Tuesday, February 14, 2017

An Alternate Reality #15: Westworld (2016)

That an extension of Michael Crichton's cinematic classic, "Westworld" (see "An Alternate Reality #8: July '15) would enter HBO territory is baffling. Oh, it wouldn't have been at one time, when the premium channel was adorned by such stylish and diversified productions as "Deadwood"; "The Sopranos"; "Carnivale"; and let's not forget those gory, ghastly, anthology shows, "Tales from the Crypt" and "The Hitchhiker". 

Alas, in recent years, with the possible exception of "Game of Thrones", which let's face it, HBO tolerated but never granted the proper respect, the station has traveled a more or less politically correct (i.e., slanted) avenue. And please don't mistake nudity, cussing, fleeting violence, and out-of-touch, social banter as being politically incorrect (but that's a topic for another time). By HBO's recent standards, "Westworld", with its merciless gunfire and pro-religious attributes (speak of taboo!), is very much out of place among its programming. 

Nevertheless, the station's executives, for whatever enigmatic reason, have decided to revive Crichton's concept (purchasing a pilot and then after a curiously long stretch, approving additional episodes). Thanks to its primary producers, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy (abetted by J.J. Abrams, Jerry Weintraub and Bryan Burke), "Westworld" isn't a remake, but rather an extrapolation of the 1973 Crichton-written/directed, alternate-reality masterpiece and its sequel,"Futureworld" plus the short-lived series, "Beyond Westworld" (for all intents and purposes, a prequel to the later, though some would dispute that claim). Now, those young 'uns who've conjured the curiosity to watch the new series, but have been too lax to research its founding chapters, may state otherwise; still, anyone who knows the earlier installments will detect progressive links from old to new. 

In the new, there are several references to old Delos, the company that established the robotic amusement park, Westworld (and its Medieval and Roman counterparts), where a major "glitch" is confirmed as an integral part of the attraction's past. The storage areas reflect the old Delos repair stations, and there's a rekindling of accidental, autonomous evolution (a sense of growing cognition and independence) among the "hosts", which have been evidently evolving from the time of the original entries, with the first film's Frankenstein theme threading throughout. 

(Incidentally, according to Amazon's speculative, viewer liner notes, the original "Westworld" would have taken place in an alternate '83, ten years after the film's theatrical entrance, with "Futureworld", released in '76, occurring only a short time thereafter. I conjecture that "Beyond", therefore, would take place between these two movies, and based on the new series' dialogue, one could deduce that its particular events unfold roughly thirty years after the establishing trilogy, which would occur sometime within an alternate '16. Hey, it's certainly something to ponder...)

The new "Westworld" further matches the original by featuring a variety of tourists engaging in Old West exchanges (well, in the very least, scenarios in the style of what our movies and literature have detailed). We're even introduced to quasi counterparts to Richard Benjamin and James Brolin's characters in the guise of the conscientious, "white hat" William (Jimmi Simpson) and the scornful Logan (Ben Barnes), a man with evident stock in Delos. (For the record, the affluent and obnoxious Logan is a cruel substitute for Brolin's stand-up guy, though we learn that Logan isn't the only one with austere ties to the park, but to reveal any more on that would only taint the surprise.)

In addition to our duo, there are other significant characters, both human and robot. (Mind you, as the new story progresses, the designations blur.) We have Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), the charismatic and shrewd theme-park founder/manufacturer; Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babette Knudsen) the park's earnest operations manager; Teddy Flood (James "X-Men" Marsden), an affable automaton, who in addition to being deft with a pistol, seems to sense genuine love; Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood), the sweet, sensitive android he fancies; Maeve Millay (Thandi Newton), a madame host, who begins to question whether she's real or mechanical (and once her cognition sparks--watch out); Clementine Pennyfeather (Angela Sarafyan), a congenial prostitute who works for Maeve; Lawrence/El Lazo (Clifton Collins), a cool, but respectful, character-shifting desperado; Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman), the park's arrogant scriptwriter; and Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), head of the programming division, who sees worth in encoding his creations with reveries and recollection. Lowe also stands as Ford's right-hand man, a substitute for the honcho's defunct partner, Arnold: perhaps a reference to a particular actor who's portrayed a particular, artificial life form. 

There's, alas, no Yul Brynner Gunslinger (beyond a blurry, nearly indiscernible background image; too bad, since here's an instance where an uncanny-valley, CGI recreation would have proven acceptable). We do, however, meet an interesting human variation in Ed Harris' Man in Black. He's there to kill the mechanical population, but there's more to his shooting them down than meets the eye. He's on a mystical mission of sorts, likening Westworld to a game or maze, with an answer at its end, or rather at its heart. That answer can unravel (or so it's hoped) the meaning of the game or maybe for that matter, life itself. 

The robots seek such meaning, as well, which becomes more pronounced throughout their cognitive awakenings: Who made them and why in Heaven or Hell do they exist? The Man in Black asks this, too, but only does so through seething impatience and violence. As to why, is one of the series' big mysteries, revealed only at the end. 

While the Man in Black's inquisitive quest may seem selfishly and sadistically motivated, the androids' questioning of matters stems from a sincere need for self-preservation. The guests treat the poor hosts callously, with some "murdered" on a daily. They're also likely to lose part of their identity during their repair processes, but also gain, through some deep, intrinsic means, a platform for memories. Their sporadic recollections strike them as something akin to alien abductions: unpleasant, but enough so to spike their curiosity and after a time, make them crave total recall.  

Such cerebral components give "Westworld" a religious-allegorical texture, though this technique is nothing new to science fiction. (Did not "Star Trek'"s Nomad and V'Ger seek their makers and therefore, the meaning of life?) However, in "Westworld'"s context, the machines also question the worth of their creators (their "gods", if one will), and some ultimately determine them an inferior life form. From this, discussion emerges from both factions as to how the machines might turn the tables, but for the existing interlude, the replicants are content in snuffing out humans in various, off-the-cuff ways. Because of this, they come across as lofty, more calculating versions of the Gunslinger, some even growing colder and more callous as they advance, much like David McCallum's Gwyllm Griffiths in the "Outer Limits'" classic, "The Sixth Finger".

Unlike "Westworld '73", which becomes like Crichton's "Jurassic Park", an attack-of-the-tourist-attractions, the new edition adapts a pensive perspective. Like Phillip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?"/"Blade Runner", the machines of neo-Westworld not only question reality, but in their own peculiar ways, fight for their civil rights. They're imprints of Dick's Roy Batty and friends, and as a result, they continue to fascinate throughout the saga and therefore become its most absorbing feature. 

The machines are us in many ways, or at least those of us who've faced persecution, bigotry...violence. Similarly, the machines reflect those of us who've questioned our origins, perhaps having attended church or indulged in prayer to understand the mysterious hows and whys. Therefore, what the androids experience in their here-and-now is mirrored by what we experience in our own reality. It's impossible to shake this notion when watching the series. When the gamut of its intent drills into one's head, the effect can be as uplifting as it is unsettling. No matter how one cuts it, "Westworld" reminds us that we're not so unique in our behavioral and social desires, let alone our pursuits for purpose and plan. We're all more than mere machines. We just need the chance to prove it. 

If there's any drawback to the series (beyond its unsavory "sex" scenes), it's in its length. At ten episodes, the series is about two hours too long, with the last, two installments marked by heavy rehashing; ponderous gobbledygook; and an "explanation" regarding the saga's time-leaping framework that's far muddier than succinct. However, among today's television shows, this pretentious excess isn't too strong a fault, since most series (even the briefest) often exceed their comfort zones: case in point, the otherwise intriguing "Jessica Jones". 

In truth, the original film and its initial follow-ups supply the same information and depth, but in more compact and linear forms. The same can be said of Dick's famed fable (novel or film); "Ex Machina"; "Creation of the Humanoids"; Ray Bradbury's "I Sing the Body Electric"; Rod Serling's "The Lonely"; various portions of "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D'", "Star Trek: the Next Generation" and of course, any given segment of "Humans". Though these examples do their job through tighter and/or more coherent, long-term designs, they still make one yearn for more. In all fairness, in rendering Crichton's concept over a longer stretch, HBO's "Westworld" does a better job than one might expect, unlike "Beyond", which even at three, aired episodes seemed strained at best. 

Too bad the new "Westworld" failed to find a home on a more suitable network like A&E, AMC, F/X, or even a place of genesis on Amazon or Netflix, where its explorations may have been better secured. Still, HBO has agreed to renew the series, though the second season won't premiere until sometime in '18, if we're lucky at that: an outrageous eternity by television standards, and this comes on the heels of the series earning the network's highest ratings in years. Odd...

Will folks still tune in after such a prolonged hiatus, let alone recall the affluent ideas once placed before them? Will viewers get to visit other Delos worlds, as they did in the original films and if so, within what time frames? Will a CGI Brynner surface at some given point? Will the saga officially cross over into "Blade Runner", "Terminator" and/or "RoboCop" turf? Will it make ironic statements on whatever defines our own reality at the time it re-transmits? Guess we'll have to be patient, keep our fingers crossed and with hopes and dreams religiously aligned, see...

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