“Westworld—where nothing ever goes worng!” ran the promo for Michael Crichton’s eponymous 1976 techno-thriller. In a futuristic theme park, patrons paid a huge amount of money to act out sadistic and erotic fantasies. The inhabitants are robots: knights, gladiators, gunmen programmed to be outsworded or outdrawn, without a drop of patron blood spilt. Luscious serving wenches or saloon tarts shed their tunics or petticoats on command. When the sun went down, the humanoid detritus was removed, discarded, or reassembled; damage to the environment was likewise repaired. Next dawn, the carnage resumed anew. All went swimmingly until a “central mechanism malfunction” precipitated a cascade of lethal glitches. The robots turned on guests and creators alike. But they weren’t motivated by revenge—the slaughterfest was purely mechanical.
The Westworld of 1976 was a clever piece of work but thin on philosophy. Beneath the scrim of genre conventions, the current Westworld—from HBO—conducts a searching ontological inquiry into the psychological, theological, and neuroscientific grounds of sentience. High Noon meets Camus and Sartre in a penetrating inquiry into the existence or absence of free will.
The 1976 Westworld replicants were low-tech gizmos. The replicant “hosts” of HBO’s Westworld seem as human as their “guests” in body and discourse. The animal and inanimate world is as impressively replicated. The mise en scène is wonderfully opened up; beyond Main Street, lie sun-baked mountain ranges and canyons, pellucid lakes, and winding trails.
Patrons are offered multiple scenarios, depending upon their checkbooks, duration of stay, and motivation—innocent or decadent. A guest can opt for brief, repeated “cuts” involving few characters (eg, recurrent gunfights), or a journey that lasts for days. A Westworld script and its host participants have been carefully programmed. The series’ principal human protagonists are not mere vacationers. They’ve lost a child or loved one, or sustained other grave injuries—they come to Westworld hoping to find meaning, not thrills.
The host “backstories” also contain tragic losses or hardships; they, too, yearn for a brighter future. But their memories have been deliberately implanted to anchor them, thus preventing the rage—or madness—attendant upon realizing their imprisonment in a tormenting eternal present. Each day they are mercilessly murdered or raped. Each night, their physical wounds are repaired—or bodies dismembered for parts—and their memories wiped clean.
As Westworld unfolds, one learns that The Park was created by 2 bio-mechanical geniuses and close friends, Robert Ford and Arnold (full name never given). The partners’ original aims were benevolent—they never planned a pitiless purgatory. The powerful Delos Corporation financed the partners for years, then demanded a return on their investment. They ordered the opening of The Park—which went on to proves immensely lucrative.
Arnold had been severely depressed following the death of his only child. He objected strongly to Delos’s plans. When Westworld opened, he was profoundly depressed and died under mysterious circumstances. Ford, however, is eager for Westworld to flourish. Unlike the other human protagonists, his past is obscure, seemingly untraumatic. Of his childhood, we only know that his parents never let him indulge his passion for stories. With Westworld, Ford is able to create his own tales. The longest are intricate “master narratives” central to the entire series’ evolving history.
True to genre, things go spectacularly worng: the replicants’ (ie, hosts’) inability to recollect past events has rendered them obedient to whatever they’ve been programmed to be. They become sentient—and remember every evil the guests have inflicted upon them.
Dr. Greenberg practices psychiatry in Manhattan, New York. He publishes frequently on film, media, and popular culture. For many years, his cinema column appeared in Psychiatric Times. He has appeared frequently on national and international network and cable television programs including Good Morning America, Today, CBS Evening and Sunday news, PBS, CNN, Showtime, and BBC-TV. Please address communications to Dr. Greenberg at [email protected].