Our Work Come Back to Haunt Us: Westworld and the Shadow of Michael Crichton

 

No cause for alarm, Bernard. Simply our old work come back to haunt us.”
–Dr. Ford

By now it’s become cliché to note the remarkable number of reboots and re-imaginings Hollywood has doled out—to varying levels of success—in recent years. Riding the nostalgic remix wave, HBO has served up the visually stunning and thought-provoking Westworld, a reworking of Michael Crichton’s 1973 techno-thriller.

Nostalgic reboots make up a booming market, if one not always marked by much artistic creativity. 2015 is the year that gave us Jurassic World and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, two movies that recycled old storylines in dull, yawn-inducing ways, as well as Mad Max: Fury Road, a jaw-dropping extension of the 1980s franchise that qualifies as a legitimate cinematic masterpiece.

Westworld looks closer to the latter rather than the former, although it is too early to tell for sure (nine more episodes leaves plenty of room for this mighty train to derail).

Screenwriters (and directors) could do worse than studying the captivating first episode, “The Original”, which is nothing short of a master class of how to properly re-imagine source materials while giving subtle nods to inspiring works of the past.

Back in 1973

To understand how Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy—Westworld’s writers and showrunners—have accomplished their feat, it’s best to cast your memory back to 1973 and Michael Crichton’s low-budget (but effective) techno-thriller.

westworld-posterWestworld the movie is not remembered as a cinematic classic, but it is an important film nonetheless. It marked Crichton’s entry into the world of Hollywood (he had written a TV movie, Pursuit, the year before, based on his novel Binary), as well as the first iteration of a setting and theme Crichton would return to years later with much greater success: the theme park where science goes wrong.

Most memorable, however, is Yul Brynner’s portrayal of The Man in Black, a cyborg who goes murderously haywire. Brynner’s performance—all steely-eyed and lacking emotion—would serve as a model for the unstoppable Michael Myers in 1978’s Halloween and for Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1984’s The Terminator. It also, ironically, was a nifty riff on his own cowboy performance in The Magnificent Seven.

In comparing Nolan and Joy’s adaptation to the original movie, it is easy to dismiss Crichton’s film as low-grade fare, stylish perhaps but lacking depth. This is, I’d argue, rather grossly unfair. In fact, Crichton was well-aware of the constraints of the techno-thriller movie, as well as his budget. Aiming for a wider audience, the studio wanted a PG rating, yet another boundary Crichton was forced to work within.

Understanding these limits, Crichton wrote and directed a movie that asked plenty of philosophical questions and identified any number of dubious moral dilemmas, but exploring these quandaries was simply not possible within a feature thriller film structure.

This is the main advantage of producing Westworld for television: 10-plus hours gives far more space in which to work and explore.

It is this expansive format that has given Nolan and Joy the most leeway in broadening and deepening many of Crichton’s original themes.

Riffs, Reversals and Widening Gyres: The Key to Rebooting and Remaking

What most screenwriters, directors and producers seem to miss is that a successful reboot/remake is not a matter of simply reproducing what was done before with better special effects. A truly successful reboot/remake is a re-imagining of original material. It is taking someone else’s blueprint and reworking it until the story is your own.

A good comparison here is the 2004 remake of Crichton’s early techno-horror novel The Andromeda Strain. This four-episode mini-series directed by Mikail Salomon did a fine job giving us new actors, better special effects, and more impressive visuals, but it did little else when set alongside the original 1971 film directed by Robert Wise.

Nolan and Joy have taken a different tack entirely.

westworld-hbo-posterThere are small touches, such as the descent into the bowels of Westworld, where we see a giant globe labeled Delos, the name of the corporation that owns the park in Crichton’s film version. Or Anthony Hopkins’ character, Dr. Ford, Westworld’s creator, whose shock of white hair and healthy but elderly frame recall Richard Attenborough’s portrayal of a billionaire amusement park owner in Jurassic Park.

More important, however, are the ways in which Nolan and Joy reverse their source material. Crichton’s movie is ostensibly centered around a human being who must come to grips with the difference between fantasy and reality. Nolan and Joy have anchored their story around the robots themselves, asking the audience to shift allegiance from the Creators to the Created.

In another turn, Yul Brynner’s Man in Black was a rogue cyborg. Ed Harris, who plays the sadistic Man in Black in the reboot, is apparently a human being. This shift (if Harris is indeed a man) is critical, as it locates the source of “evil” in the Human rather than, in Crichton’s film, the Machine.

As well as reversals, Nolan and Joy have widened and deepened the scope of their source material, a move necessitated by the television format.

Most notably, Nolan and Joy have introduced the concept of Reveries, a component of the latest software update that allows the AI robots to access memories that are erased each day. What they are able to recall is apparently minimal, like remembering a swiftly vanishing dream, but it is this newfound recall that alters the robot hosts.

Crichton’s film never explains why the robots revolt. There is a suggestion of a “computer virus”, but this is one of many veins Crichton was unable to mine deeply. Nolan and Joy, however, have clearly given this plot twist a lot of thought.

Reverie suggests daydreaming, but the word comes from an Old French term for delirium and wild behavior. The implication is subtle but powerful: consciousness, Nolan and Joy tell us, is only possible once we have both memories and dreams. Unfortunately, as the human guests of Westworld make clear, not all of man’s dreams are pleasant.

Some are nightmares.

Nolan and Joy also deepen the level of violence and sadism. In the 1973 movie, the human beings come to Westworld and kill with abandon. Here in 2016, Ed Harris comes not just to murder, but to drag young Evan Rachel Wood’s character to the barn and rape her.

I didn’t pay all this money cause I want it easy,” Harris growls. “I want you to fight.”

This level of transgression is a league beyond Crichton’s movie.

Nolan and Joy also shift another critical aspect. Crichton’s movie is a guy’s film. It centers around a male protagonist, and the women in the film are entirely secondary (most are AI hookers). Nolan and Joy, however, have placed a female character at the center of their story: Wood’s Dolores Abernathy.

Subtle Nods

Earlier this year Netflix released the instant-sensation Stranger Things.  Filled with homages to 80s movies and books, the show was mostly a hit with audiences, and it gave rise to a flood of Easter-egg-hunting. Enthusiasm for the show’s use of homage, however, eventually turned (for some) into a reason to dislike it. Wasn’t this little more than a string of rehashed set pieces from earlier Spielberg movies, critics complained.

Personally, I liked Stranger Things, but there is a danger in getting caught up with paying your respects to the artists who have come before you. Westworld, however, walks a fine line, giving subtle winks and nods to other filmmakers but never letting these acknowledgements become the central focus of the story.

Some are obvious, such as the thematic and visual links between Westworld  and Ex Machina  or I Robot, both of which are also about AI, the rise of consciousness and the threshold between man and machine. The scene in which Jeffrey Wright’s character enters the storage room deep in Westworld’s basement where the malfunctioning robots are kept is eerily reminiscent of a similar scene in I Robot.

westworld-robots

i-robot

Less obvious are nods at movies like Groundhog Day. The repetition of Evan Rachel Wood’s character waking morning after morning and replaying the same loop are along the same line as Bill Murray’s character reliving Groundhog Day year after year. The only difference (for now) is that Murray was aware it was happening.

One wonders if Nolan and Joy purposely sought out Ed Harris, given his role in The Truman Show, another movie Westworld  subtly winks at. In that movie, Harris played the man pulling the strings behind the most elaborate reality television show ever envisioned. Westworld  revisits some of the same terrain, especially the idea of replacing reality with a carefully constructed fantasy purely for entertainment.

But Nolan and Joy make clear in the first episode that they are drawing from more than film. There are numerous lines from Shakespeare in the season opener–most of them creepy and haunting. And the parallels between Westworld–where man has created another creature in his own image–and literary novels such as Frankenstein  and The Island of Doctor Moreau  seem all too clear.

In fact, when all is said and done, it may be these literary references which are the most telling. Film is a technological medium, and it is often enamored with the power of advancing technology. Writers, on the other hand, are generally more cautious.

Crichton certainly was. His oeuvre is a road map of the dangers of science–or, rather, science in the hands of men who do not appreciate its destructive power. The Andromeda Strain, Congo, Sphere, Jurassic Park, The Lost World, Timeline, Prey,  and Next are all warnings about the hubris of human beings.

westworld-hbo-001-1280x720There is much left to uncover in Westworld.  After all, we’ve only just begun. But already it seems clear that we are in the hands of storytellers who understand the difference between reheating last night’s dinner and creating something new from old ingredients.

What is also clear is that critics may have underestimated Michael Crichton, an author who in latter decades was more often ridiculed than appreciated. And yet, since his death, no other science fiction writer has risen to quite the same prominence and success. His work is still finding an audience even now, and the questions he was asking in 1973 are ones we are still asking today.

Check out some of The Forgotten Movies of Michael Crichton

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