Friday, October 7, 2016


[While I don't discuss the plot in much detail, the following does casually spoil the pilot's twists as to who is/isn't a robut, so watch it first if that worries you]

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If HBO’s Westworld fails, it won’t be for lack of ambition, and certainly not talent.  The cast is stacked with patrician thespian-types like Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, and Jeffrey Wright on the human side, while the robut side features even more impressive work from lesser-knowns like Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, and Louis Herthum.  Even Thandie Newton and Rodgrigo Santoro seem cast perfectly to type for their by-design broader caricatures.  And the filmmaking and production values are as lush and polished as those of the park itself, the broadest of many meta aspects of a show that seems to be as much about media as artificial intelligence - whether the difficulties of crafting an HBO drama (see the handlers’ debates over the complexity of narrative and what it is the guests think they want from the experience vs what they actually crave), or our relationship with video games (see Harris’s Man In Black, who has resorted to using cheat codes to grind out his 100% rating, shot through with the sadistic boredom of the l33t), or a particular actor’s career (Teddy’s unending cycle of victimization as the apotheosis of Marsden’s uber-specific typecasting as the Nice Guy Who Loses The Girl).  

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2 days later, Marsden came home to find Elmo with a mouthful of Swedish Chef

But we can dig into those elements in future episodes, as the most striking choice the pilot makes is laying our sympathies immediately with the robuts.  Westworld is diving straight into the deep end of AI pool, which intrigues but concerns me.  Artificial intelligence is a fascinating and ever-more relevant topic, but AI narratives have to walk a very fine line.  The great ones (2001, Her, Ex Machina, the early seasons of Battlestar Galactica) pose intriguing questions about the nature of sentience and what defines a “person” while maintaining an essential otherness about this new form of intelligence.  While the weaker ones (Short Circuit, Chappie*, the later seasons of Battlestar Galactica) take it as given that there is essentially no difference between robuts and people, and/or get bogged down in their own mythological weeds about what it means to be a particular variety of fictional robut, rather than what that fictional robut’s relations with fictional humans can say about actual human nature. 

I’ll use BSG as the closest (formally and temporally) point of comparison for the pitfalls Westworld faces.   It also had a bunch of androids made to pass as human running around, which led to some interesting philosophical ponderings and intrigue plots in the early going, but eventually to much of the show being swallowed by the guessing game of trying to identify the next sleeper agent to be revealed.  The speculation has already begun about who in the control room is actually a Host, and I really hope that issue is put to bed quickly.  The pilot introduced enough intriguing elements and characters that I don’t think it needs to lean on the cheapest twist available.  BSG went too far down that rabbit hole, and what they found was a bunch of sci-fi gobbledegook with less and less tether to any recognizable human experience.

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[SPOILERS]  Who among us hasn't served a lifetime in the military, only to have the world end in a nuclear robut holocaust, only to be reunited with our presumed dead spouse, only to murder that spouse for their collaboration with the robut oppressors, only to find out that she has been reincarnated because you are both secret robut sleeper agents with implanted memories of being stupid drunks, to hide your past as brilliant research scientists that created secret robut sleeper agents in the first place?  And also there are angels.  [/SPOILERS]

The problem is, when you start to dig down into the question of “what makes us different than them?” in a work of fiction, that the answer veers inevitably toward “nothing much”.  I’d kind of love to see Werner Herzog’s version of Westworld, which concludes that the Hosts do not feel in at all the same way we do and using them as vessels to indulge our basest impulses is not so big a deal really, just because it would be so different.  But no (sane) creator is going to devote years of their life to a work of art that does not, ultimately, come down supporting increased empathy and understanding.  A one-shot movie can function as more of a cautionary tale, and end on a more ambivalent note.  But with a longform narrative, as the years go on the robut characters have to become more developed.  And as they are generally portrayed by human actors who have only a human toolset to try to make their motives comprehensible to a human audience, that generally means they become more and more indistinguishable from humans. 

Meanwhile, the conflicts between man and machine can’t help but take on shades of real world conflicts, making the whole thing more and more into a parable about prejudice.  As this happens, the subtext becomes so bold and potentially ugly that it starts to drive the text inexorably in the direction of humanizing the robuts. It becomes very hard, maybe impossible, for a show about robuts to stay a show about robuts as robuts, rather than robuts as stand-ins for an oppressed minority group. If such a narrative doesn’t conclude that Machine Lives Matter, that carries some very nasty implications for the real world, that no one (I hope) would condone.

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The return of Half-Assed Moralizin' has been brought to you by Papa Johns

What I would prefer to see is a show that doesn’t lose sight of the fact that it is the difference between artificial and human intelligence that drives the more interesting conflicts.  And simply dismissing those differences feels pat in the simplified solutions it provides to thorny questions.  Since we don’t have actual AI that we can fact-check their depictions against, we can’t exactly call bullshit when a writer decides their AI thinks and feels precisely like a human would, but doesn't that still feel like a pretty easy out to give yourself?  And I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be asked to feel empathy for robuts.  I’m saying it’s easy to ask us to feel empathy for robuts when every discernible difference between them and us has been hand-waved away. I am more impressed by a narrative that compels us to feel empathy in spite of such differences**.  

So what I hope to see from Westworld, besides some surprising deaths and beautiful people humping each other on/around scenic vistas, is a thoughtful but exciting examination of the interaction between intelligent robuts and humans, and the questions posed by the very existence of the former, that maintains fundamental differences between the two types of intelligence, without allowing those differences to manifest in subtextual endorsements of bigotry and racism.  No pressure.  The good news is that the first two episodes are as promising a start down that road as you could possibly hope for.  The bad news is it may be actually impossible to maintain that balance over a multi-season haul. 

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"That's when I realized, this show is here to lose."

I have rambled on a lot already, without really touching on the plot or characters.  So I’ll resort to the last refuge of the critical scoundrel, bullet points, for random observations and questions that occurred to me during the first two episodes:

  •  The pilot is chockfull of ominous foreshadowing, but one exchange that stood out was Dolores explaining the Judas steer that the rest of the herd follows to Teddy.  Once they are fully “woke” to the existential nightmare of their lives’ design, I wonder whether Dolores will be leading the uprising herself, or be more of a power-behind-the-throne type, with him as its figurehead (sort of the cowboy directing the steer directing the herd, so to speak).
  • There is so much of the park’s functionality that remains a question to me.  One of the most niggling is that they appear to have manufactured the wildlife as well as human hosts, from horses down to snakes. Why bother? I’d think PETA would be the least of the ethical detractors that would plague this place.  Wouldn't real animals be easier, and provide better immersion for the guests? 
  •  My biggest question on that front, however, is how the protections to keep the guests from being hurt work.  I’m not just talking about how the guns seem programmed to somehow trigger squibs embedded in the hosts (?) while impacting the guests like a little puff of air.  I mean where does the excitement in joining a posse to hunt down bandits come from, if the guests are all fully aware that the bandits can't possibly hurt them?  For as meaningless as “dying” in a video game is, that dynamic is still built in to represents at least a temporary setback; if there’s no possibility for failure, it's not even really a game.  It seems like for the video game metaphor to hold up, and for the adventures the park is selling to function as such, there would need to be a set number of “lives” or something that a guest could lose by messing up whatever sidequest they take on.  But there’s no indication of any sort of system like that in the first 2 episodes, so it seems like a game of Tetris I played on the train into the park would have higher stakes than any of Sizemore’s narratives once I’m inside.    
  • I hope they find continued use for Louis Herthum, he absolutely slays in the scene where Pa Abernathy threatens Hopkins with Shakespeare.
  • I’m loving the score, with the ragtime/orchestral redos of Soundgarden, Rolling Stones, and Radiohead tunes.  It’s kind of gimmicky, sure, but damn if that lush, pulsing version of “Paint It Black” didn’t give that saloon heist all kinds of kick. 
  • My favorite video game moment came during that heist, when Hector’s blonde sidekick shot the guy off his horse, then kept repeatedly, pointlessly, blasting his corpse as the horse drug it past.  That moment was straight out of GTA, where the target lock system leads you to frequently empty rounds into dead bodies in the middle a hectic firefight.
  • One question I had going in was why Westworld?   This may have seemed a more natural fit for the original movie, as 1973 was closer to the heyday of Westerns as a dominant form of entertainment.  But today Renaissance Faires seem to preferred as a form of historical cosplay, while the outright fantastical/sci-fi dominates the convention and digital circuits.  As the show went on and the park’s role as a live action version of a Grand Theft Auto sandbox game became more apparent, I wondered if the guests who come exclusively to rape and pillage wouldn’t get more of a transgressive thrill rampaging through a more contemporary setting.  But then it occurred to me that the setting is in part to encourage them to embrace the lawlessness, by placing them in a context defined by the relative scarcity of law and order.  It is the Wild West, and when in Romeworld…

-         I’m going to be traveling next Sunday/Monday, so while I intend to write up individual episodes starting with 3, timeliness may not be their strongest virtue.   Until then, back to sleep mode.

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*I haven’t seen Chappie, but no one seems to like it and the marketing seems to fit this category.  Also, it seems to have been named specifically to slot into snarky lists of dumb movies.

**Part of the lasting power of 2001 is how it forces you to feel empathy for HAL without altering its machine nature, or even villainous status.  But one of the better examples of walking this line I’ve seen was in, no joke, the Mass Effect video game series.  The way it develops your understanding and empathy for the geth from game to game, without ever giving in to fully anthropomorphizing Legion, impressed me greatly.

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant, as always. And my God, the Battlestar caption...