The Two Fantasies of 'Westworld': Playing God and Violence Without Consequences

HBO's Westworld explores what happens when a seemingly controlled world - a Wild West theme park - runs amok.

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Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Robert Ford in 'Westworld.'
Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Robert Ford in 'Westworld.'Credit: Courtesy

Now, with Bob Dylan finally conceding graciously to accept the Nobel Prize in Literature, thus sharing the Prize Committee’s aim to widen (some would say ad absurdum) the presumably limiting confines of the age-old definition of literature, it is high time to start to put in order the kind of literature the Nobel committee approves of. In its 115 years of existence, the literature prize was awarded 110 times (not in 1918, during World War I, and from 1941-1944, during World War II). It is time to point out that no literature prize was ever awarded to a writer of science fiction. Surely, writers like Jules Verne, Stanislaw Lem, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein or Douglas Adams (to name but a few) redefined the boundaries of literature – and of our perception of ourselves, and our perspectives in this world – as much, if not more, than Dylan. Incidentally, a paraphrase of a quote by Adams (from his comic sci-fi masterpiece “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”) provides the best reaction to the Dylan-Nobel phenomenon: “Ah, this is obviously some strange usage of the word literature that I wasn’t previously aware of.”

Of all sci-fi writers, Michael Crichton (1942-2008) was probably one of the most underrated overachievers – by the so-called cognoscenti, that is, not by the reading public throughout the world that determines ratings. In a career spanning almost half a century, he published 25 novels, innumerable short stories, and wrote, directed and inspired innumerable movies and TV series, most of them in the techno-thriller genre. His prose may have left much to be desired (he was the master of the “one-word paragraph”) but his imagination about science and the many and weird ways it can go wrong was always running wild and away, and his plotting acumen allowed us a glimpse into the future (ours, that is) and shudder with fear and fascination.

Crichton’s name and fame deserve to be mentioned here and now, when a new TV series has embarked on its race to fame and fortune from the HBO stables – to the tune of a $100 million production budget and around two million viewers for each of the first four episodes. I’m talking about “Westworld,” written and produced by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, and based on Crichton’s movie of the same title, written and directed by him in 1973. There are 10 episodes in the first season; no news of a second yet. In Israel it is broadcast on HOT Plus and Yes Oh (Mondays at 22.00), as well as Cellcom TV, almost in tandem with the U.S. screening, which was launched on October 8.

The premise of the original Crichton movie and the new series is based on a formula that was his (and Steven Spielberg’s) greatest success in the 1990s, “Jurassic Park.” In an amusement park setting, wildly imaginative attractions provide visitors with thrills and titillations simulating real dangers past, present and future, while keeping them out of harm’s way. In “Jurassic Park,” genetically engineered prehistoric monsters – dinosaurs – ran amok. In “Westworld,” human-like figures, called hosts, are androids constructed and programmed by the showrunners of the park to behave as they would in a real Wild West village. They gradually acquire inner lives of their own and veer off their software, starting to behave differently from the way they were programmed – very much like real human characters (the TV audience and the “guests,” visitors to the park in the series) tend to do when faced with unexpected occurrences (aka life).

The guests – rich, idle and corrupt (at least in spirit) – come to the village to enjoy the wicked thrills of abusing power (which basically means killing and raping, most of the guests being male). Such activities are denied them in real life, and these guests apparently know that their real selves will remain unscathed and their actions unpunished. The hosts are supposedly not live but mechanical, and the whole setting is a controlled one. However, it turns out that the showrunners behind the scenes are constantly working to improve the scenarios and upgrade the hosts’ software. And not all the creators and runners of the fictional “Westworld” agree as to what – and whose – purpose the park is supposed to serve, and what can or should be done with android hosts who acquire memories and emotions and become as unpredictable as real human beings.

Doodling kittens

The series’ opening sequence is worth a prize in itself; it has a lot of action, some of it very gory (in my view, unnecessarily so). The story lines of guests and hosts keep viewers and critics riveted to the screen. In addition, the series is a sort of a philosophical treatise about life, fiction (literary and visual, aka TV), human consciousness and the subconscious, and religion. One of the executive producers is J.J. Abrams, of the “Lost” and “Alias” series.

The creative director of the whole “Westworld” enterprise is one Dr. Robert Ford, played by Anthony Hopkins of Hannibal Lecter fame. His towering presence on the screen is even more eerie because he exudes a sort of emotional detachment. In the second episode (relax, no spoiler here) the amusement park’s narrative director, Lee Sizemore (played by Simon Quaterman), presents a new narrative. According to him, compared to it, the previous ones seem like “Hieronymus Bosch doodling kittens.”

Sizemore explains that the guests need stronger thrills to exercise (and possibly exorcise) their evil urges; the whole experience is supposed to allow them to meet and come to terms with who they are. “No,” says Dr. Ford flatly. The guests, he explains, know who they are. They come to “Westworld” (or read a book, or watch a TV series) for the nuances, and to find out what they could have been, or could become.

Thus, those who run the show in the park, faking seemingly real-life situations with programmed androids for the benefit of “real” guests may represent a deity – benevolent, malevolent or maddeningly mysterious – or a creator, like the writer of a novel or a TV series, or – indeed – the innards of the human psyche. Or better yet – the mysterious creator who pulls the strings of the novel or TV series on which we are both hosts and guests. We, for want of a better word, call this our life.

The theme park in “Westworld” is a Wild West village of the past; this is an important factor in the ethos and history of the U.S., which still aspires to the title of “leader of the West” in the current political climate. Does that mean the East is exempt from the danger of a seemingly controlled world running amok? What does it augur for us in the Middle East, torn between East and West culture vultures? Who knows? You may ponder all that while watching the series, and without deciphering the multitude of literary allusions. And you can enjoy it just as much without pondering at all.