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‘Westworld:’ Boy, Have We Got a Vacation for You!

This editorial provides Fanbase Press readers with a retrospective to the original 1973 film Westworld, directed by Michael Crichton, and serves as a kickoff to an ongoing series of reviews discussing each episode of the HBO series, Westworld, premiering this Sunday evening, October 2. Reviews will post each subsequent Friday.


For $1,000 a day, adults can indulge in highly realistic situations in one of three Delos amusement parks: Roman World, Medieval World, and West World. All three worlds are inhabited by androids that are lifelike and have been programmed to fulfill a variety of roles in their respective worlds. Guests can live out their adventures, which include sexual encounters and fights to the android's death.

John Blane (James Brolin) is a returning guest, but his friend, Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin), is enthralled and curious about handling real guns and the androids he will encounter as a first-time visitor to the park. Their destination is West World, which represents the American Old West. All of the stereotypical offerings are available to the men: a hotel, a saloon, a bordello, a jail, and a gunslinger (Yul Brynner) who intimidates and instigates gunfights with the guests. Before entering the world, the men are provided appropriate western attire, a gun, and a holster. At one point, Martin asks his friend how he will know that he isn't shooting a guest. Blane explains the weapons are reliant on temperature sensors, so humans are not accidentally shot. Guests, however, can kill the androids with abandon.

Behind the scenes, the park's technicians observe that there has been a marked increase of “central” malfunctions among the androids in which they experience a total breakdown verses the anticipated “peripheral” malfunctions (minor operating incidences). One of the technicians describes the occurrences as a virus that is somehow spreading between the three geographically separate worlds. The Chief Supervisor (Alan Oppenheimer) reveals that the androids are highly complex, replicating humans so closely, that some of them have been designed by other computers. The team of senior technicians decide to close the park to any additional visitors, believing they can control the robots from the command center and ensure the remaining guests safety.

The robots begin to operate independent of their prescribed programming, and the technicians discover they cannot control them. They lock down each world. Meanwhile, Blane and Martin wake from a night of drinking, unaware that the amusement park has been shutdown or that the androids are malfunctioning. When the Gunslinger entices the men to a duel, Blane readily steps up to kill the robot. Unfortunately, Blane is mortally wounded; Martin realizes he must try to escape the park if he is going to survive.

Westworld (1973, Michael Crichton) is a science fiction western (most of the time is spent in West World) thriller film, which primarily explored the concept of technology running amok. Such themes were not new for Crichton who wrote Jurassic Park and The Lost World, among other science/technology novels that he wrote and that were adapted for the big screen. The most fascinating aspect of the film was the exploration of the “uncanny valley.” In an essay by Tokyo Institute of Technology robotics professor Masahiro Miro, “The Uncanny Valley” appeared in a 1970 issue of Energy, in which he explained that there is a point or valley in which an individual will react with revulsion when a human-like robot fails abruptly to attain [and I would add, maintain] a lifelike appearance. Interestingly, Miro's essay remained in obscurity until the concept was picked up in 2005 by the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society International Conference on Humanoid Robots, according to Miro in a 2012 interview with IEEE Spectrum writer Norri Kageki.  While it is unknown if Crichton was aware of the term at the time, Westworld does provide an applicable example of the concept.

In the film, the audience is presented with two opposing views regarding the androids. Interaction with the robots on a prior visit to West World has left Blane unworried by their presence. In contrast, Martin is hesitant around the androids and finds himself asking Blane if this or that person is a robot. Bored, Blane explains that the only way to tell they are robotic is by their hands, which he states the technicians have been unable to perfect. Martin's tension raised quickly with appearance of the Gunslinger, who intentionally knocks into Martin as he is about to gulp down his shot of whiskey. Blane encourages Martin to give into the Gunslinger's enticements for a duel and when he does, he doesn't hesitate to draw and shoot the Gunslinger, more than once. On impact, the Gunslinger is thrown back and realistic blood sprays from the bullet holes. He lies on the floor, dead.

Death was one step towards normalizing Martin's reaction to the androids as “human;” a sexual encounter sealed the deal. Later after the gunfight, Blane and Martin visit the bordello. (Trekkies will catch Majel Barrett as Miss Carrie.) There are two ladies of the evening nearby, and Martin again asks his friend if they are androids. Blane tells him they look real and that is good enough for him. In the next scene, Martin and the woman remove their clothes. Martin fumbles for his words but basically indicates that he hasn't engaged in a one-night stand. The woman says nothing in response. They have sex, and in an awkward sexual afterglow moment, she pauses and tells him “you're nice” before leaving him alone in the room. Later, Blane also basks, stating the “machines are servant to the man.” This subservient attitude about women robots is highlighted later in the film when an android called Daphne in the Medieval World refuses a guest's seduction and actually slaps his face. The technicians shut her down and while her body is examined in a science lab in the command center (She is on an exam table, her naked body is covered by a sheet.), one technician comments she is a “sex model” to which the other technician replies, “She sure is!”

After the technicians no longer have control over the androids in their respective worlds, Martin must flee from the Gunslinger who has become fixated on him. Because he is an enhanced model – probably one of the androids designed/created by other robots – Martin finds it extremely difficult to get away from the Gunslinger. At this point, Martin is trying to survive; there is unlikely any lingering revulsion, having been firmly replaced with the desire to survive. The methods to kill the robot, by acid to the face and fire to the body, could also kill a human.

In the same interview, Miro speculated: “The uncanny valley relates to various disciplines, including philosophy, psychology, and design, and that is why I think it has generated so much interest.” Extending the uncanny valley concept by flipping the point of view, what emerges is the idea of androids as sentient beings. It's an idea that has been explored cinematically in Blade Runner (1982, Ridley Scott), A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001, Steven Spielberg), the Alien Quadrilogy and Prometheus (2012, Ridley Scott), and the seminal silent film Metropolis (1927, Fritz Lang). In Westworld, audiences glimpse sentience in Daphne when she slaps the guest for his lecherous advances, the Black Knight who kills a guest in a duel for the Queen's affections, Martin's sexual partner when she tells him that he's nice, and the shackled woman in the dungeon who Martin rescues and gives water to in spite of her protestations, giving rise that perhaps she knew she would die if she drank the water. Even the Gunslinger displays sentient moments when he pauses and looks longingly at the fire in the castle's dining hall. Sentient thought is an absorbing idea and, with more pointed moments of it in the film, would have provided a more complex story. Fortunately, that may just happen with a new 13-episode television series starting this Sunday evening, October 2.

With the passing of 40+ years since Crichton's Westworld released in cinema houses, HBO will premiere their interpretation of the futuristic Westworld. At the official HBO site for the television series, it states, “Gratify Your Desires: What's real and what isn't? Find out what Westworld has to offer.” Like the original film, the new Westworld has not rules other than the expectation to engage in and satisfy one's every whim. And, based on the trailer, this series initially promises to address the concepts of uncanny valley and androids as sentient beings. It will be interesting to see how the subjects are handled by a revolving list of writers and directors, as they mediate advances in science and technology, especially in relation to robotics.

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