corporate profit stop?
Westworld is primed to explore these questions in the upcoming episodes. Its canvas is vast, and its cinematography suitably large-scale. Production designer Nathan Crowley – who worked with Nolan (he is the brother of Christopher) on Interstellar and The Dark Knight – gives the sets a glistening, old-town finish in keeping with the show’s Western theme. The contrast with the shiny interiors of the corporate war room, where new strategies and storylines are devised for the hosts to enact, could not be starker. The effect is both aesthetically pleasing and morally distressing, accentuating the blindness of those who refuse to see the waywardness of their actions but, satisfyingly, will be made to.