Reviews of Westworld (1973) and related work

Westworld (1973Moving picture, 88 minutes)

Michael Crichton (writer-director).

Robots at a LARP.

References here: The Ballad of Halo Jones (1984), The Terminator (1984), Story of Science Fiction (2018).

moving picture fiction

Westworld (2016Moving picture, 62 minutes)

Seen in 2017.

Season 1 only.

Elaborated upon from Chrichton’s original premise but, unrealistically, very little information is presented about the surrounding world. Realistically, the advanced technology of the setting permits similar, more private pleasures in VR, as indicated in episode 5.

The site is apparently so big that a steam train won’t cross it in a day. Customers are effectively invulnerable, yet are expected to enjoy fights as if they mattered. Likewise, customers are constantly being monitored, yet are expected to carry out sexual acts too cruel and unusual for human partners, in a workplace where blackmail seems quite common. The same customers are expected to feel fully immersed, yet are not asked to come up with or stick to any form of backstory, so they’re constantly breaking character. Storylines prepared within the park are no better or worse than a real LARP.

Despite futuristic 3D printing technology, the robots are apparently not replaced, just manually repaired by teams of technicians. One called Dolores has been in operation since before Westworld opened. She’s starting to learn, and even her Asimovian “prime directives” are stored in read-writeable memory.

The 10-hour movie type of post-TV TV series. Fine execution, but on the same egg shell of a premise: A series of intractable engineering problems with opportunity costs bigger than Ex Machina (2014). I was surprised at how little attention the writers—despite writing for a mass medium—seem to have paid to the pleasures that are most highly regarded and most popular in real developed economies, artificial scarcity aside. The level of fantasy at Westworld is limited to the happy hooker stereotype, a bizarre cannibal cult and the iconic Castle Valley backdrop. The Confederate army, though present, is reduced to an evil caricature that would be difficult for romantically inclined “Southern heritage” and racist customers to relate to. There doesn’t seem to be very much clean water etc. to make a customer’s life relaxing, nor does the aestheticization of Old West mythology approach Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). Even the ability to identify robots on sight with cognitive ease is curiously withheld.

I can imagine numerous scenarios with more commercial viability, including Äkta människor (2012) wherein androids are commercialized as servants, without Asimov’s or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’s sparsely populated extraterrestrial colonies to incentivize it. It is interesting in this regard that in episode 9, director Ford explains that Westworld extends human dominance over all other life: it exists because we conquered the planet and “ate” the Neanderthals. Designing a LARP around that idea, with non-human threats, would be much more interesting and indeed more viable than the domesticated Old West. This is why William is thrilled when the robots finally attack the shareholders’ meeting at the very end.

Crichton’s scenario of being trapped within the machine as the humans lose control over it is greatly refined and complemented by more advanced technology, with some of the implausible who’s-a-robot phenomenology of Battlestar Galactica (2003). It makes sense that Ford would resurrect Arnold as Bernard, but it doesn’t make sense that Bernard’s closest colleagues would be unaware of it, given that his backstory is as static as those at the LARP. The conception of the technology itself is surprisingly good: Although it’s full of dangerously vague voice interfaces for drama, and implies a conatus in Maeve, it doesn’t seem inherently teleological or otherwise fundamentally broken. I like the scene in episode 5 where Maeve sees a GUI representation of her prose generator as she speaks, even if the GUI is shamefully impractical.

I don’t like the BRP-style attribute system in episode 6. A couple of robot morticians creating a superbeing by raising its INT (or “bulk apperception”) from 14 to 20 is bad writing because there is no reason why Delos would build CPUs beyond the capacity for “14”, or make it a runtime parameter accessible with basic behavioral privileges. I also don’t like Hopkins’ supervillainy, though he is fun to watch. Logan’s hypocrisy is more lazily written; in episode 9 he accuses young William of having forgotten his fiancée after having brought the man to Westworld, and then forgets this grudge for the sake of allowing the plot to proceed. Charlotte, too, is an improbable villain, part of the underlying pattern of morally dualistic, white-hat-black-hat melodrama.

Falling in line with this pattern, Arnold “bootstrapped consciousness” in the robots by allowing them to “hear their programming” as an inner monologue, akin to imagined communion with the god of Abraham. Ford and Arnold, as dully archetypal great artists and engineers, are equated with gods. Hence the inclusion of Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, superficially subverted by Ford identifying the god in the painting as the brain. The “maze”, introduced as if it were the endgame, turns out to be a mysticist metaphor for the same bullshit theory of consciousness. The majority shareholder whose obsession is supposed to explain why the park is not economically credible learns this after stating in episode 5 that customers come to the LARP to find meaning because they have “every need taken care of” outside, except the need for purpose and meaning. This obsession with telos, very common in American SF, is the pit trap just barely avoided in the androids themselves.

Such religious dross makes the writing irrelevant to real-world problems around AI. The higher artistic ambitions of Westworld, by which I refer primarily to Dolores’s delusional struggle to understand herself across the multiple periods of the plot, are less entertaining than Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004).

References here: 12 Monkeys (2015), Story of Science Fiction (2018).

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