With Game of Thrones approaching the end of its lengthy run and other shows like The Newsroom and Vinyl ending abruptly after achieving less-than-stellar reviews, HBO is looking for the next big budget program to fill in the shoes of the George R.R. Martin-based series. It looks like they have found it with Westworld, inspired by the 1973 science fiction thriller film from the late novelist Michael Crichton. When one looks back on the original movie, which focuses on amusement park animatronics that malfunction and go on a rampage where they brutally murder guests, there really is not much in its premise that could warrant anything more than film remake.
Executive producer J.J. Abrams and show creator and co-showrunner Jonathan Nolan recognized this, and rather than simply stretching out the basic premise of the movie to fit a 10-episode season, they decided to expand the overall world of Crichton’s original story. The first noticeable difference is the slight location change. The 1973 movie had the titular park spread out across three distinct themed areas: Ancient Rome, Medieval Europe and the Wild West. This show jettisons the first two lands and focuses primarily on the faux Western town.
While it would have been nice to see how the Roman and Medieval worlds would look, especially with modern CGI technology at the producer’s disposal, the Western town looks amazing. The second major difference is the change in plot focus. The original Westworld was primarily a by-the-numbers sci-fi horror movie that focused on a vaguely characterized rich guest trying to outwit the malfunctioning animatronics. Other than a quick bit of exposition on how they work and how a computer virus made them turn against their programmers and guests, Crichton never fully dived into the complexities of artificial intelligence.
Nolan and co-showrunner Lisa Joy decided to make the robots, now called “hosts,” as the main focus of the series. Throughout the first episode, several of the hosts in the town start acting up and gained self-awareness. But rather than a park-wide computer virus causing the trouble, it stemmed from a software patch created by one of the park’s scientists, played by Jeffery Wright. Their newfound free will is summed up with one of the hosts giving the engineers a foreboding warning in the form of a quote from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
Real humans are relegated to either supporting roles in the park’s operations facilities, including a park owner played by Sir Anthony Hopkins with the air of a mad scientist, or as the aforementioned wealthy park guests. There is also a bit of a change in the story’s sense of morality. The original movie made it perfectly clear that the humans were good and the androids were evil. For Nolan and Joy’s interpretation, there is an element of sympathy given to the hosts. One of the ideals marketed toward visitors of Westworld was the ability to do anything humanly possible in the world without any repercussions or retaliation from the robots.
While the park offered a predetermined “heroic” storyline for guests to follow, most repeat customers decide to forgo the story and opt to raise chaos in the town. After each day, the android’s memories are wiped and the cycle restarts with every passing day. This element of social commentary toward the human mind and condition is not too far removed from the works of Nolan’s highly successful brother Christopher. In essence, the humans are now seen as the true villains of Westworld, always looking for ways to sink further into their own desires now that the element of consequence has been removed from the equation.
This is further supported by the reimagined Gunslinger, a mysterious man in black played by Ed Harris in a haunting performance. Originally portrayed as an android by Yul Brynner in the original movie, the show reimagines him as a human with a mysterious motivation, but still retaining the sadistic and cruel tendencies that made the original one of science fiction’s greatest villains. One of the major moments in the pilot episode involves one of the hosts, played by Evan Rachel Wood, being interrogated by the park’s scientists about how she was able to break her programming.
The plot line of the first season is gradually building up to this moment, kicking off with her gradually receiving clues from newcomers and her malfunctioning “father.” While the cold opening was enough to hook viewers in, the end of the pilot will definitely leave people wondering how her voyage of literal self discovery unfolds throughout the inaugural season, if not the whole show.