Science fiction has been riffing on artificial intelligence for a long, long time, but that hasn’t stopped the theme from being timely. We just keep marching toward a world of ever-smarter machines — or maybe, if you’re under the influence of HBO’s chilling and fascinating new drama “Westworld,” they keep marching toward us.
As we rely increasingly on our devices, stories about whether or not they can develop consciousness and free will, such as last year’s “Ex Machina,” still have the power to provoke and haunt. That’s partly why this series reboot of Michael Crichton’s 1973 film, premiering Sunday at 9 p.m., doesn’t feel dated. It’s a portrait of what our high-tech capabilities might be in the near future, if our interactive video games and our drones become even more sophisticated. Could we see a place like Westworld, a fully immersive Old West theme park for adults where humans mingle with — and sleep with and shoot at and order around — extremely lifelike machines?
What makes this “Westworld” much more than just a very cool glimpse of a twisted and, arguably, inevitable prospect is the way it also keeps its focus on humanity. The show, developed by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy and executive produced by J.J. Abrams, makes it clear that technological creations such as Westworld are extensions of human nature. The beautiful machines in Westworld are externalizations of our imaginations, just as novels and TV shows and movies are. When customers, known as “newcomers,” go into Westworld and begin “story lines” with the “hosts,” who are programmed to play out many, many different outcomes, they are acting out their deepest wishes and fears. Initially, each newcomer is given the choice of a white hat or a black hat, signaling the tenor of his or her fantasies.
Indeed, the people who program the story lines into the hosts — the puppeteers — are central to “Westworld,” just like the producers on “UnREAL,” who are essentially programming the reality show players.
These programmers are making the hosts in their own images, which we see when they conduct regular “maintenance sessions” on them. Anthony Hopkins is unruffled and brainy as the park’s creative director, who carries himself in a godlike fashion, and Jeffrey Wright is muted and rational as the “Head of Programming.” But they, along with an executive played with a sketchy American accent by Danish actress Sidse Babett Knudsen, are emotionally remote compared with the guests and the hosts, who are busy acting out in Westworld. At points, the world of the Westworld creatives, all metallic and insular and sterile, can be numbing for the viewer, but then the vibrant, beautifully shot, and more emotional scenes in the park help to compensate.
One of our lead characters in the park is Dolores, a host played masterfully by Evan Rachel Wood. The virginal Dolores wakes up every day on a farm and, “Groundhog Day”-like, says hello to her father and goes to town on errands. Each day, she returns to a violent situation, but the next day she begins again as if it all never happened. In town, she keeps seeing the chivalrous Teddy (James Marsden), with whom she appears to have a nascent romance. Strange things begin to occur to them, and to Dolores’s father, and to the saloon’s head prostitute, Maeve (Thandie Newton), which we can see are flashes of self-awareness. It’s as if self-awareness is infectious. Ironically, these hosts are the characters who kept me emotionally engaged at first, and I found it jarring when a human referred to one of them as “it,” or when a fly landed directly on a host’s eyeball. But yes, they are objects.
Throughout, Ed Harris appears in the park as a newcomer in black who is aggressively in pursuit of a deeper level of the game. He likes to play shoot ’em up, knowing that while he can “kill” hosts, they cannot kill him. He may be one of the bugs in the system.
Some have wondered if “Westworld,” which has been delayed a few times, is a disaster. Others are wondering if it could become HBO’s next “Game of Thrones.” No, it’s not a disaster by any measure, even if it might not be to your taste. And I want to say no, “Westworld” is much too complicated to hold the kind of mass appeal of “Game of Thrones” — but then, of course, “Game of Thrones” is even more complicated. So it is possible.
“Westworld” has fewer heroes than “Game of Thrones,” which makes it a bit harder to warm up to, but like a good, thought-provoking puzzle, it is compelling and addictive. The small bits of humor — “Black Hole Sun” on a saloon player piano, “Paint It, Black” on the soundtrack — help, too. For the foreseeable future, I’m in.
Starring: Evan Rachel Wood, Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, James Marsden, Thandie Newton, Jeffrey Wright, Sidse Babett Knudsen
On: HBO, Sunday at 9 p.m.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.