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May/June 2017
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by David J. Skal

Western Histories

WHEN searching for science fiction-apropos quotations, you can't do much better than "The future isn't what it used to be." Whether it was coined by Robert Graves, Laura Riding, or Paul Valéry (all of whom all lent their names to published variations), or even, possibly, Yogi Berra (who at least once claimed it for his own), whatever its provenance or exact original iteration, the sentiment immediately came to mind when I recently revisited Michael Crichton's 1973 debut film Westworld.

I tracked down a bargain-bin DVD of the old film in preparation for viewing HBO's ten-part, $100 million reboot of Crichton's story wherein theme park androids turn against tourists who previously were able to kill and/or ravish them with impunity. The film hasn't aged well, perhaps because its central conceit is completely unmotivated. Basically, the artificial people start killing real people because Crichton wants them to. It's a Frankenstein story marred by the total absence of the moral lessons delineated by Mary Shelley. The most memorable element of the film is the figure of Yul Brynner as a black-clad robot gunslinger relentlessly stalking his tourist prey. Brynner was already an icon before making the picture, and his casting was a coup. A late career success for the actor, the role was reprised by him in 1978's Futureworld, and remains an important pop culture precursor of Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator.

Westworld, of course, was only a finger exercise for Crichton's biggest theme-park-themed franchise, Jurassic Park, and I've often wondered if a robotic dinosaur attraction might not have been part of the original Westworld complex, which included a fully functional Medievalworld as well as a Romanworld. If so, it was a smart move for Crichton not to throw away such a high concept on a middling movie when he would later have the chance, with a small assist from Stephen Spielberg, to change the landscape of popular culture forever.

Although a theatrical feature, the 1973 film today looks a great deal like network television of the same period, with cheap repurposed sets and underwhelming effects. Nonetheless, it somehow earned both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best dramatic presentation (it must have been a slow year). The buddy-picture leads, Richard Benjamin and James Brolin, do everything but turn and wink at the camera. They don't have to. The whole movie is winking. To be honest, the entire thing now comes across like an attenuated, jokey TV skit.

But television today isn't what it used to be, either—especially when premium cable and internet originals are giving cineplexes real competition in content and quality. HBO's new incarnation of Westworld is less a retelling than a reinvention, and it goes to places uncharted in its own creation vehicle. In the beginning Crichton never gave a hoot about the inner life of robots, any more than he later worried about the emotional well-being of cloned dinosaurs. The concept was rudimentary: What if the animatronic figures at Disneyland could provide sex at something better than an inflatable doll level, and then, for more excitement, also run murderously amok?

There's nothing new about robots realizing they are robots, but the latest Westworld suggests that a kind of PTSD has taken its toll on the androids—or "hosts"—and that accumulated years of daily rape and murder have given the hosts a wakeup call, their consciousness literally raised and their contempt for their abusers unleashed. The female hosts are more susceptible to radicalization, possibly because their male counterparts don't get raped; they're merely patched up and returned to service. Evan Rachel Wood plays an android playing the role of a rancher's daughter named Dolores, whom the park's creative director John Ford (Anthony Hopkins) modifies perversely and surreptitiously in the direction of expanded awareness. Hopkins is a fine actor, and always interesting to watch, but here, I'm afraid, he tends to put on a glazed expression and just phones in the rest. The actor admitted to the Los Angeles Times that he didn't have time to completely read the scripts and never fully understood the storyline, and you can easily reach that conclusion without looking up the interview.

Ed Harris plays the evil new Man in Black, but unlike Yul Brynner, he's human, a wealthy executive obsessed with sadistic role playing, and especially fixated on Dolores. James Marsden and Jeffrey Wright appear as Dolores's synthetic, good-guy gunslinger boyfriend and Ford's right-hand man in god playing, respectively. But the standout performance, duly acknowledged with a Golden Globe nomination, is Thandie Newton as Maeve, the put-together proprietress of a saloon/brothel. (For the parallel role in the original, Star Trek royalty Majel Barrett had almost nothing to do—except perhaps wordlessly to indicate that even as a robot, she knew things Miss Kitty on Gunsmoke never told you). There are a couple of game-changing reveals involving major characters that I'll let you discover for yourself. But you may want to pay close attention on several occasions when there seems to be a continuity glitch, and you're not sure what's what, who's who, or when's when. It might not be a glitch.

At ten hours, the first season is entirely too long and might have worked better at half the length. It feels padded, which only allows extra time to ponder aspects of the story the producers would probably prefer you didn't. Since basic exposition is unnecessarily delayed until the second episode, you start wondering about things. What kind of world are the tourists escaping from, in search of so much simulated sex and violence? And how is all of this paid for? As presented, and taking into account all the necessary technical developments, Westworld would easily price out at the cost of several moonshots, or maybe a worldwide bank bailout. Is this a business plan that makes any sense? Or are the guests simply bored one-percenters with no compunctions about frittering away capital? And finally, isn't the whole wild west obsession largely a midcentury, boomer-centric phenomenon? Wouldn't a live simulacrum of Grand Theft Auto or a zombie apocalypse park make a far better investment? Or how about a good mutual fund?


*   *   *


Last year, when I reviewed the first season of Frank Spotnitz's ambitious adaptation of Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle (Amazon Studios, streaming), there weren't alt-right activists in Washington D.C. giving Nazi salutes to Donald Trump. This year, I'm sorry to say, there were. Unless you've been living in an alternate universe yourself, you may already have taken note that Dick's parallel reality tale in which Germany won World War II has found an almost daily resonance with media reports and analysis of the disturbing drift toward strongman rule in the United States and Europe.

The second season of The Man, while clocking in the same ten episodes as Westworld, never feels slack, and delivers tighter and more coherent storytelling. Creator and show runner Frank Spotnitz maintains steadier control over a smaller stable of writers and directors than Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy over at HBO. Where the new Westworld leaves Crichton's original vision obscured in the stampede dust of a shiny new agenda, The Man continues to respect and deepen the theme and tone of Dick's source material. The most surprising turn is the unexpected reaction of Nazi commander John Smith (Rufus Sewell) to the demand that he euthanize his teenage son, the victim of an incurable genetic disease. The result is a Hitchcockian state of things where the audience is dragooned into identifying with someone it knows it shouldn't like. Smith's response (which I won't describe in detail) sets up a number of possible showdowns for the now-confirmed season three. I have no inside information, but my dramatic instincts tell me to keep an eye on Mrs. Smith (Chelah Horsdal), so far a beleaguered and sympathetic American Nazi socialite, to see how devoted she remains to her own son if her husband continues to fall inexorably on the wrong side of the Reich.

As for the parts of the story that still have a grounding in Dick's narrative, the substitution of an actual alternate universe portal (through which people and newsreel footage can be physically transported) for Dick's parallel-world novel-within-a-novel still works, even if the mechanics are still murky. The acting is still top-drawer. Alexa Davalos deploys striking screen charisma as the resistance fighter Juliana Crain, and I repeat my belief that there's a major star turn in her near future, perhaps even before The Man completes its life cycle. What could be more appropriate than its leading lady simultaneously inhabiting more than one dramatic dimension? As her diametrically different love interests, Rupert Evans and Luke Kleintank remain intense and believable, and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa excels as the Japanese trade minister who temporarily avoids the threat of a Nazi atomic bomb by worm-holing his way into the ban-the-bomb movement of the late1960s. It may well be impossible for Spotnitz and company to maintain such a high level of achievement beyond a third season, but even if that's as far as it goes, The Man in the High Castle will have enjoyed a most worthy run.

Meanwhile, if, like me, you find current events too disturbingly in sync with Philip K. Dick's alternative reality, you may want to keep an eye peeled for a temporal/dimensional rabbit hole of your own.

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