***Note for reading: Westworld (italicized) refers to the film production as a whole while Westworld (not italicized) refers to the artificial wild western vacation world.
Westworld, the 2016 version released by HBO in early October, is loosely based off of a film that debuted in 1973 under the same name. Thus far, the contemporary version focuses on only one of the three vacation worlds presented in the original: the wild west. Guests, affluent human customers, pay inordinate amounts of money to participate as invincible agents in a world occupied by androids, called hosts, that are human to an almost indiscernible degree. Each android host, incapable of killing the guests, is programmed with a complex algorithm of reactionary narratives that determine their actions based upon the actions of the guests (actions which range from sexual encounters to heroic acts to murder). Ironically yet responsibly, in Westworld, the human guests are immortal and the android hosts are mortal. If a host dies, they are simply reprogrammed and return the next day to partake in a refreshed narrative.
A particular host, Peter Abernathy, is brought out of Westworld and into the human world for repairs. In the human world, the hosts listen to stark commands that make them seem much more robotic. One day, Peter Abernathy responds differently by quoting lines from Shakespeare, John Donne, and Gertrude Stein. Chillingly, he looks at one of the technicians and says, “hell is empty and the devils are all here.” These moments force us to question the morality and nature of both human beings and androids.
Westworld is an ambitious project steeped in contemporary and future socio-cultural concerns like the outer limits of video game technology, AI, dreams, morality, and deterministic theories. Westworld offers these to us via an artificial world emblematic of one long lost to the past; the wild west – Westworld. In a kind of omni-chronological way, we are confronted with our present socio-cultural concerns through a futuristic artificial representation of a more lawless moment in the past.
The prominence of technology in our daily lives has been steadily increasing. With the pervasiveness of social and digital media and the submersion of nearly all recreational, professional, and leisure activities at least toe-deep in technology (coffee-makers, cell phones, scoreboards) it is crucial to step back and recognize that this invasion is happening. In Westworld, humans use the most advanced technology available in order to fake a return to a time when digital technology did not exist. Using technology to escape technology is about as ironic as it gets. The escape from technology in Westworld into Westworld is nothing more than a sophisticated charade. Westworld is the functioning pinnacle of technological progress. Westworld is inhabited by androids after all.
We are experts in escapism today because of advanced technology. If the natural world does not suit us, we burrow ourselves deep into the technological worlds of Facebook, Reddit, and other forms of Media. From scrolling our social media sites with earbuds in on the subway to the burgeoning exploration of virtual reality video game technology, we can already take vacations from what is happening around us with the tap of a finger. We already have the phrase “digital detox” in our contemporary vernacular. I fear we take more breaks from reality than we do technology. Westworld raises the stakes of vacationing from reality just slightly. We already visually, emotionally, and intellectually occupy other worlds with technology, Westworld merely supplies the physical escape.
When one watches Westworld, one becomes obsessed with the Westworld that the project is focused upon. This spotlights and exposes our attachment to the technological and virtual. We become so caught up with what is happening within Westworld that we often forget about the framing of Westworld as a show depicting both the virtual and human realms. The virtual Westworld swiftly becomes so compelling that viewers feel a jolt when a scene ends and fades in on the human world. The human world in Westworld is about a group of scientists desperately trying to contain all that is happening inside Westworld. We forget the real world where the scientists and paying customers exists. How often do we miss important moments in the real world around us because we have our attention fixed on our phone, computer, or television? Have you ever gotten so caught up in Facebook or Twitter that you missed a subway stop? Sat too long at a green traffic light? When an episode of Westworld ends, we are jolted a second time. Even Westworld’s human realm was a facade. We were merely watching an HBO virtual presentation of a fictional real world that struggles to contain another fictive virtual world. Westworld is doubly fictive. We pass judgement on the actions of those wealthy humans who escape to Westworld in order to live out their pleasurable or murderous fantasies, yet we are the vicarious scoptophiliacs! We just spent an hour deriving pleasure watching this enamoring double fiction. Westworld is constantly turning the looking glass back upon us, the viewer, by forcing us to consider the nature of two fake realities masquerading as realistic as our own. It makes one wonder whether something more deterministic isn’t occurring inside our own. . .
As a closing thought, this link to the 7 minute film “Evidence” by Reggio ft. music by Philip Glass will likely make you a bit squeamish about what television can do to us. (it’s not gross, just a 7 minute film of children watching television that is quite revelatory)