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How the original Westworld got robots right (and why HBO’s show might have them wrong)

October 6, 2016


HBO’s new version of Westworld debuted this week. The pilot episode featured the kind of nuanced take on the sentience and sensibility of robotic people that you’d expect to find at the head of a popular culture that’s been fascinated with the subject for over forty years. Are they alive? Are they sad? Is it wrong to look at them naked, about five times an episode? The new Westworld’s machines are complex, Turing test-acing fascinations, their bodies caught in gameplay loops that their Shakespeare-quoting souls can’t sustain. They are ethically, spiritually and psychologically mysterious, new beings tip-toeing to consciousness in the shadow of man’s hubris. But for all that, are they any better than their big-screen counterparts, from 1973’s comparably clunky original film?

There is a strength in the original Westworld’s straightforwardness. The last two things Yul Brynner’s glassy-eyed gunslinger would have contemplated indulging himself in are an existential crisis, and the meaningful quotation of Shakespeare, especially not Romeo And Juliet (“These violent delights,” spit the gunslinger’s reality-spooked descendants, “have such violent ends.”) From our post-Terminator, post-Matrix vantage point, Michael Crichton’s film is almost quaint, an off-shoot of 1970s paranoia that looks bitterly back on post-war promises of American idealism just as much as it looks forward to the coming age of tech cynicism.

It is, in other words, as much about leisure and lifestyle as it is about technology. Westworld and the wider Delos resort hold a mirror to contemporary American amusement park culture – echoes of imperial indolence float over from Westworld’s sister park, Roman World, while Medieval World offers a TV dinner of gallantry and wenching. If the plastic utopian trip of Disney’s parks are the target here then it’s appropriate that Disney should have its own, copyrighted term for this rigorous real-world fictionalising: Imagineering. The official definition of Imagineering is “letting your imagination soar, then engineering it back down to earth,” which speaks to the technological heavy lifting required to suppress reality, though the experience of actually passing through these ostentatiously sustained illusions is more like willingly slipping into a cheerful dream. I have seen the glow of Radiator Springs under the Californian night, and it’s as beautiful as anything you’ll see in Yosemite – but it requires a form of buy-in, a subscription to a processed version of existence that’s incompatible with Westworld’s Nixon-era anxiety.

The point, aside from the fact that even a movie as disappointing as Cars can make for a great theme park, is that Westworld is a nostalgic sort of dystopia, and as such it’s tempting to think of take on automation as unsophisticated. It’s a bonus, really, a framing device for the primary attack on grotesque consumerism. That’s perhaps why interactions with the robot hosts of Westworld seem so much like real-world encounters with the euphemistically-titled Cast Members that staff Disney Resorts. Richard Benjamin, who in the film is timidly visiting Westworld for the first time alongside a brash James Brolin, isn’t sure what’s real once they pass the threshold (“Was she a…?”) the same uncertainty that comes from looking into the eyes of a young performer and seeing only Cinderella or Snow White staring back.

In the end, though, the distinction between man and machine is clear. They may look alike, but the robots are all surface – Brynner’s black-clad antagonist is the visual twin of the star’s character from The Magnificent Seven, an unreal image dislocated from its human host. What sets Westworld apart from so many science fiction warnings, adventures and even romances that have arrived since, is that its machines are and remain totally inscrutable. Even wearing an image of himself, Brynner is a blank – we don’t know why he malfunctions (aside from smart genre talk of virus-like symptoms) or what he’s after. The film might offer us a pixelated perspective shot from the gunslinger’s point of view, but there’s never a suggestion of an interior life, or a motive beyond the malevolence of the robot’s original programming.

HBO’s version of Westworld sets out to be different. The opening of its pilot episode is an exercise in disorienting perspective shifts. James Marsden’s handsome newcomer arrives on a train full of chattering guests, just like Benjamin and Brolin, while Ed Harris’ dead-eyed man in black echoes Brynner-echoing-Brynner. When the pair meet, though, it’s Marsden’s bullets that bounce of the – surprise! – human Harris. This time, the show is telling us, the roles can be reversed. Sympathy is relative. Humanity is ambiguous.

This is in part down to the structural differences of making a film and making a television show. The job of HBO’s Westworld is to turn the relatively simple one-shot worry of the original – what if robots, but bad? – into a complex tension capable of sustaining at least one and, with Game Of Thrones ending soon and no other hits in sight, preferably several seasons of programming. But it’s also down to our cultural familiarity with the subject matter. We’ve been dealing with machines that think for decades. We’ve been wondering if they’re good or bad for almost as long, and we’ve been wanting them to be our dads since at least Terminator 2. The idea of returning to a premise as simple as “Yul Brynner wants to shoot you because his circuit boards tell him to (also this is a metaphor)” is impossible at this point.

But there’s a danger to our perceived sophistication. In Blade Runner we are in awe of Roy Batty’s profundity as he laments his own passing. In AI we pity David when he’s rejected by his family. In Short Circuit, we agonise over the naivety of Johnny Five. And in each case, we are extending sympathy to machines that by definition cannot feel emotions, based upon the emotions that their human-like appearance makes us expect them to have. We are primed to interpret their physical responses as indicative of underlying emotional ones and, by making machines look human, we trick ourselves into feeling sorry for something that might as well be a spoon, or a clever hammer.

This, really, is the central hook of Ex Machina, a film ostensibly about a series of tests administered to an artificial person, Ava, to see if she has developed consciousness. At the end of the film, after a proxy war has been fought over Ava’s unethical treatment at the hands of her inventor, she leaves for dead the man who tested, fell in love with and rescued her – not because Ava dislikes him, but because she has no feelings for him whatsoever, cannot fathom what feelings are, and because she’s not a she but an it, a spoon, a hammer. The coldness of it is spectacular – the same coldness that is in Brynner’s glassy eyes, a coldness at the heart of both our most rudimentary and most articulate responses to the issue of thinking machines. HBO’s Westworld has a great deal of unravelling and growing to do – coming episodes acknowledge a lot of these problems, makes them central even – but is still based upon a lingering dalliance with the tempting fallacy that machines might just be as human as us after all.

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