Ten years ago, Roger Ebert wrote of Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, “it’s quite a movie — atmospheric, obsessive, almost satanic” ultimately offering “nothing but a trick about a trick.” That this assessment was part of a positive review underscores how marvelously skilled Nolan and his brother/co-writer Jonathan had already become in writing tricky, enigmatic narratives that enchanted the viewer — as long as the viewer remained unconcerned with finding coherent stakes or thinking too deeply about moral implications.
In addition to The Prestige, Christopher and Jonathan co-wrote Memento and have also collaborated as writers on the Dark Knight films and Interstellar. One dramatic situation all of these films, as well as Christopher’s solo writing efforts like Inception, share, is the desire of an individual man to create a chimerical reality he will cast others into, whether or not those others ask to be part of it, and despite the certainty that they will be forced to suffer the consequences for participating in another man’s speculative construction.
This dramatic situation is the foundation of Westworld, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s HBO series based on Michael Crichton’s 1973 film Westworld. Whereas the 1973 film was a relatively contained cautionary tale about technological advances that were decades away from become a reality, the present Westworld is a comparatively limitless serial that engages with technological advances that are occurring in reality, unfolding side-by-side with the series. Nolan and Joy’s Westworld is the product of imagination but requires little imagination from an informed viewer attuned to actual advances in artificial intelligence.
Because HBO’s Westworld isn’t so fanciful in light of technological/ scientific breakthroughs, the series leans heavily on directly articulating the philosophical and moral dimensions of its premise, officially described by HBO as “a dark odyssey about the dawn of artificial consciousness and the evolution of sin.” As in the original Westworld, this “dark odyssey” unfolds in a Western-themed park where guests pay a lot of money to interact with android hosts whose narratives, designs, behaviors, and environments are controlled by the fictional Delos Corporation.
While the first few episodes of Westworld season one are captivating in setting up the circumstances of this constructed world and the many philosophical/ moral questions that it generates, the remaining installments of the ten-episode season succumb to an astoundingly contradictory theme that involves chiding viewers for living vicariously through the show’s fictional guests. This theme emerges through the series’ constant attention to the roles of writing and producing entertainment for public consumption.
Season one is called “The Maze”, which is an irresistible, perhaps too indicative, subtitle for a television series whose goal is to lure viewers deeper into a situation/question that they cannot escape from or whose promise of freedom requires dedicated focus. Either way, we end up watching all ten episodes. Episode one, “The Original” ,introduces enough big ideas for multiple series/mazes. A short list of these big ideas includes the existence of an unseen design or unseen forces that guide us, the potential for reveries to provoke capricious behavior, predestination, free will, false consciousness, class consciousness, and the function of mistakes within evolutionary processes. These aspects of “The Original” align Westworld with recent works from a variety of genres, from I Heart Huckabees (2004) to Inland Empire (2006) to Upstream Color (2013) and Orphan Black (2013).
But the other strand of “The Original”, which becomes the dominant plot of the series, is the creative work of the park’s narrative director, creative director, and programmers, among others. Westworld is highly self-reflexive, from episode one onward, because the many discussions and story events involving these characters bring to mind the work of writers and producers designing an entertainment television series. In their hands, the “content creator” character type so often utilized by the Nolan brothers is free to create chimerical reality, explain it to the viewer as they are creating it, alter it to sustain our investment, and criticize the park’s guests (who are the viewers’ surrogate) for our tastes in entertainment, from the “base” to the “baroque”.
The reality of Westworld is that the series exists to make money for HBO, Warner Bros., and other invested companies. The series’ design for making money is to offer violence and sex in a fantasy context, like a variation of the lucrative Game of Thrones. These attractions are what connect the guest of the Westworld park to the would-be viewer of the Westworld series. In episode two, “Chestnut”, guests converse about the park seducing its guests and in the process revealing who they really are. Season one eventually illustrates this premise as true.
The other truth, coinciding with the self-reflexive attention to the seductiveness and effects of “violent delights” on guests/ viewers, is one that defines the android hosts (whose function most resembles that of actors in scripted entertainment). Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins), the co-founder of Westworld, says in the 10th episode “The Bicameral Mind” that “the thing that [leads] the hosts to their awakening” is “suffering”. This theme of awakening through suffering is teased throughout the season, but its seeming substantiation in the final episode causes it to rise to the very top of the messages Westworld offers about the mechanisms of scripted entertainment.
The question this creates for critically thinking viewers is, what is the value of dramatizing android hosts awakening through suffering, if the cost of creating that drama is to put human actors in a non-stop series of sexual, violent, and sexually violent scenarios for viewers to consume as entertainment? Though Westworld regularly includes dialogue among the creative decision-makers at the park about public tastes for sex and violence, the series’ often gratuitous indulgence in those very things eclipses any critique or satirical point the writers might otherwise make. Twenty years ago, Michael Haneke’s stated hope for his didactic film Funny Games was that viewers would stop watching the film, thus proving the effectiveness of his critique of screen violence. It’s impossible to think HBO, Nolan, and Joy have that same motive in mind here.
The mere presence of violence and sex in Westworld is not the problem. No version of this story, within this setting, would make sense without including some measure of both. However, it’s the plot’s increasing reliance on abusing and torturing characters (mostly female) that becomes wildly disproportionate to the needs of the overall season arc. The show’s central theme involving the transcendent pathway offered by “suffering” is a dubious motivation for repeating scenarios of hosts being used and killed in graphic ways.
A related issue, which has become more acute in the weeks leading up to the Blu-ray release, is the creepy staging of scenes in which the naked hosts sit docile and powerless in front of their powerful makers, menders, and modifiers. These scenes are perhaps the most frequently occurring scenario of the season, and in nearly every instance they exist to make some sort of point about the hosts’ lack of agency within the system that is their prison. At present, as news breaks daily about the things actors have endured at the hands of powerful Hollywood producers, stars, and decision-makers, it’s impossible to watch Westworld and be entertained by tableaux of helpless performers made to sit still and accept the abuse.
The uncanny similarity of these scenes to the Hollywood harassment/abuse stories, up to and including the proposition that suffering can advance one’s career, reveals Westworld to be too content to reenact the mechanisms of systemic abuse. In this way, Westworld is much like the media hellscape dramatized in Olivier Assayas‘ Demonlover, a movie whose characters and stories Dennis Lim memorably described in 2003:
“Multinational capital and new media serve as all-purpose lubricants in this gleaming, borderless land of efficiency and profit, liquefying the distinctions between public and private, between virtual and real, to the extent that the predatory marketers of these lurid role-playing fantasies are ultimately indistinguishable from their products.”
The series is notable for the rich detail, the thoroughness of world-building, which results in the immersive structures and landscapes that house the plot, although the commentary about the creation can be wearying. Of all the Nolan films, Westworld owes the most to Inception, with its elevation of “pure creation”, troublingly stakes-free violence, and endless exposition often involving a maze.
This process of elucidating the world of the story continues on the Blu-ray release, which comes with a “Corporate Guidebook/Handbook for New Employees” ostensibly issued by the Delos Corporation. The booklet is the sort of product that frees viewers from the season’s increasingly prurient and nihilistic loops; a pamphlet providing new paths through the story, engaging a fuller portion of our cognition than that held by the first season’s “base durance and contagious prison”.