For the past few months I had a big ole’ platform to write about stuff like pop culture, entertainment and news. Since I no longer have that platform (along with quite a few of my former coworkers), I don’t have anywhere to talk about the debut of Westworld. Sure, I’d probably only sneak in a little fragment of a thought here and there, but it would still go somewhere. Westworld is one of those shows that had some hype behind it, trailer-after-trailer, interview-after-interview with the anticipation growing.
Westworld is based upon the ’73 Michael Crichton film that he both wrote and directed. Needless to say, while Crichton has a place in pop culture due to film adaptations of his novels, I’m not sure that Crichton should be considered one of the masters of science fiction by any stretch of the imagination. A topic like artificial intelligence is one that has been hashed and rehashed so many times that it’s increasingly rare for anything to actually be worth consuming.
Yeah, we get it, the stuff that we build rebels and is our sad reflection. Cool. These androids can also have internal struggles that mirror the struggles that certain groups of people go through. We’ve seen that, as well.
Even by ’70s standards I’m not sure that Westworld has the same level of depth that we’ve come to expect for such a topic. To wit, in 1968 Philip K. Dick published Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep which explored the concept of artificial intelligence, human empathy and our own existential grief. Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robots had existed for over twenty years at this point. What I’m trying to say is that it had already been done and done better prior, which isn’t a bad thing, just a fact.
The premiere episode of HBO’s Westworld was a 72-minute long slog through a muddled retread of a narrative concept, but with that HBO shine. Perhaps it’s simply how HBO shows are; they show promise, show slick production, big names are attached to the project, then the show flounders on its own until HBO decides to pull the plug. While I know some fans of Boardwalk Empire, that show was the perfect example of that HBO bloat, and recently Vinyl is probably an even better example of that.
It isn’t that Westworld is inherently bad — or not interesting — it’s that the very core of the concept feels dated. By now we’ve seen the Terminators rise up against humanity, we’ve seen Wall-E be the sad little robot on a destroyed planet, we’ve seen the Reapers wipe out humanity in cycles when humans get too advanced in AI and we’ve seen Replicants try to extend their lives.
In a case like this, the marketing and presentation only helps to make this show seem more important than it really can be. Recent films like Her and Ex Machina did a stellar job of taking a different approach to artificial intelligence, while still touching on those core chords of human fragility reflected in its need to play god and recreate itself. Westworld is presented as something important, like a television event, when it wasn’t.
I’m not entirely sure what purpose this episode had outside of making eyes roll. They established about a million characters, hinted at the park’s true nature earlier on before revealing all, made allusions to things about to go haywire and showed the evolution of a few of the characters within this animatronic world. But the worst sin is that it dragged on. We get it, Ed Harris is a bad, bad dude, but his character is borderline comical within the framing of this episode.
Anthony Hopkins is creepy and just wants his creations to be more and more real, Liz Lemon’s husband is actually a robot but he’s got those feeeeeeeels and his girlfriend — who was programmed to never harm a living thing — can hurt a fly now. It was as boldfaced of a plot point as there could be, with the sheriff malfunctioning earlier on in the episode because a fly landed on his cheek and he was unable to kill it, so he just twitched until the patrons took off.
The thing is, not everything needs to be new and exciting, conceptually. The film 28 Days Later took one of the most tired and trite genres in modern day entertainment that is the zombie film and owned it. The follow-up, 28 Weeks Later was the polar opposite and settled into the mundanity of the genre conventions, helping to drive what could have been a franchise into the toilet. Ex Machina touched on a lot of the conventions that come up with AI stuff, but focused so much on intimate, human emotions over blockbuster action that it felt fresh in the face of this convention.
A show like Westworld could embrace the pulp of being a western along with the retread sci-fi allure of rogue androids — and perhaps it will — but instead this first episode felt like they laid out a rather clear road map for where the show is headed and that it’ll just be another one of those shows that will get hyped early, only for viewers to lose interest after a while. All of it neatly packaged with big names in the credits, a few familiar faces on the screen, a whole lot of tits and even more blood and gore.