Bombogenesis is fun to say but not fun to experience! So I took a vacation to balmy Westworld. Was HBO’s remake of Westworld the best world? Drat, I really have to stop spoiling my reviews in their headlines. I’ll start by noting the music, production values, acting, & opening titles are fantastic now so I can concentrate on nitpicking. Perhaps I should’ve gone to Alton Towers for its Wicker Man roller coaster instead? At least its gift shop wouldn’t run out of Bort license plates. Hop on the very SPOILERY critique train below for my cold take!
First of all: How do the hosts’ bullets know not to injure humans? Do they contain some sort of nano-AI that can defy physics in mid-trajectory? Since they’re no easy way to tell hosts from visitors, what if visitors unwittingly shot each other? Could they harm each other? This really needed some kind of explanation early on so as not wreck disbelief suspension because this show’s credulity support is already plenty dubious.
After thirty years, park security is still buggy. Putting the hosts into sleep mode tends to be inefficient. Sometimes they need to be told complex code phrases when a simple on/off command would be so much better. Dr. Ford can control them psychically although it’s unknown if via a sophisticated mental implant or magic.
After each host is “killed,” park attendants have to retrieve & repair their bodies in time for their wake-up routines. Even with ultra-fast robot repair, this is a Herculean task. Why not invest in multiple versions of each host so as not to overtax the livestock department? That way there’s always a back-up available. Why not reassign roles to undamaged hosts more often? If only the repaired hosts get memory wiped, shouldn’t the others be startled to see townsfolk they saw gunned down be alive again the next day? If all hosts’ minds automatically reset daily, how do multi-day narratives work?
The Delos shareholders are going to force Dr. Ford to retire, but are worried he’d take all his data with him. So one of the park officials is tasked with using a host to beam out this data via satellite. Since Delos has been using Westworld as a diversion to develop valuable IP (I’m thinking robotics, medicine, mind control, bullets that know whom to kill) for thirty years, how do they not already have this information? What kind of multi-billion dollar corporation lets one man have exclusive access to work product for three decades? Why’d they wait until the last minute to get this crucial information? Since there’s tons of park employees, there’s got to be at least documentation for training purposes. This intra-corporate espionage felt like artificial drama to distract from other subplots.
You can get a non-robot prostitute dressed in Wild West garb for less than $40 grand a day, so it’s a good thing Westworld has more to offer. Taking inspiration from video games to fill the park with oodles of branching narratives was a great idea. It’s immediately undone by visitors being generally unaware of them. There’s no park orientation to make it more immersive, so guests don’t know the full range of options. They have to find them by accident or know somebody who’s done them already. With all the work that goes into these narratives, the show says most visitors still only hang out in Sweetwater for whoring & gunfights. All of Ford’s posturing about the importance of his narratives revealing who people want to be is hogwash. Never believe Anthony Hopkins & his ulterior motives! The narratives, including an expansive outlaw city, continually occurring even without guests present is a huge waste of park resources. It doesn’t look like it gets enough rich guests to even keep Sweetwater running.
We’re shown that guests have the option to rape Delores & murder her family. In the second episode, Delores breaks the cycle by killing her attackers. Because of how this was set-up, I initially thought Delores overcame her programming to slay a human. (She’d previously murdered a fly, unless it was a robo-fly?) Apparently she just shot another host because her victim narrative still repeats even when their aren’t guests interacting with it. What is the point of having robots victimize each other daily without paying customers to observe it? Not only does it drive the hosts mad, it makes extra work for the clean up crews. I know Arnold & Ford were fixated on pain creating authenticity in consciousness, but does any host need that much repetitious trauma?
There’s a bunch of character reveals that would be nifty if they weren’t tricks. Dolores being the original Wyatt was the one that landed best. So there was backstory as all along as to why Teddy felt too guilty to elope with her. (Even as a robot, James Marsden is typecast as being perpetually starcrossed.) For a modern series about lifelike robots, I’d be surprised if there weren’t any human characters that turned out be secretly robots. So Bernard being a robot based on the deceased Arnold wasn’t that shocking. What is shocking is that nobody at Delos noticed this, especially given the notoriety around Arnold’s demise. It’d be like Stan Lee suddenly having a new partner at Marvel Comics named Kirk Jackby. William becoming the Man In Black thirty years later makes sense, but placing the two timelines concurrently comes off as a distraction for Delores’s development. Why did the park let her go off with William & Logan if she wasn’t responding correctly to being gutshot? Why didn’t anyone collect her thirty years later when she wandered off by herself to solve the Maze?
Why is there a tattoo of the Maze on the inside of a host’s scalp? Is it on all all of them or just that specific one? At what point during the host creation detailed in the opening would scalp tattooing occur? If it’s just the one, how’d the Man In Black know of it? Why does he assume that solving the secret Maze sidequest will allow the hosts to harm him? Does this masked host count as its Minotaur? Dolores as Wyatt is arguably the better Minotaur, but she lacks the definitive bovine head.
It’s Dolores who solves the Maze because it’s a consciousness test encoded into her bicameral mind by the late Arnold. Because she remembered past lives & improvised, she realizes the Arnold commands were actually her own subconscious? The show insists that’s how sentience develops with no mention of affect. So either this coping mechanism to reconcile her conflicting programming was built-in or the cost of making Delores self-aware was giving her multiple personality disorder. (If her mind has been rewritten so many times, can this even be considered the original Delores?) Maybe it’s better hosts don’t become sapient if the only way is extreme psychological trauma?
Delores could be sentient, but she’s still led to kill the Delos shareholders by Ford. It’s unclear whether this was a final command by Ford or if he knew her well enough to manipulate her into this scenario. This massacre would feel like an autonomous choice if it wasn’t an echo of her initial murder of her fellow hosts while Arnold reprogrammed her to be Wyatt. So does it matter that Delores is sentient if she still ends up doing just what her creators want? It undermines her famously saying “I imagined a story where I didn’t have to be the damsel.” Is it really autonomy if she’s still governed by prior programming? I’m a fatalist & these explanations of sentience still feel like cop-outs.
I’ve enjoyed them in less heroic roles on True Blood, Hap & Leonard, & Black Mirror, but Even Rachel Wood’s & Jimmi Simpson’s protagonists were too bland. I much preferred Thandie Newton’s Maeve. I love how she gave herself all the upgrades, although I’m not sure why Felix & Sylvester succumbed to her blackmail. (Giving her a complete rebuild to remove the explosives in her spine, which seems unnecessary given the park’s medical sophistication, would’ve been the perfect opportunity to decommission her.) It was underwhelming that her desire to escape Westworld was programmed into her. She does demonstrate the most independence out of all the hosts by ignoring this directive to find her robot daughter from a past narrative. (Hosts worshiping park technicians as shades was also a nifty touch.)
Maeve recruits two nihilistic desperadoes to help her escape by just turning off their equivalents to Asimov’s Laws. If you’re running a theme park of armed robots, this should never be an option. It would’ve been interesting if she’d made them sentient & they decided they didn’t want to be violent lawbreakers anymore. Why couldn’t they build hosts that became grateful masochists once sapient instead of resentful sociopaths?
The hosts become self-aware when they hear the Shakespearean code phrase “These violent delights have violent ends.” I was expecting this to spread through the park but it’s limited to a small handful. It turns out it was implanted in them by Arnold & expanded upon by Ford. Robots being programmed to rebel is less thrilling than robots rebelling due to an unforeseen glitch. For all the psychobabble of the robots earning their sentience through the Maze, other hosts achieving it more readily makes Delores’s quest seem extraneous. If host consciousness is something human devised instead of spontaneously developing, it raises the question of whether their creators are objective enough to judge it as truly independent thought. The series keeps seesawing between the hosts genuinely being sapient & it being a ruse.
As far as Native American hosts go, there’s the Ghost Tribe. Based on what we see of the other amusements, it’s likely they exist for outdated Cowboys vs. Indians narratives. There’s a debate to be had about whether it’s more respectful to invent a fictional tribe or use real ones in such exploitation, but they’re barely in it. They don’t defy or confirm expectations because we meet no individuals. This was an opportunity to use the expanded run-time to explore controversial topics the original didn’t, but it does nothing with them. Ditto the finale’s Samurai World hosts that are blatant teases for season two. (Given the strict social stratification of feudal Japan, it seems like there’d be less narrative options if Delos is interested in even superficial historical accuracy.)
After nine episodes of build up, the finale is massively underwhelming. Westworld is famous as the movie where the robots kill the park guests. So after anticipating this moment, the episode cuts away just as the shareholder massacre begins. Plenty of host “deaths” were graphic yet we barely see any human gore, as if the series has a double standard. Previous park events were uncompelling due to safety protocols, so it really could’ve used a humdinger of a bloodbath as a reward for patience. It’s not even a glorious uprising since it was instigated by Ford, who’s responsible for most of the hosts’ torments. (There was no reason for the cold storage floor to exist aside from storing his lobotomized murder militia.) There’s no catharsis for the hosts being taken continuously brutalized by sadists. The shareholders we meet are framed villainously, so we don’t fear for their safety either.
Humans, Ex Machina, The Outer Limits, Battlestar Galactica, Blade Runner, I, Robot, & many more speculative fictions deal with artificial intelligence that become equivalent to human intelligence. A popular belief is if something thinks it’s alive it should be treated as if it were. This presents a problem for self-aware robots built for tasks that are extremely hazardous or amoral. How will the rights of artificial beings be protected when the rights of legitimutant humans often aren’t upheld? (Another school of thought believes that robots can only parrot consciousness so they should never be treated as equals.) If making self-aware robots do the jobs they were created for is considered slavery, is there a point to making them capable of sapience to begin with? Is a middle ground where sentient robots are gratified to be of service instead of rebelling possible?
The first Westworld has its plotholes too, but it’s much more concise. It’s a very trim movie with minimal exposition. It doesn’t have to tell you the mysterious computer virus made the robots sapient because their violent revenge showed it. Even if you think the rampaging robots were merely malfunctioning, it’s still a taut thriller. It’s the kind of accessible movie that’s a great launching point for debate. This version is much longer, talkier, & slower paced. Unfortunately I don’t think that makes it more insightful. Considering its length & dense dialogues, it feels like even less happened. Many robot rebellions resonate because of their slavery similarities. Instead of this being an exploration of self-determination, the remake feels as if the slaves are still compelled to obey the whims of their sadistic masters. Rather than being a morality play about technological Black Swans, this series becomes a protracted tale of two genius sabotaging their own fully functional creation. That could be intriguing, but it misses the point of the original.
Now that it’s taken an entire season just to get to the high point of the film, it’s possible the second season could be a huge improvement. I’m just not convinced it needed such a meandering preamble. So far it’s a story told with maximal convolution for minimal payoff.
Next week is the review of The Gifted season one’s finale. It comes with bonus Inhumans finale review too!