Westworld: where everything is allowed

The theme of artificial intelligence that evolves into self-consciousness is one of the most beloved and feared themes of science fiction in recent decades, but at the time of Michael Crichton’s “Westworld” it was still moving its first steps in the genre and it’s no coincidence that this film has become a true cult. For this reason, deciding to offer this theme by revisiting the storyline according to the current times in a high-profile, complex-looking TV series was a potentially risky project, especially since it wasn’t the first attempt. Back in 1980 CBS had tried that with “Beyond Westworld”, failing miserably (the series was cancelled after three episodes of the five already produced).
It could result in a success as well as in another flop.
But such fear didn’t stop HBO, the creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, and the executive producers JJ Abrams and Bryan Burk (Bad Robot). And luckily, I would add.
The result is “Westworld”, whose first season, which includes ten episodes of 57 minutes (except the last one which lasts 91 minutes), was aired in the autumn of 2016.
And it was undoubtedly a success, so that the series was confirmed for a second season.

The background of the story is not unlike that of Crichton’s film. In a near future, a western themed park called Westworld, whose residents are androids, was created, and visitors are free to do anything without any moral or legal repercussions. The fundamental difference with the film is that the androids of this Westworld really believe that they are human beings with free will. They are real artificial intelligences, they have no idea that their memory, and sometimes also their identity, is tampered with at the beginning of each new narrative cycle. They aren’t shown to us as puppets. On the contrary, we experience much of the story from their point of view.
Absolutely unaware, the residents live innumerable times the same days, which begin with the arrival of visitors by train and continue with interactions with the latter, resulting in unpredictable developments that blend with the patterns defined by the creative department of the park.
This is only the starting point for the development by the androids of self-consciousness, accelerated by Dr Ford, played by great Anthony Hopkins, who is the creative director of the park and head of the development team. In a recent software upgrade, Ford provided the androids with so-called remembrances, meaning an access to fragments of memories belonging to past narrative cycles that are made available to them when triggered by new events. The goal, in theory, would be to make their reactions more natural and the visitors’ experience more realistic, but the consequence on the androids is that their behaviours become abnormal, unpredictable, bringing some of them to the awareness of their condition of pleasure tool and to the desire to get rid of their chains.

Within the plot are shown some characters, which are entrusted with the main narrative threads of the series. We have Dolores Abernathy (played by Evan Rachel Wood), the beautiful resident who wakes up every morning in her home, greets her parents, goes to the town where the train is coming, and here every time she makes different encounters. Dolores is one of the oldest androids in the park and her memory conceals the secrets that will come out with the progress of the story. She is entrusted with one of the paths to achieve the self-consciousness that one of the two founders of the park, Arnold (who died many years before in unknown circumstances), wished for his creatures.
Then there is Maeve Millay (played by Thandie Newton), the smart maitresse of the saloon, who, due to the remembrances, beside having access to events related to old narrative cycles, begins to realise that she has lived the same day several times.
Among those who work at the park stands out Bernard Lowe’s character (played by Jeffrey Wright), Dr Ford’s programmer and right-hand man, who, following the work of his boss, is aware of strange events concerning the behaviour of the residents as well as many intrigues related to Delos, the company that owns the park.
Among the visitors the most interesting is definitely William (played by Jimmi Simpson), who came to the park with his future brother-in-law, more as a duty than for real interest. At the beginning William is not attracted to that kind of fun and tends to see residents as people, especially Dolores.
Finally there are the characters played by the two great stars of the series: The Man in Black (Ed Harris) and the aforementioned Dr Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins).
We know nothing about the Man in Black, except that he is a rich visitor who has been in the park for thirty years and is obsessed with the search for an imaginary labyrinth, the legacy of the work of the equally elusive Arnold.

Added to these main characters, which appear in all or almost all the episodes of the series, and the storylines of which they are protagonists, is the rest of the excellent cast, creating a story with various facets, which you can grasp in its entirety only in the last episode, when the first season’s narrative arc ends, revealing most of its secrets.

A special mention is due to the series soundtrack (available as a double album), composed and played by Ramin Djawadi, former author of the soundtrack of Game of Thrones, Person of Interest and Pacific Rim. Alongside original pieces, such as the beautiful open credits theme, it features a number of covers of modern tracks, masterfully reinterpreted on the piano in a western style, making them difficult to recognize. Among these are: “Black Hole Sun” by Soundgarden, “Paint It Black” by Rolling Stones, “A Forest” by Cures, “No Surprises” by Radiohead, and “Back To Black” by Amy Winehouse.

But what characterises the most “Westworld” is its complexity. It is not an easy-to-use series in the sense that it forces the viewer to concentrate on the plot, to make their memory work, and above all to ask themselves questions. It would be too easy to let yourself be guided by the story, but soon you realise that there is something that does not match: so many small details, inconsistencies, which must be there for a reason and that are part of the great deception through which the screenwriters drive you. It’s a deception both for the viewers and the protagonists, the androids, and is favoured by the fact that the latter are immutable over time and have a limited sense of time within each single narrative cycle. Even when residents have managed to unlock their memories of past cycles, they aren’t able to place them in a human temporal context.
Time is the key factor. You have the impression that everything is going on at the same time, but it’s all part of the big deception.

Even the topic of an artificial intelligence that evolves is developed in a fairly original way from what we have so far been accustomed to seeing. The AIs aren’t helpless children (such as Chappie) or entities wishing to dominate or exterminate humans (such as Skynet or Cylons). Westworld residents are androids that think they are human and find out they have been betrayed. Their reactions are human and ultimately they are presented as victims of their own creators to whom they are rightly rebelling (only to their creators, not to all humanity), not by madness or wickedness or misunderstanding, but because they have suffered an injustice.
This central theme is mixed with others which often appear in science fiction, such as the presence of characters ignoring their own nature and their past, which strongly resemble those of Philip K. Dick’s. There is the illusion of free will, the infinite repetition of a day or a story in a certain place and, of course, the evolution of artificial intelligence that ends up feeling alive, human, and rebels as such.
The labyrinth so much sought by the Man in Black is not, actually, destined for humans. It is part of the androids’ path towards self-consciousness. Along with this path, carried out by Dolores and Maeve, there is William, a good man, almost a pure one, who in Westworld ends up discovering the dark side of his soul. This is because Westworld is not just a fun park, but it is above all a place where visitors, after eliminating all the limits they have to undergo in real life, find out who and what they really are and, just like in William’s case, end up evolving into something different.

As you can see, these aren’t simple themes at all, and being able to develop them, creating a story that could keep interested a varied audience like the one of TV series, was not easy at all. This complexity, in fact, often results in a slow pace of narration, which really takes off after a few episodes, testing the viewers who, as soon as the series was broadcasted, were forced to wait a week to see the subsequent episode. Certainly a second vision, in retrospect, would help to clarify some remaining doubts.
A particularly interesting aspect is the comparison between the warm, sunny, and dusty park cinematography, and the cold, dark, and aseptic “behind the scenes”. Thanks to this, we can perceive the difference between fiction, which is shown to be reassuring, and reality, which is rather disturbing.
Moreover, a peculiarity of this series is that it takes place only in these two locations. We don’t see the outside world. We know, because it is obvious, that the story is set in the future, but at least in this first season it is impossible to determine how far this future is from us. With the exception of androids, the technology that is shown appears more evolved than ours, but not overly.
It is spontaneous to ask yourself at this point whether in the coming seasons, which could take any unexpected turnaround compared to the open ending of the first one, we will be shown this future. If the level of originality remains the one seen so far, I’m ready to bet that they will surprise us.

The original Italian version of this article appeared on FantascientifiCast.it on 15 March 2017.