As we move toward an evermore automated society, a little reality check is in order. Westworld offers a glimpse into a future where robots are so life-like that they assume memories as their own and struggle to reconcile them, in the process crossing the artificial plane into consciousness.
This is a theme that has run through science fiction for decades. Probably the most famous novel along these lines is Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which served as the basis for the movie Blade Runner. Jonathon Nolan has taken a lot from Philip K. Dick, but Nolan pushes artificial intelligence to a whole new existential level, turning a popcorn movie from the 70s into a television series that pushes viewers to question the meaning of life.
One can argue that there is a lot of pretense here. After all, it is a western landscape peopled by androids that assume the roles of the Wild West. Nolan doesn't seem overly interested in the western genre. He offers us a few stereotypical scenes, but his androids appear to be driven by a ghost in the machine, impelling them to reach for more. The maze becomes the central theme of the narrative, as various androids and a lone guest (referred to as the man in black) go in search of it. At the center presumably lies the meaning to their existence.
This is very similar to Dick's novel, in which a bounty hunter in search of renegade androids is drug deeper into a corporate maze that ultimately leads him to question his own identity. Nolan chooses to use Western characters, as they represent the prototypes of our American mythos. Nolan's androids also come in various generations, although in this case it is the earlier models that hold the secrets to the maze.
Humans seem incidental to the action in this show, all except Ford (impeccably played by Anthony Hopkins) who lords over his creations like a god. To some degree, he has given his androids free will based on what he calls "reveries." These are simulated backstories around which their narratives are based. The better androids have been reused several times over the 30-year span of Westworld, so they have embedded past lives that they now find emerging as a result of these reveries. At first confusing, but then ultimately a tool to better establish their identities and learn to manipulate situations to their advantage. Again, very similar to Dick's novel. What makes this show particularly intriguing is the way the "hosts," as they are called, interact with their technicians and guests, blurring the line between artificial and real intelligence.
Ford opins at one point that there is no significant difference, other than one controls the other. As much as the hosts struggle to understand their roles and even rebel against their prescribed narratives, they are brought back in line with simple voice commands. It really comes down to how much leeway they are given in terms of emotional intelligence, and whether they can use their cunning or charm to their advantage.
As viewers, we are left to wonder just how fixed is our own genetic code? Are we as free spirited as we would like to think we are, or as Ford also noted, subject to the same repetitive loops with very little variation. Here, Nolan pushes into quasi-religious themes, which fortunately he chooses to keep at arm's length in the first season.
I won't give too much away because Nolan does a great job of drawing you into his story, creating a fair amount of suspense along the way. The first season is spread out over ten parts with the final installment coming this Sunday. Like his androids, it is an intricately plotted narrative, slowly revealing the back stories of the central characters, and setting the stage for what one hopes will be a long run. If there is any fault, it is that Nolan takes his premise too seriously. After all, it is ostensibly a Western and he could have had more fun with the genre.