HBO's Westworld Has Androids That Go Rogue and Get (Gulp!) Memories

Aubry D'Arminio
westworld, hbo, fall preview, james marsden, evan rachael wood
HBO

When did people stop being afraid of computers? We used to be Terminator-level terrified that a cloud-based artificial superbrain would use our PCs to wage war against humanity. Now we take our iPhones to bed with us.

Westworld, based on Michael Crichton’s 1973 thriller about a futuristic amusement park where rich folk drop $1,000 a day to play High Noon with uncannily human-like robots, is poised to resurrect those old fears. In the original film, a system error turns the androids against the patrons—and the park’s main attraction, a dead-eyed sharpshooter called the Gunslinger (Yul Brynner) goes on a murder spree. It’s a grubby little flick made with just a fistful of dollars. (Fact: Brynner wore his costume from The Magnificent Seven.) But it hit a nerve, spawning a sequel (Futureworld) and a short-lived TV series (Beyond Westworld). Crichton later wrote that he never intended the film to be profound, yet it seemed to have a clear message: By perfecting artificial intelligence, we could be building our own killer.

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The series, created by Jonathan Nolan (Person of Interest) and wife Lisa Joy, with J.J. Abrams as an executive producer, is more complicated. Their Westworld is the handiwork of Walt Disney-like creative director Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) and his protégé Bernard (Jeffrey Wright). Their androids, called “hosts,” are so lifelike that they can catch (and feel) infections. They talk to each other even when humans are not around. And, when they die, they conveniently zip up their own body bags. Guests come to Westworld to live out their fantasies in hundreds of intertwined and constantly evolving “storylines” written by Ford’s sleazy head writer, Lee (Simon Quarterman). There are no limits and no laws. You can actually shoot the piano player. Go on, scalp the dealer! Bed a working girl!

“This is about the dark, transgressive behavior of human beings,” Nolan says. “The things they do when they’re told they’re in a place with no consequences.” And the series, unlike the film, shows these acts primarily from the point of view of the hosts, including rancher’s daughter Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), wry prostitute Maeve (Thandie Newton) and outlaw Hector (Rodrigo Santoro). They, too, are at the mercy of an ebony-clad, sadistic gunslinger (Ed Harris), but this time he’s human, and has frequent, deadly run-ins with a dreamy cowpoke, Teddy (James Marsden).

Then a mistake in an update causes some of the hosts to go off-script. They start having memories of the atrocities they’ve suffered at the hands of the guests. And they get angry, just as a real person would. As Bernard and Co. try to manage the glitch, two new guests arrive just in time for the meltdown: returning pleasure-seeker Logan (Ben Barnes) and his shocked soon-to-be brother-in-law William (Jimmi Simpson). “It’s off-putting and a little scary for William,” Simpson says. “Yes, he can indulge his id, but he won’t. Then again, the park is stronger than he is. If you’re in a war, I think at some point, you at least pick up a rock.”

Westworld

John P. Johnson/HBO

Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) and his protégé Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) with one of their very life-like western theme park androids.

There’s a reason most of us don’t go around questioning the nature of our reality. So you can imagine what the hosts are feeling. “The robots start off with no clutter in their minds. Just clear blue skies,” Newton says. “And then as the glitches occur, their psyches fracture. They become more human, not by getting smarter or cooler, but by becoming f---ed up.”

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And it will make you feel differently about how we treat technology. We create it. We marvel at it. And then we throw it in a drawer when it goes on the fritz. Though, in the series, the drawer is rather a dark, dank basement where scores of naked, decommissioned androids are stored. “We had about 200 defunct naked robots in deep-sleep mode played by a gang of nudists, some even professional nudists,” Wright says of filming those scenes. “It was pretty wild. Some were less capable of true sleep than others. One or two guys were, how should we say, excited to be on set and holding for a take or two!”

Westworld, Series Premiere, Sunday, October 2, 9/8c, HBO.