Steven Soderbergh, asked about the collapsing boundaries between film and television earlier this year, said, “It’s all just stories to me. […] You can see something that somebody made for a streaming platform that has more cinema in it that the most successful movie in release right now.” Even if you don’t quite agree, it’s undeniable that Soderbergh has hardly been alone in moving from film to television, so in the spirit of his comment, this week’s column peeks over the fence at one such series: HBO’s Westworld, the creative product of Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan, the co-writer, with his brother Christopher, of five films. Mary McNamara describes the show’s set up at the Los Angeles Times:
Like the 1973 Michael Crichton film on which it is based, “Westworld” imagines a future in which artificial intelligence technology has reached such near-perfection that an alternative-world theme park populated by androids is possible. Wealthy visitors to Westworld pay handsomely to fully immerse themselves in an Old West experience. Shootouts, treasure hunts, bar fights and of course plenty of brothel action — I did mention HBO, right? — are all made available through an exquisitely orchestrated series of narratives acted out day after day by androids so real it can seem unsettling.
Westworld’s theme park plays the role of show-within-the-show, a clever way for the writers at HBO to, as recent Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Emily Nussbaum puts it at the New Yorker, make “an exploitation series about exploitation, full of naked bodies that are meant to make us think about nudity and violence that comments on violence.” She goes on:
“Westworld” is about what it means to take those generic plots and mold them into something modern: a prestige product that satisfies the taboo desires of a niche consumer base. Like HBO showrunners, Westworld’s designers “pitch” plot arcs. They “massage” story lines. They plant backstories to deepen characterizations. When glitches appear, they panic over the need to halt production, much as “Westworld” itself did, when it shut down during shooting for a rewrite. They are uneasy, at times, about the ethics of their labor. In real life, “Westworld” can’t just be good—it needs to be a hit, too. It’s HBO’s bid for a franchise to succeed “Game of Thrones,” following two pricey flops, “Vinyl” and “True Detective.” For both the show and the show inside the show, the key is to reproduce the alchemy that HBO perfected when it slid the Bada Bing into “The Sopranos”: to provide adult entertainment in both senses.
It might follow from this line of reasoning that Westworld’s self-reflexivity is essentially and merely cynical: a way for HBO to cloak exploitation not only in period and fantasy detail but also in intellectual posturing, giving us an easy way to rationalize away the guilty part of guilty pleasure. Yet granting the show the benefit of the doubt, it does seem possible that there’s something more subtle at play, as Laura Hudson remarks at Vulture:
At its best, the meta-textual layer of unreality in Westworld can shift how you think about the scenes that play out in the park, and perhaps how you think about entertainment that relies on sex and violence to gratify its audience. Here, the passionate romances, bloody shoot-outs, and tearful deaths are actively framed not just as fantasy but as artifice; they deliberately draw our attention to their seams, to the hands moving behind the scenes to script and sculpt each moment, even as they compel us to respond with genuine emotion.
Of course, the distance between artifice and “reality” has long been a way to shrug off fictional violence, so is Westworld really anything new on that score? Writing at the Los Angeles Review of Books, Aaron Bady argues that what sets the series apart is our increasingly dark vision of the future, in contrast to the optimistic futurism that was the context of Crichton’s original story:
The reassurance of Crichton’s Westworld was that fantasies would become real, even as we were scrupulously shielded from the reality that they actually might: if we could dream, it was because we knew our dreams would stay dreams, that we weren’t quite there yet. Techno-modernism has always been narratively anticipatory, reaching for the future and, in the same gesture, keeping it at arm’s length. By imagining into existence a not-yet space of forbidden possibility, the future stayed in its place, an enjoyable diversion for those who had the space and time to play. But it was a luxury, a diversion, a thought experiment. It wasn’t real; it didn’t mean anything.Today, I think, we have a different sense of the future’s reality, and the new Westworld expresses both the horrifying foreclosure of that cramped imaginative space and the weary realization that we already are what we want to be. We tend not to ask “what if?” any longer; our dreams are nightmares about what we have already become. Because the future has already happened, and we’re stuck with it, we can’t hold it at arm’s length, looking forward to what may be, but isn’t, yet. We know what it will be, because we have seen it: it is us. The audience are the villains, and reality is a function of their vicious desires. They/we are nihilistic sadists, whose rape and mayhem is experienced from the perspective of the victims, a population of innocent robots acting out their horrors for our amusement.
Dark as that sounds, it’s interesting that Bady characterizes the robots as innocent, because it’s ultimately their innocence that lets the villain off the hook: the androids neither know what’s coming, nor remember it tomorrow. If Westworld really wants to complicate our perception of the visitors’ behavior, it needs to make us care about the robots. Not coincidentally, that probably means making them remember, as Brian Tallerico writes at RogerEbert.com:
“Westworld” is an examination of what it means to be human, told mostly through the eyes of the non-human characters. The visitors to Westworld are often vile, horrendous people—the kind who would pay a year’s salary per day just to screw and kill without repercussion. It’s the hosts that engender our sympathy, the ones who aren’t even allowed to hold on to their own memories and their own emotions. We learn a lot about the programmers as well in subsequent episodes, including a tragedy in Lowe’s past and how Ford created this place. Only the humans can’t wipe away the horror and the grief the way the robots of Westworld get to every night. At its best, “Westworld” is a fascinating, philosophical study about the fact that it is memory—how it allows us to learn and grow and change—that makes us human.
This notion—that the series hinges on the importance of memory—might sound familiar to anyone aware that Jonathan Nolan’s first writing credit is for the short story on which (Christopher Nolan’s film) Memento is based. In his recap of Westworld’s first episode at the New York Times, Scott Tobias points out the similarity of the film to the series:
Told in reverse chronological order, “Memento” is a mystery about a man (Guy Pearce) who suffers from short-term memory loss, a condition so severe that he forgets everything that happened to him 15 minutes ago. His solution is to create a system of tattoos and Polaroid photographs to help him accumulate knowledge and exact revenge on the person who murdered his wife. But this system can be easily manipulated by those who don’t have his best interests in mind, and it opens him up to self-deception. In “Memento,” the Nolans arrive at a powerful conclusion about how the mind works, about the stories (and the lies) we tell ourselves to get through the day. Through the guise of a twisty thriller, they break one character down to the basic building blocks of how we construct our identity.
If, as seems likely, Westworld continues to interrogate the importance of memory, it could demonstrate that an episodic medium offers an even more natural fit for those themes than film—think of what Memento might have been like if each 15 minute cycle was a separate episode. That’s surely setting expectations high, but perhaps not out of reach, particularly with Nolan and Joy at the helm. If anything is certain, it’s that only time (and memory) will tell.
The Current Debate is a column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.