Michael Crichton must have had some miserable vacations. The author of Jurassic Park (amusement park, dinosaurs… it all goes wrong), Congo (jungle retreat, apes… it all goes wrong) and Westworld (cowboy theme park, robots… guess what happens) had a habit of finding the havoc in holidays.
Or, as one character in this year’s Westworld reboot puts it: “I think there may be something wrong with this world. Something hiding underneath.”
Suffice to say, the new Westworld may not be somewhere you’d choose to holiday, but watching other poor souls travel there? Well, that’s a different story. Or, at least, makers HBO and UAE distributors OSN hope so. They reckon that the Wild West theme park gone very wrong can become a regular destination for TV viewers everywhere – in much the same way as the company’s biggest hit to date, Game of Thrones.
Thrones, a TV show budgeted like a movie, where every episode is an event, just picked up its 38th Emmy win – the most for any scripted show ever. Not only an awards magnet but a ratings winner, it’s the culmination of a small screen shake-up that can be tied to HBO’s own slogan – It’s not TV, it’s HBO – where quality television like The Sopranos, The Wire and Six Feet Under took on, matched and in some cases exceeded the ambition, smarts and production values that had once been the bastion of cinema.
But now the end is nigh: it’s been announced that there are only two, shortened, seasons left for GoT. Naturally, HBO is looking for an heir apparent. A new show with enough drama, characters, backstory, spectacle and twists and turns to not only lure viewers in, but keep them engaged for years to come. In short, they want you to journey from Westeros to Westworld.
The DNA of Westworld can be found in stories going back to at least Frankenstein. The idea that man could create something but not control it has been fertile ground for storytellers ever since. And, from computers (2001: A Space Odyssey) to robots (The Terminator), a fear of technology has fuelled some particularly epic screen tales. Particularly of course for Crichton, whose Jurassic Park creatures continue to roam cinemas (four films and counting).
But before the dinosaurs there was Westworld. Crichton’s 1973 cult film (which he wrote and directed) introduced the idea of a hi-tech amusement park where you could live out your fantasies in realistic historical environments populated by robots programmed not to harm you. “I didn’t want my first film to be science fiction,” admitted Crichton later, “but that was the only way the studio would let me direct.”
The park included Medieval World, Roman World and of course Westworld, a cowboy simulation with Yul Brynner as a relentless robot gunfighter who seemingly hadn’t read the rules about not harming humans (and who looks remarkably similar to Brynner’s character in The Magnificent Seven…).
The film was a commercial success, making back around ten times its budget and inspiring a host of other filmmakers. Better yet, it felt like it had just scratched the surface of what potential screen adventures you could have in this environment. A sequel duly followed a few years later: Futureworld. This time, robots ruled the park (disguised as humans) and the central premise regarded identity. Or, as the poster put it: “Futureworld – Where you can’t tell the mortals from the machines… even when you look in the mirror!”
Although Brynner returned for Futureworld, Crichton did not. More pertinently, neither did audiences. The New York Times said the film was “about as exciting as a visit to the waterworks”. And yet still some industry execs believed there were more stories to tell from Westworld.
Hence, in 1980, Crichton returned with the TV series Beyond Westworld. This time an evil scientist was going to use the Westworld robots to take over the world. Could he be stopped in time? No-one knows, as the show was cancelled after five episodes, only three of which even made it to screens. But, a bit like a T-800, Westworld seemed un-killable. In 2007 reports emerged of a new film version, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger himself. Then Quentin Tarantino was offered the film. There was talk of Russell Crowe starring. Even as recently as 2011, Warner Bros. (which own the rights) was saying the film was still in development.
But by 2013 HBO (a corporate sibling of Warner) had entered the picture. In August it confirmed it was developing a new TV series of Westworld. The internet got excited. Very excited. Particularly after it was revealed that the show was to be produced by king of franchise resuscitation J. J. Abrams (Mission: Impossible, Star Trek, Star Wars).
Abrams had actually spoken to Crichton about revisiting the film some years before (Crichton died in 2008) but came to realise that, in an era where your phone talks to you, your watch can manage your fitness regime and immersive Virtual Reality is, erm, a reality, the best way to update the story was to invert it: to make its primary focus not the human guests who come to visit Westworld but the robots, or “Hosts”, that live there. Beings who look human but are not. Who possess Artificial Intelligence and therefore develop and evolve.
Having cracked the premise, Abrams approached Jonathan Nolan (Christopher’s brother and writer on many of his films, including Memento, The Dark Knight and Interstellar). Nolan also created the science fiction crime drama Person of Interest, a show that delved ever deeper into AI during its five seasons on air. Joining Nolan was his wife Lisa Joy, a TV writer for shows including Burn Notice and cult favourite Pushing Daisies.
It was time for the hard work to begin: Turning a ’70s-styled cult movie into an epic worldwide television phenomenon and a potential replacement for one of the most successful shows in TV history. No pressure there then.
“Nothing good is easy,” says Nolan, with a smile that’s maybe a little weary. We meet him in the summer of 2016, and the show’s first season is finally in the can. Shortly, it will air and the world will decide if it’s a success but, sitting beside his wife in a plush suite at the Four Seasons hotel in Los Angeles, Nolan seems calm. “HBO are holding themselves to a high standard. But they didn’t have to encourage us to be ambitious. We were ambitious from the beginning.”
“The show is questioning where life begins,” says Joy, confirming its lofty ideals to examine humanity, to ask if AI can be “human”. And, if so, what is the difference between being driven by biological impulses and zeroes and ones?
“In essence,” continues Joy, “what characterises the importance of life? In the original Westworld, Crichton was such a genius that he was able to imagine these far-flung events, but nowadays, it’s not really science-fiction; it’s science-fact. In Silicon Valley, they’re working on creating an AI machine. We have the benefit of having a little more insight into what that scientific process will look at. So our approach to the AI in this show was a little bit more nuanced. The original approached things from the humans’ perspective. But our show is an examination of human nature from within and, also, from without. We wanted to ground it in point of view of the Host. We wanted to make a connection with them so that they can be fully personified and fully realised.”
Or, as Nolan puts it: “Humans are the heroes in the original movie. We wondered, ‘What if we flipped it? What if we make the robots the good guys, and people are the ones who are horrible and screwed up?’”
A self-confessed “geek”, Nolan remembers the original Westworld vividly. “It terrified me when I was a kid, actually. But looking back on it, what I realise is that it’s the great granddaddy of a lot of sci-fi you see now. There’s a ton of its DNA in The Terminator, for example. But also, when the movie came out, in terms of video games, all you had was Pong. Westworld completely anticipates the idea of immersive experiences, of ‘sandbox’ games like Grand Theft Auto. In the 40 years since it came out, the gaming industry has grown up and evolved into this monster that’s bigger than the film business; bigger than the TV business. So although we call the visitors to Westworld ‘guests’, there is also a gaming aspect. It’s not just a leisurely resort. They’re here to engage in the narratives, and the narratives are increasingly sophisticated.”
Sophisticated, and star-studded. Like Game of Thrones, Westworld has assembled an impressive ensemble cast including Sir Anthony Hopkins, in his first series regular role (he has previously only appeared on TV in mini-series and one-off dramas). Hopkins plays Dr Robert Ford, the scientist who created the very first robotic Host and who is the architect of Westworld. He still takes an active role in the running of the park. But his motives are somewhat opaque (Hopkins displays a subtle world-weariness that gives the early episodes much of their gravitas). In the first episode, Ford’s latest update for the Hosts creates a glitch that allows them to draw on previously hidden memories (the Hosts get reused for different roles) with startling consequences.
The first Host we spend time with is Dolores, played by Evan Rachel Wood. Although she looks young, Dolores is the oldest Host in the park. Like all the Hosts, she doesn’t realise (and neither does the viewer at first) that she is a robot or that what she sees as “real life” is actually just a loop to be repeated for each new set of guests.
“For those of us playing the hosts, it was kind of like the Acting Olympics,” says Wood. “We’d be told, ‘I need you to have a panic attack, and then I need you to be in character, and then I need you to go into computer mode, and then I need you to breathe, and then I need you to be downloading…’ I mean, they just kept layering stuff. It’s science fiction, it’s a Western, it’s an existential drama and an intellectual nightmare. I’ve never really read or seen anything quite like this – including the movie.”
Dolores’ innocence is in stark contrast to the behaviour of many of the guests, who have come to indulge in acts that would be unacceptable in the real world. The show doesn’t pull its punches in showing what people get up to when they are told they can do what they like with no consequences. In one scene a tourist shoots a cowboy in the back of the head and yelps: “Now that’s what I call a vacation!” while another explains that on his first trip he brought his family, but on his second, he “came alone. Went straight evil. The best two weeks of my life.”
Although later on, when a character quotes Shakespeare – “These violent delights have violent ends” – it’s a fairly blunt signal to the audience: things will not go smoothly from here.
To reveal any more would be to spoil the surprises ahead, but rest assured, there are plenty of surprises. Jeffrey Wright, who plays Westworld’s AI programmer Bernard Lowe, tells us: “There would be a flurry of texts between cast members every time we got a new batch of pages: ‘Did you just read what I read?! What on Earth is happening here? What sort of hallucinogenic windows are we being asked to climb through?’”
Nolan and Joy insists there is a method to the madness, with story arcs drawn up and planned for years to come. “Unlike Game of Thrones, we didn’t have a series of novels to draw on,” admits Nolan. “So we used to joke that we had to write our novels first, then adapt them, then go shoot them.”
Rumour has it that five seasons-worth of stories have already been planned. So settle in and saddle up. This could be a long – and amazing – ride…
Westworld airs on OSN every Monday.