We want the robot. We love the robot. We fear the robot.
I have two robots already in my house; I call their names, Alexa and Siri, and I ask them for simple things—to check the weather, to check the time. Sometimes, I want more from them, but not too much more. That would be creepy. The robots in HBO’s Westworld—a remake from the 1973 original—are more advanced, but what they offer is base. Sex and violence set in a theme park in the future where they host humans who come to play cowboy and discover their inner selves through rape and murder. It’s a patriarchal wonderland and the robots most abused are women. No worry, though, they are all reset and wiped clean as if nothing ever happened to them, a perfect sadistic toy for the closet criminal.
Visually dazzling, with gorgeous set design, cinematography, and some of the best actors employed in Hollywood—Sir Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris and Jeffrey Wright and Thandie Newton and Rachel Evan Wood—the reboot of Westworld, which counts among its producers Jonathan Nolan and J.J. Abrams, is bloodless. While much real and fake blood spilled for the 11 episodes, the conceit of the characters being reset after every death meant that viewers re-watched murder and rape dozens of times, meant that bodies that looked like they were being killed meant nothing; after all, there were no consequences for any of these actions. Oh look, the pretty prostitute is dead again. Oh look, poor Dolores has been shot in the head again. Another scene, another day, they are restored. (The humans can’t be killed by the robots; they are programmed that way).
It meant that when characters were supposed to really die, we couldn’t care because it turned out they didn’t. Bernard Lowe (Wright's character) died a few times (and he died on screen as his human alter-ego, Arnold). It meant there were no emotional stakes. And I should care if goddamn Wright is being killed again and again, because he is great.
Nolan wrote the short story on which Memento, the film that made his brother, British director Christopher Nolan, famous, is based. His brother also likes clever conceits—Inception is built on layer upon layer of dreams within dreams. I felt nothing at the end of Inception because the ending could have been a dream, and who cares, really? Abrams’ Lost, too, slathered on mystery after mystery to disguise the fact that there was no there there, that the creators had no fucking idea what they were doing and were making shit up as they went along. (In the words of a friend, “It’s all poppycock!”) Lost aired during the early days of Internet fan message boards where fans (and by fans, I mean me) spent hours upon hours dissecting every Easter egg and trying to unravel the deeper meaning of the mystery of the island and the man in black.
There’s a man in black in Westworld, too; he is played by Ed Harris and readers long figured out the big twist (SPOILER ALERT, DUH, YOU’RE READING A REVIEW) that he's actually William, thirty odd years later, which brings me to another stupid Lost crutch borrowed by Westworld: fucking with time. Much of Lost’s central mystery was later pinned on time travel; here, Dolores’s “memories” are happening in different timelines and we are flashing back and forth between them but it wasn’t supposed to be immediately clear. However, this twist could be seen coming from 20 miles away, a slow moving train chugging along at 10 miles an hour. The big reveal was a big dud.
Like Lost, Westworld hinged on a central mystery: “What is the island?” That was never really answered (Thanks, I’d like those six years back). Westworld’s mystery, pursued by Dolores and the man in black, was the maze. Drawn in the sand, and on the scalps of the robots, the maze seemed to be really deep and meaningful, perhaps borrowing from Native American history. But the maze, it turned out, was just a metaphor for consciousness, a way to goad the robots to learn to think for themselves, to hear their own inner voice. Even the man in black was pissed.
The big denouement—Hopkins’ Dr. Ford being killed by Wood's Dolores, the unleashing of the robots' consciousness which brings real consequences—raised a few questions. Did Dolores kill him because she finally understood her own thoughts and that she now had free will? Or was she just programmed to think that? Did Ford program Maeve’s outbreak and rebellion or did Maeve (played by Newton) mastermind it herself? (Does it even matter?) Did the robot rebellion happen because Ford allowed it to happen or because they finally heard their inner voices?
None of this is to say that Westworld wasn’t immensely enjoyable. I watched it eagerly week to week. Unlike Black Mirror, which filled me with dread and unease, Westworld went down easily. Too easily.
I’ll watch when it returns in 2018. but by then, perhaps my own robots will be talking back to me about their own dreams. Hopefully, theirs won't include rape and violence.