Originally posted: October 2016
Westworld finally got its UK premier last night. It seemed like an eternity between the US release and our chance to explore, and I successfully navigated the minefield of avoiding spoilers and opinions on the first episode that might interfere with my own initial response (and enjoyment). The first episode wasn’t perfect – I wanted more, but it was necessary to give over time and space for worldbuilding (both the Western theme-park and the futuristic workplace) and introducing the basic concept of the show. It’s based on the 1973 SF-Western movie Westworld written and directed by science fiction writer Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park, Andromeda Strain, Disclosure), it was Crichton’s first foray in directing, and it famously stars Yul Brynner as a killer-robot called ‘The Gunslinger’. The film and now the HBO TV series is set in a near-future adult amusement park where the super-rich can pay ($40,000/day) for an immersive storyworld ‘holiday’ where they can do use the robots as they please to act out their wildest Wild West fantasies.
I knew the lay of the Westworld land. The concept that Crichton came up with is fascinating and ripe for a reboot and reimagining for a new audience and a world where the possibility of an AI apocalypseis discussed by leading scientists rather than just in the pages of science fiction novels. Last year’s Channel 4 series Humans – which is about to start its second season – was a delightfully British approach to this where robots (Syths) are bought and sold to serve as housekeepers, nannies, and as NHS community care nurses. It deals with the domestic everyday, while Westworld trades in fantasies. I was ready for fantasy, for a shoot-em-up SF Wild West adventure (clearly I want more SF/Western shows like Defiance and Firefly), but instead I was presented with a thoughtful and mesmerising science-based title sequence that had me hooked and made me excited for a series with some serious potential (and not just for talking about science and entertainment…).
I, of course, watch shows with an eye to the representation and incorporation of STEM. I can’t help it. Westworld’s opening sequence is so open about the intentions of the show to explore the implicit issues surrounding science, technology, and humanity’s imagined and perhaps precarious future. Rather than the bumbling and often helpless scientists seen in the 1973 movie we are presented with the slick business of science/technology alongside the mavericks of invention. The sequence opens with what seems like a sunrise over farming land, but this apparent dawning of a new day is actually a machine surveying a human (well android) body and the light highlights the ridges and valleys of ribs and sinew.
Close-ups of the construction of a synthetic horse are shown alongside those of the building of a human body – in their raw, artificial form these creatures are treated as equals. Beautiful artistic technology created by the stroke of a mechanical brush-like instrument. Images of the running horse are reminiscent (for a film scholar) of Eadweard Muybridge’s motion experiments that inaugurated the history of moving image technology. The robots/AI are born out of scientific advancements and evolving technology, but ultimately they become a product for human consumption and entertainment. We are asked to consider where and how science should be used, and where and whether we should restrict it progress.
The extreme close-ups of eyes, with the distinctive and oddly alien desert landscape reflected in the eyeball’s glossy sheen, references Blade Runner’s (Ridley Scott, 1983) gorgeous shots of an endless 2019 Los Angeles in a presumably artificial iris. It is an apparent merging of natural and unnatural an AI eye surveys a desert-landscape – but both are under the control and design of scientists and scriptwriters. Close-ups of eyes are followed by shots of medical/technical instruments and the cylinder of a revolver, the latter of which is later revealed to have been modified in order to simulate the death of robots, but leave human visitors unharmed. Old technology is made new in this future fantasy world.
From the start Westworld introduces the robots as complex creations, printed out strand by strand on 3D printers and programmed and reprogrammed to become ever more human like. Yet with an opening sequence like this we are constantly reminded that they are machines – the product of a lab. But as technology advances the distinction between human and non-human become increasingly blurred and where the original movie framed the robots as broken (and deadly) toys the new series will explore the robot perspective. If they can think, feel, and evolve what makes them truly different from their humans creators that are biological machines created strand by strand over millions of years of evolution.