What Does The Original Westworld Portend for HBO's Series Adaptation?
Which elements of the 43-year-old inspiration for HBO's upcoming series are worth revisiting?
I've been cautiously interested in HBO's series adaptation of Westworld for years now. The premise -- about an immersive amusement park where the humanoid robot characters develop consciousness -- is awfully delicious, and since the cast includes Anthony Hopkins, Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright, and Thandie Newton, one has to assume the acting won't be hackwork. Plus, J.J. Abrams is an executive producer, and he's been known to do well in the sci-fi/fantasy genre. (Maybe you've heard?)
But at the same time, I'm not kidding when I say I've been aware of this show for years. News of the project first arrived way back in 2013. After that, there were several cast changes, and last year's brouhaha about a (purportedly unofficial) casting notice that told actors they'd have to endure "genital to genital touching."
Why was this thing taking so long? And was it destined to be a joyless, needlessly explicit flesh-romp, like some hellish parody of HBO's worst programming habits?
Still, I remained interested. For one thing, I remembered my dad talking about the original 1973 movie, and even when I was a kid, the premise was exciting to me. Plus, the film was written and directed by Michael Crichton, who would later revisit the "humans lose control of a theme park" concept in Jurassic Park, so that storytelling pedigree couldn't be ignored.
When HBO announced that Westworld would premiere October 2, I was glad finally to learn where this train was gonna take me. To prepare myself, I sat down to watch the original film for the first time. I figured I should start with the original before judging the new recipe's flavor.
Unfortunately...the original is not tasty. Or even palatable. It is, in fact, a piece of crap. That's what I get for just accepting that some old movie is a "classic."
"But it was good for its tiiiiiime!" Nice try! I cannot accept that argument, since 2001: A Space Odyssey was released five years earlier. There's no excuse, in 1973, for a movie's storytelling to be so crappy. For one thing, in an 89-minute film, we're still getting exposition at minute 58. There are long, wordless scenes that show us how the robots get repaired in some kind of underground science lab, and how they get collected on a fancy garbage scow after a shoot-out in the the Wild West portion of the park. (There are also Medieval and Ancient Roman zones.) Stanley Kubrick had already used 2001 to explore the power of long, wordless passages in this type of film, but these passages do not approach that grandeur. They remind me of watching security camera footage on a slow night.
And all this exposition doesn't even explain the most basic things! Like: how are we supposed to believe that the guests at Westworld will never get hurt? Some half-assed line about guns having sensors so that they never shoot anyone with a warm body temperature is not gonna cut it. In the Wild West park, there are always people getting in fights and throwing chairs and shit. Are you seriously telling me no one's worried about a guest catching a beer mug in the kisser during a brawl at the saloon? Especially since they keep serving real liquor? If you put ten douchebag tourists blowing off steam in a room with twenty robots and a real jug of whiskey, then somebody's going to need stitches AT LEAST.
Then there's the fact that the machines are supposed to be "cold," and therefore able to get shot. But guys are always screwing the lady robots. Are the ladies cold? Are the guests screwing cold robot lady parts?
And speaking of the guests: who are they? Even the lead characters have few discernible traits. One of them is kind of dorky and apparently divorced. The other one is vaguely butch (and completely James Brolin. In that he is played by James Brolin). We don't even know why they're always together in the park. Did they know each other before? Did they meet on the flight over?
The robots who gain consciousness, meanwhile, immediately become murderous and evil with no warning. Why does the Yul Brynner robot kill instead of, say, plant flowers? Can we get even one little clue?
The only compliment I can give the film is that it occasionally lightens the mood with some goofy fun, like when a guest who's playing the sheriff can't get the door to the jailhouse open. I don't expect the HBO version to be funny in any capacity, which is tiring to consider.
Still, in light of the source, the trailer for the series looks like a damned masterpiece.
In just over two minutes, this trailer has more character beats than the entire original film. It seems like the robots have personalities, the creator of the park has a dark heart, and some of the guests have lives outside their vacation.
Having watched the original film, I now want to know if Abrams and company improved the sloppy narrative they were working from. I want to know if they explain the temperature of the androids' genitals. It's possible the show will still be dour and over-boobed, but I really don't see how it could be worse than what I just watched. I'm now more eager to see this show than ever before and ready to be convinced.