“Boy, have we got a vacation for you!”
Before creating a theme park full of dinosaurs which turned on its visitors (Jurassic Park, 1990 – and the subsequent Spielberg adaption in 1993), Michael Crichton wrote and directed Westworld, released in 1973. A similar situation in some ways – the attractions of an amusement park end up killing the visitors. Delos is a state-of-the-art, hyper realistic amusement park for adults, with three themed ‘worlds’ to explore, depending on the visitors preference: Roman World, Medieval World and the titular West World – a Western themed area where for $1000 a day, visitors can live in an authentic experience of the lawless, thrilling cowboy lifestyle of the West.
The three ‘worlds’ in Delos are populated by androids who with the latest technology are modelled to look and behave like their human counterparts from the selected era. So in Westworld, there are sheriffs, bartenders, prostitutes and outlaws. These androids are scheduled to behave in a certain way each day, serving guests, cheating at poker, starting bar fights and engaging in quick draw pistol showdowns, to create a fully interactive world for the visitors. The androids are programmed to never harm guests – they will always lose gunfights and when shot they bleed and do not get back up, dragged away by park workers to be repaired and returned to service for the next day. While Blane has visited West World several times, it is Martin’s first visit and at first he doesn’t seem won over despite the astounding technology. But after shooting an android (Yul Brynner’s ominous Gunslinger) over a disagreement over a spilt drink, and later visiting a brothel where the pair sleep with two attractive androids, Martin is enamoured by the feeling of being a real cowboy.
Predictably, things go wrong. An android rattlesnake bites Blane, a seductive android rejects a visitor’s sexual advances. The Delos scientists speculate that a ‘virus’ is spreading through the androids, causing the malfunctions. Initially laughed off (how can a virus spread through machines?), the problem escalates rapidly when a knight, programmed to lose a sword fight in Medieval World, kills its visitor opponent. The technicians watch on monitors in shock, unable to shut down the androids as they begin to rampage on reserve power. In West World, the Gunslinger again provokes a now hungover Blane and Martin to a showdown in the street. Blane, assuming the Gunslinger’s safety procedures are still operational, is killed in the draw and a shocked Martin flees in terror as the android pursues him with unstoppable intensity and its heightened senses.
As a film Westworld is a good, if not great, sci-fi thriller. What grabbed my attention is the ideas and concepts that are raised. Man tries to harness science, technology and artificial intelligence, fails. How aware are the androids of their ‘job’? Do the androids feel used? Do they have any understanding of their (lack of) sentience? Is there any moral implication of destroying an anthropomorphised machine, when it looks and acts exactly like a real man, only to fix and reconstruct it in order for it to be shot and killed all over again? The film barely scratches the surface of some of these questions, which is a shame as it’s a concept that really interests me.
You might ask why I have suddenly taken an interest in a film, not exactly well known, released back in 1973? Westworld is being adapted into a television miniseries for HBO, created by Jonathan Nolan and starring Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, James Marsden and Thandie Newton. Described as “a dark odyssey about the dawn of artificial consciousness and the future of sin”, I’m hoping the extended format of a miniseries will allow some of the questions I raised above to be explored in more detail. With a talented cast and excellent directors behind the scenes (including JJ Abrams) I’m intrigued to see how such a concept is realised and investigated, over forty years after the original film was released.