Westworld premieres Sunday, Oct. 2 at 9/8CT on HBO
What if — for a day or a week — the world was yours to control?
Someone giving you grief? Waste them without consequence. That lovely lady right there at the bar? Yours for the taking, no questions asked. The drinks flow freely, you win every game and nobody cares if you’re a workaday schlub fending off a midlife meltdown.
But what if you were the irritant, that pretty woman, another someone in your unfettered path? And what if, one day, you realized that your moment-by-moment existence is no more than a construct of other people’s whims?
And you? A game piece.
• RELATED: Evan Rachel Wood, Jonathan Nolan, Lisa Joy talk Westworld violence. “As a survivor of abuse and as a woman, I would never do a show or anything of that nature if I thought it was for exploitation or to be gratuitous,” says Wood.
Welcome to Westworld 2016. And if you’re a fan of Michael Crichton’s 1973 Yul Brynner-Richard Benjamin chiller about a futuristic theme park gone haywire, well, saddle up once more. Because The Dark Knight’s Jonathan Nolan, his wife Lisa Joy (Burn Notice), uber-producer J.J. Abrams and a jaw-dropper cast have teamed up to update Crichton’s story as a spellbinding HBO series that examines what might happen if the park’s robotic “hosts” figured out what their “life” is all about. But you don’t have to know the film to become addicted to this spine-tingler that’s part Western, part future-shock cautionary tale, and a master class in acting for its able cast.
In a rare series-television role, Sir Anthony Hopkins plays Dr. Robert Ford, creator of the past-meets-future Westworld, a cowboys-and-barmaids theme park populated by the eerily lifelike animatronic hosts and “newcomers” — folks who pay good money to spend time with them, having partially scripted adventures whose outcomes are theirs to determine. And subject to their moral codes, checked and unchecked.
“We started by trying to imagine how this place would work — what the culture of this place would be, which hosts would form the set of our story,” says Jonathan Nolan of expanding on Crichton’s themes. “Which of the Western tropes would we want to exploit and dig into more. We then wanted to look at the corporate culture of the company that would create and run this place. … At the center of it, we felt we needed a character who embodied some Faustian traits — somewhere in the intersection of Walt Disney and Dr. Frankenstein. That’s where Dr. Ford’s character came from.”
Nolan took the idea to Hopkins, who recognized Ford’s M.O. “I said, ‘I think this guy’s like Dr. Morbius in Forbidden Planet,’ and he said, ‘Yeah!’” Hopkins recalls. “Or Col. Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai — Alec Guinness — when he builds this bridge to show the Japanese how the British engineers are superior to them, but he’s building a bridge for the enemy. He’s a patriot, a British soldier, and toward the end, he realizes what he’s done. He just wanted to show the world what brilliant engineers they were, but he created a monster. I think that’s forwarded to the same idea — that Ford’s created this theme park and through human error, these robots are beginning to take over. What he begins to believe is ‘I don’t think it’s that good an idea what I’ve done, trying to re-create life.’”
True Blood’s Evan Rachel Wood costars as luminous Dolores Abernathy, a spirited young pioneer woman who, after 30 years of service, is also the oldest host in the park. Every day, Dolores sweeps down the staircase of her home on the plains, bids good morning to her pa and heads out to see what the day might hold. Maybe a rendezvous with handsome cowboy Teddy (James Marsden). Often something horrific, thanks to the newcomers and a mysterious “Man in Black” (chillingly played by Ed Harris), a Westworld veteran of undetermined intent.
Wood says she used futurist Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near as her “actor’s handbook” before stepping into Dolores’ synthetic skin. “It completely changed everything, because you have to ask yourself questions as an actor that you normally wouldn’t, and it’s all new territory,” says Wood. “Dolores is a character, but underneath that, she’s a highly intelligent, powerful being. In the span of 60 seconds she has to go from ‘character mode,’ which is Dolores Abernathy, to ‘computer analysis mode,’ which is actually her core — then sometimes halfway in between the two, because to question the host and to make sure that they’re not malfunctioning, they have to be at a halfway point of computer and character.
“We also had a thing on set called a ‘bot box’ and it was for any time you had a random question about being a robot,” she continues. “We would be doing a scene and we’d be like, ‘Hang on. I got a “bot thought.” Do I squint in the sun? Do I sweat? Do I breathe? How do I breathe? How do I cry?’ … And though they take the hosts away at the end of the night and wipe their memories clean, it’s still stored on a cellular level somewhere. If all of those memories were unlocked, what would that be like?”
“The conceit of this show is that the robots are the protagonists,” Joy explains. “We’re grounded in their reality when we come into the show and we meet Dolores and we feel what she feels — her love for her family, her love for her hometown and her complete unawareness that she’s, in fact, a robot living in a loop, repeating her actions at the whims and mercies of the guests’ desires. It allowed us to explore some really contemporary issues about what artificial intelligence looks like, what the roads of sentience would look like, what is this thing called sentience — and also, it allowed us to examine human behavior.
“It’s meant to make you think on a couple of levels about who you are and who we are as a people,” she continues. “What was very important for us was that we establish an emotional bond for the robots we call hosts, that we feel for their reality. In a way, that was extraordinarily easy to do, because in current society, it’s almost easy to feel like you yourself are a robot. Just like the hosts, every so often, you have to question, ‘Is this everything that I’m meant to be doing? Is this true to me?’ Though it’s an existential question for us, it’s an incredibly literal question for all of them.”
Well, it’s an existential question for most of us.
“If it makes people examine things, then it’s worked,” Hopkins smiles serenely. “But life isn’t all about self-examination. We are what we are. You can examine yourself, you can go to psychiatry — it’s not going to change anything that much. We are what we are. There’s no such thing as the self; that’s a construct of the ego.”
Just like Westworld.
Westworld airs Sundays at 9/8CT on HBO.