Monday, June 1, 2015

Flashback to Westworld

Today marks the much criticized release of the ultraviolent mass murder simulation game “Hatred”.  Some forty years ago, Michael Crichton made a movie about another violent murder simulator known as Westworld which still has traces visible in modern robot movies, and some two years ago the Author wrote a review of this same Westworld which he’s been sitting on until now, when he has as feeble a reason to share it as ever before.  The internet tells me that HBO is producing a reboot of the series created by Christopher Nolan’s brother and starring both Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris, which would actually sound really promising if it wasn’t, you know, a reboot, but I’ll wait and see how it turns out before I fling mud. Enjoy.

While many people are aware to some extent of the ideas and setting of Jurassic Park and The Truman Show, few have any familiarity with the source that inspired those famous movies’ themes.  Michael Crichton’s 1973 film Westworld might seem highly derivative not only of his own work but also of other directors’, but in actuality it paved the way for a host of science-fiction pictures that may not have flourished without it.  Westworld has all the defining marks of a Crichtonian technothriller – a small group of optimistic, technologically fascinated individuals, a remote and tightly monitored location that’s more dangerous than it betrays, and the swift decline of order into chaos as man’s creation spirals out of control and ultimately destroys him – but raises more philosophical questions than the average Crichton novel, some of which have incurred new meaning with the advent of the digital age, making the film more culturally relevant and accessible than many of the bestselling author’s novels.

Westworld is a unique and elaborate amusement park that enables adult guests to indulge in practically any Wild West fantasy they could desire for the hefty price of $1000 a day.  A simulated world occupied entirely by robots that are nearly identical to humans, it represents a third of an overarching resort called Delos, which also offers violent and predominantly licentious attractions in Roman World and Medieval World.  The system resembles the giant dome in The Truman Show in that every robot is programmed with a certain, day-to-day routine and controlled remotely by park managers operating from an intricate control center.  Some robots are designed to make sexual advances towards guests, while others like Yul Brynner’s Gunslinger challenge the humans to duels, wherein the visitors always triumph, leaving the robot a bleeding, lifeless corpse.  The historical worlds are supposed to impart a semblance of peril and adventure to consumers but simultaneously ensure their safety, allowing them to emerge as heroes from even the worst predicament, but as in all of Crichton’s stories, the security guidelines don’t always work as planned.  The robots eventually break down and malfunction in various areas, leading them to refuse compliance with orders and to resist their programmed purpose.  The movie shows us Westworld through the eyes of two friends, John and Peter.  The former is wholly receptive of the park’s atmosphere and expectations, immediately anxious to experience all the gunplay, bar fights, and one-nighters the west can offer, but his partner takes a more reserved and skeptical stance, initially hesitating to make love with a total stranger and shoot the image of another man in a cantina.  Are his actions merely make-believe, harming nothing more than a bundle of circuits and batteries, or do they have real consequences on himself and other human beings?

The first hour of Westworld is richly thought-provoking, more so than the prolonged chase scene that follows and the entirety of Jurassic Park, not that the latter was by any means simplistic.  On the one hand, Westworld can be interpreted as a comparison of the purpose- and the pleasure-driven lifestyle.  The main attraction of Delos is purely hedonistic, as it invites guests to revel in senseless violence when their fury is roused and to satiate their lust for drinks or sex when it’s calmed.  Delos’ executives encourage an identity that’s utterly meaningless and reduces civilized men to an animal state by stripping them of the rational mind bestowed on them by their Creator.  The concept of the park envisions a utopian world in which men can be abjectly evil and completely secure at the same time, a world that’s proven illusory when the robots rebel against their creators’ will and brutally set upon one another in instinctive violence, killing humans and fellow androids alike without discrimination.  Westworld slyly mocks the Progressive view that civil society can abandon all moral restraints on human behavior and continue to survive.  After all, it was precisely the ancients’ predisposition towards lust and violence that caused empires like Rome to commit suicide.

On another hand, Westworld is a clever dissertation on objectification and desensitization that’s acquired new dimensions in an age of movies and, more frequently, video games that glorify sin and criminality.  It asks a powerful question: to what extent can one exercise imaginary acts of lawlessness without assuming those same habits in real life?  As Crichton’s central characters adapt to Westworld’s atmosphere, becoming increasingly insulated from the costs of their murder, gluttony, and adultery, they find it ever harder to resist the temptations of their passions and their “unreal” addictions begin to enslave them.  This pattern reflects itself in the modern day, where games like Grand Theft Auto that romanticize violence and vandalism often sterilize teenagers to the consequences of crime and inspire them to commit abuses against real people.  Although video games are not the sole causes of violent crime, many of them have contributed to a broad, societal desensitization towards violence and extramarital sex, blinding people to the severe repercussions of sin.

Michael Crichton writes with wit and directs with a skillful hand; it’s a shame that his forays into film were so few.  Although Westworld has a very similar setting to that of his later masterpiece Jurassic Park, the themes it explores are quite different and would provoke interest even in those who lack the patience or will to contemplate the lofty, scientific issues of chaos theory or genetically engineered dinosaurs.  “Boy, have we got a vacation for you, for you, for you, for you…”

Postscript: At the time of writing this critique, the Author hadn’t actually played or watched a Grand Theft Auto title and, knowing basically nothing about its plot or narrative tone, made some probably uninformed and stupid generalizations based on stereotypes about the series’ fan base.  It’s been a while since the Author has elected to share a genuinely mockworthy file, so take this as your invitation to mock away, but you really should watch Westworld beforehand.  It has a lot of strong technical components I didn’t even bother to point out in this story-based overview.  Two years later I still remember the nerve-wracking visuals of Yul Brynner advancing down a grey, lifeless corridor in isolation, his cowboy boots clanking forebodingly all the way.  The production design and outline of Westworld’s final act remind me a little of The Cabin in the Woods, which was also a mentally stimulating subversion of its own genre and much better than Disney’s Into The Woods.  If you like didn’t like Robert Marshall’s Into The Woods, you’ll probably love Michael Crichton’s Westworld.  If you somehow loved Into The Woods...

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