In 1942, Isaac Asimov introduced Three Laws Of Robotics, and in the decades since, it has been tremendously influential in how robots and artificial intelligence are depicted in science fiction. However, those rules only apply to what responsibilities robots have to humans. In co-creator Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s TV series adaptation of Michael Crichton’s 1973 film “Westworld,” the idea at the heart of the series is: what are the moral and ethical duties humans owe to the artificial intelligence they create? And if that artificial intelligence becomes aware of the depths of their creators’ cruelty, can they really be blamed for breaking Asimov’s third rule?
The problems at the futuristic “Westworld” theme park — where visitors can indulge their every sexual, violent, heroic and adventurous fantasy, consequence free, against an expansively conjured, highly detailed world — begin like so my contemporary technological issues: with an update. The latest round of software sent to the park’s “hosts” — the highly advanced robots that interact with the guests — has caused glitches, the likes of which the park’s Creative Director, Chief Programmer and Founder Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) and the head of the Programming Division Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) haven’t seen before. Some of the hosts are starting to show signs of accessing their “memories,” and even more intriguing and concerning, flickers of subconscious and desire for a free will that goes outside their assigned roles in the park are also being observed. Nothing has gone haywire to the point of disrupting the overall visitor experience or putting anyone in danger — yet — but there is a mix of mild alarm and fascination at what seems to be a growing self-awareness among the hosts. However, for Westworld’s head of Quality Assurance (Sidse Babett Knudsen), her main concern is the bottom line, and making sure the higher ups (unseen across the first four episodes sent to press) aren’t given reason to worry after 30 years without any major problems.
Inside the park, a sense that things have changed is starting to be felt by two longtime “residents.” Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood), a rancher’s daughter, begins to perceive that the life she believes she’s leading may be some kind of construction. Meanwhile, Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton), the madam of the prostitutes in the park, is starting to have disquieting visions of her own, which cast doubt on her existence as she’s come to understand it. And while the hosts and those running the park who are coming to grips with these anomalies, The Man In Black (Ed Harris), returns to Westworld with a different mission in mind, while harboring secrets of his own. And then there’s Logan (Ben Barnes) and William (Jimmi Simpson) — essentially redrafts of James Brolin and Richard Benjamin from the film — with the former leading the reluctant latter, a newcomer, into the hedonistic avenues that Westworld affords. They too have their own agendas at hand that may have implications on the larger scheme of things.
Surely, what will be discussed at length throughout the run of “Westworld” is the presentation of humanity — no matter how sociologically or technologically sophisticated we’ve become — as bestial at its core. Moreover, much of it is driven by what could be called a distinctly male perspective. The attractions at Westworld unfold with a focus on hyper-violent and wildly sexual scenarios largely catering to men. But is this so outrageous a notion? The closest analog to this kind of open-ended, freewheeling ability to indulge in base behavior may be “Grand Theft Auto,” where women are objectified at best, exploited at worst. And even the tech industry as we see it today remains dominated from a white, male worldview which leads to companies ranging from Twitter to Uber fundamentally misunderstanding how women or ethnically diverse users have negative experiences and interactions with those products. And so there is some logic to Westworld following a path that seems like the natural conclusion to how technology is currently evolving. Overall, Nolan and Joy have a particularly grim view of human behavior, but one that will not be without eventual repercussions, with Dolores intoning, “Violent delights, have violent ends.”
Still, for all the big ideas that “Westworld” unpacks, it’s on slightly shaky feet early on. Earlier this year, production briefly went on hiatus to get all the creative elements back on track. And some evidence of reworking seems apparent in the opening two episodes, “The Original” and “Chestnut.” While both are still compelling, there are times when the seams appear to show, and in a sense, the premise and world of the series is introduced in two different ways in those episodes. It’s slightly wonky, but it goes to Nolan’s credit (he directed the first two episodes), Joy, and the writing team, that as a whole, it comes together. The goings on in the park, in particular, are pretty great television viewing, though the machinations behind-the-scenes are thus far, fairly dull.
What’s most admirable however is the richly detailed environment “Westworld” pulls together. Clearly, no dollar was spared with the high-tech sheen of Westworld’s facilities, and the western world of the park, both sumptuously realized. And there are lots of lovely little touches too, such as a player piano in a bar spinning out tinkly versions of ‘90s songs (yes, that’s “No Surprises” by Radiohead you’re hearing, among others).
The performances are mostly strong, with Hopkins doing his best work in years, thanks to the first role worthy of his talents in quite some time. He imbues Dr. Richard Ford with an eccentricity that has a charged undercurrent of menace that slowly grows more pronounced. As his sidekick of sorts, Wright is also very good, with the warmth he brings to Bernard also acting as a character flaw. The actors inside the park have a trickier job, having to essentially slowly reveal the growing layers of awareness inside their artificial characters, and Wood and Newton both do great work. Meanwhile, Harris is clearly having a ball in what is the closest thing “Westworld” has to a villain, though that description is a bit reductive. Sadly, Knudsen isn’t given much to do in her role in what amounts to the bland sort of stock corporate character you’ve seen many times over. And I’m not sure what direction Simon Quarterman was given, but his turn as Lee Sizemore, the head of Westworld’s Narrative team, responsible for coming up with the plethora of storylines guests encounter, is wincingly, screechingly over-the-top and out of place.
Through it all, “Westworld” also contains a meta layer about the nature of storytelling itself. Dr. Richard Ford and Lee Sizemore provide different sides of the same coin when it comes creating the worlds they think Westworld visitors want to experience — at the end of the day, they both want to push the boundaries of what users have come to expect. And in some ways that’s true of anybody creating fiction, but the question is always how much someone wants to see themselves in the material and how much they want to live vicariously in a story they could only dream about. It’s one more alluring element of “Westworld,” a deeply textured sci-fi series that offers the thesis that the greatest monsters humanity may face, are the ones we make in our likeness. [B]
“Westworld” debuts on HBO on Sunday, October 2nd at 9 PM.