“Like Vegas But With Automatons”: Your Guide To Getting Westworld

Image: Courtesy of HBO.
Every once in a while, a show comes along that we're super psyched about — and not just like, "This is a cool series you should consider watching," but like, "Plan to park your butt in front of whatever screen you've got to take in the glory, or else." The latter is how we feel about Westworld, the new sci-fi Western dystopia series that debuts on HBO Sunday, October 2. Starring Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, James Marsden and a slew of other impressive actors, the show is about an Old West-style theme park, where visitors can fulfill whatever fantasy their heart desires by interacting with startlingly sentient robots who don't realize that they aren't real people. What follows is, well, what always seems to follow when humans are given free reign to do whatever they want with no limitations or consequences. Let's just say that shit gets dark, fast. And the question of who is lacking in humanity — the humans or the robots — begins to simmer and then boil. If that sounds a little complicated to you, you're not alone: It takes some time to really dig in and understand what's going on in Westworld. That's 100% intentional in the first couple of episodes, series writer and creator Lisa Joy explained to Refinery29 over the phone. She talked to us about why that is, as well as some other key facts that fans-to-be should know before diving into the series. Don't expect the show to rehash the movie.
The inspiration for Westworld comes from a 1973 Michael Crichton movie of the same title, about a futuristic Wild West theme park where visitors can get the gunslinging experience firsthand. In the film, the robots go haywire and the park guests have to figure out how to escape with their lives. Something similar begins to happen in the revamped narrative. But HBO's series turns the movie's concept on its head, by creating a world where the androids might be more relatable than the flesh-and-blood characters. For that reason, the show follows the perspective of the robots — and manages to put you in their shoes. Also, don't expect this to be a man's world kind of Western.
"Classic westerns are often the tale of a lone man trying to make it in a harsh and forbidding frontier land," Joy says, adding that while those can be enjoyable, inspiring stories, they tend to subvert other characters into supporting parts. She recalls watching Westerns and wanting to know more about the love interests, the "bad" girls, the girls who get kidnapped. With that in mind, Westworld looks at the story through the eyes of characters who often get sidelined in traditional Western narratives — making things a lot more interesting along the way.
Image: Courtesy of HBO.
Think of the series as sort of a "Terence Malik meets Alien meets Grand Theft Auto" experience.
Joy explains that the visuals were created with a kind of duality in mind: Above the surface, where the Westworld robots ("hosts") live, things are lush and green — but there is also no free will. Below the surface, where the human technicians operate the park, things are more sterile and dark, the sort of environment you might expect robots to live in, not people. To prepare for creating the series, Joy and her husband, Jonathan Nolan — the show's co-creator — played video games, including Grand Theft Auto, and it helped them conceive of how people would interact with Westworld. "It's a place where [visitors] are in a game — like a video game — except with robots shaped like humans," she explains. "There's nothing wrong with shooting them or playing them however [you] want. Playing those video games made me realize that's the other side of the coin: the distance we can put between ourselves and the things we do in fictional universes."
There's a lot of mystery to unpack in the first two episodes — but stick with it for a payoff in the third.
Joy explained to us that that series creators wanted audiences to feel unsteady in the opening episodes: Viewers discover what's going on in this world alongside the robots themselves, who — here's the thing — have no self-awareness of their own artificial intelligence. "You build this empathy with creatures you otherwise wouldn't have empathy for: the robots," Joy explains.
Image: Courtesy of HBO.
Westworld digs into how people behave when they think no one is watching.
When people arrive at Westworld, they slip into period-style digs and are then let loose on the town, to literally do whatever they want. "It's like Las Vegas, but with automatons," Joy explains. That might mean anything from bar fights and shoot-outs to the usual raping and pillaging behavior that we think of as synonymous with the Wild West. (Not everyone is there to get out of control, though — there's also an element of historical reenactment for more vanilla adventurers.) Joy shores up her Vegas metaphor by bringing up how creepy it is to think of any place people go that's cordoned off from who they are in real life. "'What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas' — that’s actually a terrifying concept," she says. "Who are all these vacationers who want to go somewhere [where] it’s good that no one knows what they do while they’re there? What does that say about the lives they're living when they’re not in Vegas, and how truthful they’re being about them?" Now apply that same line of thinking to Westworld. Yikes, right? Westworld reflects some chilling stuff about the real world.
Once upon a time, we talked about artificial intelligence as a far-off, distant prospect: These days, it's definitely not so. "In Silicon Valley, and other places, some of the most brilliant minds in the world are trying to actively develop AI. It's not a science-fiction story with the emphasis on fiction; it's something that's really happening," Joy says. "The minds involved in this are actively thinking about how we legislate this, how we govern this, what are the repercussions of creating a technology that, in its own way, could either subsume or redefine humanity and human culture."
Westworld debuts on HBO Sunday, October 2 at 9 p.m. EST.

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