It is wise to be wary of technology’s dark side. Machines should be smart, but not smarter than us. American novelist Michael Crichton was perhaps obsessed with this idea — a hypothetical scenario wherein technology turns on the mankind with catastrophic consequences. Many of his works, both literary and cinematic, explored this concept. HBO’s television remake of Crichton’s 1973 film ‘Westworld’ does carry forward this theme, but it also goes way beyond it, into the sphere of sentience, free will, and artificial consciousness.
Created by couple Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan for HBO, ‘Westworld’ is the tale of a theme park built in the Western style and populated by life-like androids called “hosts.” The “guests”, the visitors, pay hefty money to enjoy the setting and do what they want with the hosts, including rape, mutilation, and murder. The story is largely told through the eyes of hosts, which is the basic difference in terms of narration from the film.
While Crichton’s classic was meant to be a fast-paced entertainer, HBO’s Westworld pauses to reflect upon deeper philosophical conundrums, with disaster simmering underneath. The question of what it means to be conscious imbues the narrative. But none of it would have been engaging if performances were not superlative like it is in ‘Westworld’. The cast does shine with names like Sir Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris, but the lesser known names deliver too. Evan Rachel Wood is the lead and does her job pretty well, but its Thandie Newton as the madame of a brothel in Westworld who steals the show with a captivatingly strong performance, not just as a passive host but a deadly sentient machine bent on vengeance. Sir Anthony Hopkins is his usual charismatic self.
The visuals are fantastic and there is a great deal of symbolism for those who look for a deeper meaning. Two “settings” are juxtaposed – – the pristine, industrial operation rooms and grimy, dissolute Wild West. The narrative is cut continuously between them. They are so well realized that there is a minor jolt when the setting is changed abruptly. It is like watching two interrelated TV shows, which lead to the same finale.
The only thing that goes slightly against Westworld is its complexity. One of the creators is Jonathan Nolan who has worked jointly with his elder brother Christopher for a long time, so that is to be expected. It is easy for less attentive viewers being shocked by later plot developments, Game of Thrones style, but not those who pay attention to subtle hints and seemingly unimportant elements. This isn’t a linear narrative and having a lot of philosophy means ambiguity has a free reign. This might be good or bad depending on the viewer.
One example of the said ambiguity that I particularly liked: the Shakespearean phrase “these violent delights have violent ends” from Romeo and Juliet instantly triggers sentence in the minds of hosts who can “infect” others with it. Apart from being a virus of sorts, the phrase also acts as a metaphor for the entire plot. The “violent delights”, that is, the debauchery of the guests, results in “violent ends” — terrible consequences for the guests.