God makes man, man makes robot, robot kills man.
It’s a familiar trope and one that’s been used (and abused) since the dawn of science fiction, from Isaac Asimov to Blade Runner and Ex Machina.
What makes Westworld’s re-telling unique though, is perhaps the manner in which it explores not just questions regarding Artificial Intelligence (AI) and man’s desire to control (and enslave) everything around him but the violent nature of human beings.
“It’s a show about a place that people pay to go to experience violence, so there is a larger level of examination of why is it we’re interested in these things in the first place,” says co-creator Jonathan “Jonah” Nolan at a press junket in Los Angeles to promote the TV series’ second season.
“You know that quote from the first season, ‘These violent delights have violent ends’? We would love to take credit for it (but) it’s not ours. It’s William Shakespeare.
“So for at least 400 years, writers and artists have been asking this question: Is there something innate in us that is fascinated by violence?” explains Nolan, whose older brother is Dunkirk and Inception director Christopher Nolan.
Westworld, if you have yet to watch a single episode, is a set in a lawless wild west-themed park where rape and bloody murder, rather than rollercoaster rides, are the order of the day.
Like Disneyland, “guests” with fat wallets visit Westworld to escape the daily grind. But unlike Disneyland, you’re assured that no one will bat an eyelid if you were to pull out a .45 Colt and put a hole through the android “host” who runs the gift shop.
Of course, all this is before the robots, led by the beautiful rancher’s daughter Dolores, rise up and rain great vengeance and furious anger upon their former masters.
A Dame To Kill For
At the beginning of Season One, Dolores is painted as the quintessential damsel-in-distress. By the end of Episode 10, however, she’s seen standing over the body of park creator Robert Ford (played by Anthony Hopkins) and hacking down guest after guest.
The second season picks up from where the first left off, with Dolores leading the robot revolution. And that’s about all Evan Rachel Wood, the actress who plays her, is willing to say about that, despite a journalist joking that other interviewees had already let slip plot spoilers.
“If you’d been told all the spoilers, you guys would be on the balcony having a cigarette right now,” she laughs feigning mock distress.
“I had an existential crisis after Season Two, for sure,” she continues.
“It’s touching on things that I don’t think have ever quite been explored on a television show before that are very much based in reality, but in a reality that we aren’t really thinking about right now.”
Wood does also admit that filming this time was more physically demanding than previously.
“I feel like I’ve emotionally prepared for this role my whole life, but the physical side I have not, and that was definitely a challenge.
“I’ve never done anything close to being in any kind of army or war, because, you know, I’m a girl. I’ve never played a general or anything like that, but (Dolores has) very much taken up that spot as the leader and as the one rallying the troops, and formulating the plans, and, you know, shelling out orders.
“So that was new and it felt strange,” she says.
“Existential crisis” is a term bandied about a lot by the cast and crew.
Jeffrey Wright uses it to describe his character Bernard’s journey from man in control to android out of time.
“The second season for Bernard is an existential crisis in the midst of a social crisis. He’s kind of swimming in a lot of confusion and questions, trying to figure out where his loyalties lie,” says Wright of the park’s chief programmer who finds out late in the first season that he’s a replica of Ford’s deceased partner, Arnold.
The term is also used when Wood talks about AI and the series’ creators’ determination – thanks to input from the likes of SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk – to ensure that the science behind the idea is as accurate as possible.
“You hear little whispers about what’s going on, and it’s absolutely terrifying. But hopeful at the same time,” Wood says.
Lisa Joy, Westworld’s other creator and Nolan’s wife, concurs with Wood’s assessment.
“I think it’s one thing to be scared of AI. It’s another thing to also be scared of humans who are creating AI. And to be scared of human beings’ tendency in their hubris to not fully understand the thing they are creating,” she says.
Nolan also holds the same view, but draws a parallel to social media and its recent tumble from grace.
“You see over the last year, just in the reorientation of the way we think about such a medium, which was the darling of human interconnectivity and dialogue (just) three or four years ago.
“(But) over the last year we’ve come to realise it’s bulls***. It’s a fairy tale. It’s a platform like any other platform that is able to be exploited and manipulated, and is actively being manipulated right now.
“We don’t even understand how simple technologies like that work. The idea that we wouldn’t take a moment to consider the possibilities with AI. It’s the same companies running, chasing down AI,” he says.
Is Westworld as a series then totally bereft of optimism?
“I think that if you look underneath the surface there is an optimism,” Joy offers. “Thandie Newton’s character, Maeve, she has freedom. She has what she could selfishly desire for herself at her fingertips by the finale. And yet she returns to the park, propelled by something beyond the self.
“And there’s an undercurrent of a love story between Teddy (James Marsden’s Gary Cooper-esque cowboy) and Dolores that is just beginning to take off at the end of the series because they are finally allowed to be people.
“It’s a very optimistic show for a robot.”
New World Order
Neither Joy nor her husband, however, know how Westworld’s tale will eventually end.
“Lisa hasn’t told me yet,” Nolan says, with Joy adding that despite having mapped out most of the story, part of the fun for the creators is in seeing what the actors do with their characters.
The couple does, however, reveal that samurais will feature prominently in the new season as part of Shogun World, a feudal Japan theme park that was teased at the end of Season One.
Nolan says that like the 1973 film the TV series is based on, it made sense for the creators to introduce more parks to the show because simply from an amusement park business point of view, not every one may want to visit a western-themed park.
He also concedes that he is obsessed with Akira Kurosawa and the “interplay between Kurosawa’s films and the westerns that were made in homage”.
Nolan explains: “It is fascinating to me that you had filmmakers from different cultures taking the same tropes and the same characters and adapting them from the Edo period in Japan to the 19th century American frontier.
“Different weapons, different rule sets, different ideas, but a very similar take on character and story.”
Of course, given Season One’s countless twists and turns, and the prevailing air of secrecy around the upcoming season, it’s impossible to tell with any certainty where Westworld is headed this year.
But with katanas set to take the place of revolvers, we know one thing for sure – there will be blood. Pools of it!