As most of you are aware, Game of Thrones will be starting its fifth season on HBO. Usually this means a series’ expenses start growing ever faster and the quality is in danger of sliding downward. Now, Thrones may be the exception that proves the rule, but HBO is looking for the next big hour-long series. Like everything else in Hollywood, it will be based on an existing property. And since this is HBO, it should have plenty of sex and violence. So, the network is taking the over 40-year-old sci-fi classic Westworld and turning it into a series. I imagine many of you out there only have a vague idea of what Westworld is, so I thought I give you a brief primer on the film (yes, this is one case where we’re simply not telling you to ask your parents) and what HBO could perhaps do to make it a continuing series.
[ad#longpost]Here’s a synopsis (and SPOILERS in case you do want to go back and check out the original flick–if you do, I’ll tell you when it’s safe to come back): two guys, Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin) and John Blane (James Brolin), are about to visit Delos, an adult amusement park which costs $1,000 a day (about $5,500 in 2014 dollars). Delos has three worlds: Roman World, Medieval World, and West World. These worlds recreate all the fun, fighting (and fucking) of these eras. But these worlds are as about as real as a reality TV show, because the worlds are staffed by human-looking and -acting androids. They interact with the guests but their programming limits them from harming or even ruining the guest’s good time. For instance, Peter and John have several encounters with one particular android, a gunslinger played by Yul Brenner. Even though the Gunslinger has machine reflexes, Peter always gets the draw on him and blows him away.
Meanwhile, the technicians responsible for running Delos and keeping the androids going are noticing a lot more breakdowns and bugs in the park, spreading like a virus through the system. Unfortunately, the androids have become so sophisticated and complicated that the techs aren’t able to trace how the systems work anymore. Things get worse and worse until one of the androids actually kills a guest. The technicians try to shut down the park but the androids simply switch to the batteries and raise havoc. All the technicians accomplish is sealing themselves inside the control room with no air. Peter only realizes something is wrong when the Gunslinger shoots and kills his friend John and Peter starts running because the Gunslinger wants some payback.
So, what’s so great about Westworld? Well, there’s the subtle send up of the Western genre where men are men, women are whores, and ultra violence is part of the charm. The Old West myth may have waned at the time but it still had a hold of the popular imagination, so the idea of being a “real” cowboy sounds great. Of course, this technological version of playing cowboys falls apart when the robots stop letting you win and start killing you. There the amazing performance by Yul Brenner playing a soulless killing machine but still giving the character presence and nuance. You even feel the Gunslinger is a little justified in revenge since he had to let someone who would order a “vodka martini on the rocks with a twist of lemon” in a saloon best him. The movie being one of Michael Crichton’s early works (he both wrote and directed it) doesn’t hurt either. He liked the idea so much he recycled it for Jurassic Park. Crichton even used the concept of a computer virus when it had just been developed in academic circles and would be years before the mainstream public would learn about it.
There’s even the fact that it was a franchise previously. It spawned a sequel three years later, Futureworld, where Delos’ plans for the androids are explored and then in 1980 a series called Beyond Westworld aired. Well, for all of three episodes, then it was cancelled. It had the androids getting out into the “real world” and what had to be done about it. You can get Futureworld and Beyond Westworld: The Complete Series
both from Amazon.)
So there is plenty to mine from the movie for the new HBO series to play with. It can also deal with the recent concerns about automation speculating to do jobs that thought to be exclusively the purview of humans. Journalism, transportation, and legal work could soon be done by sophisticated algorithms. So will the androids of Westworld also be affecting society outside of the park? There is also themes of exploitation that can be explored. How would you react to be able to use and abuse someone who is literally less than human. Who do you become when the standard agreed upon morality goes out the windows and what goes on in Westworld stays in Westworld. It has been hinted that instead of simply malfunctioning and running amok, some of the androids may become self aware. Imagine if you discovered your whole life and world was a lie and you were being exploited by a bunch of meat sacks. I’d be pissed! How the androids evolve into awareness and how they react to their new condition is a rich field to play with. The producers have definitely taken one lesson from the movie and cast strong actors like Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, and Thandie Newton. So signs look good for this series to continue HBO’s string of hits. We will find out when Westworld premieres later this year.