If you’ve been hearing a lot about the 1973 film “Westworld” lately, HBO is the reason. The premium cable network is currently developing a pilot based on Michael Crichton’s tale of a theme park that’s met with disaster (perhaps an odd recurring theme for a writer, but it worked out well for him at least once), with J.J. Abrams producing and Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy Nolan writing what’s described as “a dark odyssey about the dawn of artificial consciousness and the future of sin.”
While Abrams’ batting average when it comes to television isn’t the best (rest in peace, “Almost Human”), after creating CBS’ “Person of Interest” and co-writing four of his brother Christopher’s films (including “The Dark Knight” and the upcoming “Interstellar”) Jonathan Nolan’s reputation is pretty solid.
But what’s really notable about “Westworld” at this stage is the cast. Casting notices, even for a high profile HBO series, wouldn’t normally capture our attention, except that this cast has gone from interesting to solid to bonkers amazing with each passing day: Anthony Hopkins, James Marsden, Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright, Thandie Newton, Miranda Otto, Rodrigo Santoro, Shannon Woodward and Ed Harris are currently set to star.
Even if the pilot has a “Game of Thrones”-esque body count, that’s still a group of actors ranging from television regulars (Santoro, Woodward) to the critically celebrated (Wright, Otto, Newton) to flat-out movie stars (Hopkins, Marsden, Harris). Even if they somehow don’t figure out how to pack even more talent into that cast (maybe by creating a for-real robot of Yul Brynner?), it’s still, easily, one of the most exciting casts HBO has assembled for a potential new series since “Luck.” But what are they signing up for? Looking back at the original film, the answer isn’t immediately obvious.
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The 1973 “Westworld” features a few big ideas, but not a ton of development behind them. The film starts with a strong premise — a magical vacation resort offers those willing to spend $1,000 a day the opportunity to party like the Romans, joust in medieval times or duel with gunslingers in the Wild West. We see all three worlds, but the one that takes up the most focus is (unsurprisingly) Westworld, where Peter (Richard Benjamin) and John (James Brolin) head to escape modern times and drink whiskey, shoot guns and bed prostitutes. “The vacation of the future — today!” an advertisement promises. “Nothing can go wrong.”
Things don’t get much more complicated than that — the film primarily examines the concept of a robot-controlled resort through the perspective of its clientele (though we do get brief glimpses of the scientists and technicians working behind the scenes). Eventually, as much sci-fi of the era does, the story boils down to an anti-technology stance, as the machines which make each vacation world possible start malfunctioning and killing real humans. The ending is strictly kill-or-be-killed, with the balance for nearly everyone involved leaning towards the latter.
What becomes fascinating, then, is how everything we’ve learned about the Nolans’ approach to the material indicates a much more evolved perspective: A good percentage of the HBO pilot’s cast — including Wood, Newton and Harris — are likely playing robots with varying degrees of self-awareness about their robotic states. Harris, as “The Man in Black,” is likely inheriting Brynner’s role as the mythical Gunslinger who’s constantly shot down by Westworld patrons, while Newton follows in Majel Barrett’s footsteps as the “town’s” local madame. Meanwhile, Wood is described as “a Western girl who discovers her entire life is an elaborately constructed lie” (probably because she’s a robot).
While the perspective might be evolved and the premise more sophisticated than just “technology gone awry,” one thing “Westworld” the film and the TV show will likely have in common is a certain sense of class issues — specifically when it comes to the robots being treated as disposable creatures — slaves, basically, to the humans visiting and working within these worlds.
The film barely establishes the creators of this amusement park (characters working behind the scenes are credited as Chief Supervisor and Technician). Their primary attribute is a certain arrogance in believing that they have complete mastery over these worlds (even though the technology is so sophisticated that “in some cases, they have been designed by other computers. We don’t know exactly how they work”).
In the Nolans’ version, the programmers behind Westworld have character names; their relationship with the robots also seems likely to have greater depth. When the robots rise up in “Westworld,” it’s the act of a mindless servant race; technology is what ends up murdering their overlords and the hedonistic vacationers, because the overlords took for granted their understanding of their creations. While a “Westworld” TV series will likely take on larger shades of grey, that same conflict seems likely to underscore events of the series.
It’s obvious to say that it might have been the cast that attracted our attention, but imagining where, exactly, the TV series might take what on the surface seems like a pretty basic idea proves to be pretty exciting. By stretching and developing that concept over multiple episodes, rather than packing it into one 90 minute movie, “Westworld” could be HBO’s next great series. And the cast might only be one reason.