Monday, December 5, 2016

These Violent Delights, or Thoughts on Westworld Season 1

The most poignant moment in Blade Runner (1982) is when Rachel, a Replicant from the Tyrell Corporation (‘More Human Than Human”) attempts to prove her essential humanity with a photograph of a child that she insists is her.  She remembers the photograph, and piano lessons, but Dekker, the Blade Runner, tells her that those memories do not belong to her and she cannot trust her memory.  He goes on to suppose that her memories actually belong to Tyrell’s niece. 
I was reminded of that scene over and over as I watched Season 1 of HBO’s Westworld, one of the best new shows of 2016 and its intriguing explorations of consciousness, identity and memory.  A period western with horses and six guns, wrapped in a sci-fi thriller exploring the nature of artificial intelligence, the series has come a long way from the 1973 movie by Michael Crichton, which featured killer cowboy robots on a proto-Jurassic Park rampage.
The haunting opening credits are worth noticing; cyber skeletal hands on a piano keyboard, a moon over desert landscape of synthetic muscle in black and white.  The keyboard, even in color, will remain black and white.  That piano player is thematic; essentially a smart music box that was designed to entertain humans and mechanically reproduce the experience of a human playing the piano.  But what if the piano is able to find joy in the act of playing music?  And what if for some reason the piano refuses to play?  What happens next?  The genius of Westworld is how it’s possible to ask that question over and over, in a recursive loop that is just as tightly controlled as the Host’s lives, and keep their audience fascinated and entertained.
A photograph of William’s fiancé triggers Abernathy’s glitch, just as Maeve is fascinated by the moving pictures she sees of her dreams and memories built into a Delos ad.  As humans we use photographs as touchstones, our memory is unstable, and yet our consciousness is built on the sum of our memories.  A Host’s memory is photographic, they can recall events with digital accuracy, but their memories are wiped at the end of a guest’s visit, condemning them to their own personal Groundhog Day (1993) but without the benefit of their previous experiences.   Season One follows the literal awakenings of two hosts, Dolores and Maeve, the blonde virgin and the brunette whore, as they become self-aware and begin to chafe at their bonds.
I was far more fascinated with English actress Thandie Newton’s performance as Maeve “Darling,” the pragmatic survivalist in a black lace corset.  Her discovery of her drawings under the floorboards is heartbreaking, but her upgrades turn her into Neo from the Matrix (1999) as she develops the ability to control the park and rewrite her narrative as she lives it.  And much like Anthony Hopkins’ brilliant Robert Ford, she walks between the two worlds, Delos and the park, retaining her consciousness in both arenas. 
The multiple timelines echo the thematic maze for the audience, as does the obvious video game metaphors.  Interestingly video games measure progress in levels, but the park is horizontal; the further you go from Sweetwater, the more dangerous it gets and the greater the rewards.  But Delos is vertical; there are at least 85 sub-levels in the facility in addition to all those high speed elevators and Guggenheim-esque escalators.  There are literal levels in that facility, and each one of them has a story.
The sci-fi western is a clever way to get American audiences to fall in love with westerns all over again.  It’s a uniquely American genre, in the way that the samurai film belongs to Japan or Robin Hood will always be in Sherwood Forest.  There’s a richness and a history to it that we should appreciate more, and Westworld gets a modern audience to fall in love with the white hats and the black hats all over again.
You can call them Hosts, Cylons, Replicants, Tin Men, Pinnochio or Bride of Frankenstein; we’ve been pondering these questions of humanity and consciousness since the Prometheus myth and it remains a popular theme in TV and movies.  The singularity threat of machines achieving consciousness and the consequences have been explored in movies ranging from Ex Machina  (2015) to The Terminator (1984).
And speaking of The Terminator, was I the only one who thought of Skynet every time someone mentioned Arnold?  Was that a lateral tribute by the writers, a meta-reference that somehow got past all the focus groups?  How many Arnolds do you know?  Who is the first Arnold you think of when you hear that name, and what is his most famous role and catchphrase?  I’m not saying that Delos creates Skynet or the next generation of Hosts will be liquid chrome, I just think it’s a clever nod the overall genre.

my first novel?  thanks for asking:)  it’s a the first book in a 4-volume supernatural martial arts series chock full of killer kung-fu witches, haunted carnivals, punk rock assassins, and a 24-hour diner with the best pie in town…
read for free on kindle unlimited or buy the paperback, available at fine bookstores everywhere (amazon).