Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Westworld 1x01 "The Original" review


    In 1973, Michael Crichton created the concept of Westworld as an adult theme park which was an extrapolation of the idea of combining Disneyland with play-acting. While I may deride Michael Crichton for not believing in global warming among other eccentricities, I will never fault him as a futurist. His idea of a theme park predates the concept of tabletop roleplaying games, live action roleplaying games, modern video games, and the MMORPG.

    For those unfamiliar with the original Westworld, it's basically the story of two guys who buy tickets to experience life in a Wild West theme park where robots replace the actors you'd normally find. This opens the experience up to having sex with, killing, or otherwise engaging in all manner of mayhem with the machines. Eventually, some jackasses upload a computer virus (before such a thing actually existed in the wild) and the robots rise up to murder the guests.

Teddy and Dolores are two sickeningly sweet stock characters who exist to be murdered by the guests.
    This is not the story of the remake. The remake is notably a revisionist take where the robots are the stars of the show. Indeed, there's a fake out in the beginning of the movie which I hesitate to spoil. In the original film, the guests are playing the role of heroes to save the beautiful maiden and stop the bad guy. Instead, it turns out the guest, "The Man in Black" (played by Ed Harris), is here for the "bad guy" experience and murders the narrative's robotic hero before (offscreen) raping the character of Doroles (played by Evan Rachel Wood). Outside of Westworld, The Man in Black is apparently a normal family man but enjoys torturing the realistic robots enough that he has been coming to the park for thirty years.

    I'm a big defender of video game violence as immaterial to actual violence. It doesn't matter how many people you mow down with your car in Grand Theft Auto, it doesn't represent your ability or desire to mow down real people. However, dehumanization is one of the major sources of evil in society. Most people aren't innately evil but if you give them an excuse to why it is justified, nay even a good thing, to do something horrible then they gain the ability to do so.

The cast seems to know they're in a Michael Crichton novel so they're overprepared for Robot RevolutionTM.
    Westworld's robots are, at least at the start, not people but uncomfortably close and seem to actually feel what's being done to them on some level. There's also something seriously wrong with the Man in Black that he has that particular misogynist fantasy which he has used the park to indulge for decades.

    But it's not just Man in Black as the rest of the park goers generally take Westworld as a chance to go wild with no consequences. Again, I see no particular problem with as a heathly fantasy life is a perfectly valid thing even if I'd prefer to be the hero rather than the villain. I suspect this will be my greatest issue with Westworld as it requires you to sympathize with the machines and be repulsed by the behavior of the park goers.

Ed Harris is less a hardcore villain than an obsessive nerd who loves playing "Evil" in KOTOR.
    The metaphor becomes mixed as dehumanization is a thing which occurs all the time but you shouldn't confuse actual people with NPCs in Skyrim. Which is where the essential Fantastic Aesop of Westworld lies as the NPCs in what amounts to a live action MMORPG start to come alive with their latest patch and are horrified at their treatment over the past three decades.

    The first episode nicely subverts a lot of my expectations as when the first few "glitches" emerge, the park's security immediately clamps down on the robots and rolls them back. They're extremely conscious of guest safety and paranoid about accidents. Even so, the Westworld equivalent of Walt Disney, Mister Ford (Anthony Hopkins), is a more clever programmer than his staff. Hopkins plays Ford with a kind of barely concealed disgust for humanity and sympathy for his machines, who are the most advanced robots ever created but used as nothing more than sex toys and walking targets.

Despite a small role, I really like Thandie Newton's brothel madame.
    The rest of the staff have different opinions on the "Hosts" as their opinions range from repressed desire to barely concealed loathing. Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) particularly inetrested me as he's a programmer who reveres Ford's work but very clearly doesn't understand his mentor's dislike of the way A.I. are treated. They're the Disneyworld staff, so to speak, and a realistically drawn bunch of overworked corporate drones who seem to have seen Jurassic Park a few times even as they seem more cautious around their creations than they arguably should be. Corporate management also has plans for the Westworld androids which is presented as a mystery but I'm going to assume is selling them on the open market.

    The plight of the "Hosts" is the meat of the show with the heart of the first episode being Dolores' Sisyphus-like torment. While some have criticized the off-screen sexual violence against her, I actually think it was a necessary storytelling prop here. Dolores is, like the majority of the Hosts, a robot designed for sex with the guests or whatever other uses they find for her. She is programmed, however, with a boundless optimism and girl next door quality which makes her a Pollyanna-esque figure. Dolores, like the other park androids, has no memory of what happens to her every night but wakes up every day to loop through the same horrible experience which always ends with her parents murdered in a "scripted" event. Starting to remember that would break even Batman or Wolverine, I think.

I admit, I might be inclined to destroy humanity too if my carefully-made A.I. children were treated this way.
    The other Hosts have their own troublesome existences. The villains are programmed to be evil but they are also programmed to die in horrible ways so the guests feel good about killing them. Indeed, one of the malfunctioning robots is played by Grand Theft Auto 5's Trevor (Steven Ogg) in a bit of meta commentary. Teddy Flood (James Marsden) is the sickeningly sweet "good guy" of the narrative who exists solely so black hat players can murder him as well as fail to save Dolores from her most awful fate. Player freedom means that Teddy can be pulled from failing to rescue the woman he loves to serve as a companion for the guests who want to use him for other tasks, though, like exploring or sex. Albeit, it's implied the female guests of the park prefer the more exciting villains for this.

    Ultimately, Westworld is a much-much more complicated creature than the original movie. It's easy to guess HBO hopes to use it as a replacement for Game of Thrones but I'm not sure the concept has the legs to sustain itself for more than a few seasons. Eventually, the machines will either prove themselves sentient and be released or will be destroyed when they realize the animatronics at Disney World do not represent a valid army for Robot RevolutionTM.

The treatment of poor Dolores really verges into the bleakly comical by the end.
    If my description wasn't clear, Westworld is a decidedly grimdark Game of Thrones-inspired science fiction Western. In addition to the sexual assault to set up the fact the amusement park's guests are dicks, there's also causal nudity and violence. The Hosts are slaves even if their creators don't know it yet. The kind of causal horror and absurdity of the situation if you assume the Hosts are people makes it delightfully grim if you're a fan of science fiction horror like myself. 

    The acting is impressive all round and while I think the show is built around a fantastic aesop which has no real relevance to either dehumanization or gaming, that doesn't mean it's not entertaining. We're still quite a bit away from Mario and King Koopa coming after us for all the abuse we've put them through but that doesn't mean it's not fun to speculate on what it would be like if they did. That, however, means that I actually think of West World more as a hard R-rated Toy Story than any deep social commentary.

I always found "Your toys are secretly alive" to be a nightmarish premise.
    Despite this, I have to say I'm impressed by the acting, set designs, and writing. I may disagree with the overall premise but that's not to say I don't enjoy the argument. This is a show which will appeal to hardcore open world RPGers like myself and raise a lot of very interesting questions. Hell, I think Westworld would be a lot of fun to visit in real-life. Which is probably not what the developers were intending.

    Then again, I would also be revolted by some of the behavior there, just as I can't stomach the commentary by male gamers whenever the specter of feminist revision of female characters comes up. My ideal Westworld experience would probably be the family-friendly pan-handling section.

9/10

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