Review: Westworld

Posted: October 22, 2018 in Artistry, Blogroll, Cinema, Consciousness, Culture, Media, Narrative, Philosophy, Technophilia
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Caveat: Rather uncharacteristically long for me. Kudos if you have the patience for all of this.

Caught the first season of HBO’s series Westworld on DVD. I have a boyhood memory of the original film (1973) with Yul Brynner and a dim memory of its sequel Futureworld (1976). The sheer charisma of Yul Brynner in the role of the gunslinger casts a long shadow over the new production, not that most of today’s audiences have seen the original. No doubt, 45 years of technological development in film production lends the new version some distinct advantages. Visual effects are quite stunning and Utah landscapes have never been used more appealingly in terms of cinematography. Moreover, storytelling styles have changed, though it’s difficult to argue convincingly that they’re necessarily better now than then. Competing styles only appear dated. For instance, the new series has immensely more time to develop its themes; but the ancient parables of hubris and loss of control over our own creations run amok (e.g., Shelley’s Frankenstein, or more contemporaneously, the surprisingly good new movie Upgrade) have compact, appealing narrative arcs quite different from constant teasing and foreshadowing of plot developments while actual plotting proceeds glacially. Viewers wait an awful lot longer in the HBO series for resolution of tensions and emotional payoffs, by which time investment in the story lines has been dispelled. There is also no terrifying crescendo of violence and chaos demanding rescue or resolution. HBO’s Westworld often simply plods on. To wit, a not insignificant portion of the story (um, side story) is devoted to boardroom politics (yawn) regarding who actually controls the Westworld theme park. Plot twists and reveals, while mildly interesting (typically guessed by today’s cynical audiences), do not tie the narrative together successfully.

Still, Westworld provokes considerable interest from me due to my fascination with human consciousness. The initial episode builds out the fictional future world with characters speaking exposition clearly owing its inspiration to Julian Jayne’s book The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (another reference audiences are quite unlikely to know or recognize). I’ve had the Julian Jaynes Society’s website bookmarked for years and read the book some while back; never imagined it would be captured in modern fiction. Jaynes’ thesis (if I may be so bold as to summarize radically) is that modern consciousness coalesced around the collapse of multiple voices in the head — ideas, impulses, choices, decisions — into a single stream of consciousness perhaps better understood (probably not) as the narrative self. (Aside: the multiple voices of antiquity correspond to polytheism, whereas the modern singular voice corresponds to monotheism.) Thus, modern human consciousness arose over several millennia as the bicameral mind (the divided brain having two camera, chambers, or halves) functionally collapsed. The underlying story of the new Westworld is the emergence of machine consciousness, a/k/a strong AI, a/k/a The Singularity, while the old Westworld was about a mere software glitch. Exploration of machine consciousness modeling (e.g., improvisation builds on memory to create awareness) as a proxy for better understanding human consciousness might not be the purpose of the show, but it’s clearly implied. And although conjectural, the speed of emergence of human consciousness contrasts sharply with the abrupt ON switch regarding theorized machine consciousness. Westworld treats them as roughly equivalent, though in fairness, 35 years or so in Westworld is in fact abrupt compared to several millennia. (Indeed, the story asserts that machine consciousness sparked alive repeatedly (which I suggested here) over those 35 years but was dialed back repeatedly. Never mind all the unexplored implications.) Additionally, the fashion in which Westworld uses the term bicameral ranges from sloppy to meaningless, like the infamous technobabble of Star Trek.

The story appears to aim at psychological depth and penetration (but not horror). Most human characters (“guests”) visit the Westworld theme park as complete cads with no thought beyond scratching an itch to rape, pillage, and kill without consequence, which is to say, for sport. Others eventually seek to discover their true selves or solve puzzles (the “real” story behind the surfaces of constructed narratives). The overarching plot is what happens as the robots (“hosts”) slowly gain awareness via perfect, permanent, digital memory that they exist solely to serve the hosts and must suffer and die repeatedly. Thus, administrators frequently play therapist to the hosts to discover and manage their state of being.

As a reflection of the current cultural moment when robotics is achieving effective independent locomotion and fuck dolls are being made more lifelike but before the uncanny valley is breached or strong AI is engineered, Westworld‘s preoccupation with the psyche — human and robot alike, though obviously unalike — is understandable. Frankly, I liked the old version better without the unnecessary pop-psychology dilettantism, where the software glitch made the cautionary tale more direct and palpable as essentially a horror flick set in a futuristic past. Instead, the new series is set in a near future of abundance and rank self-absorption, the Wild West past being a mere overlay or set dressing. Accordingly, much more time is spent in the backstage where hosts are tweaked, interrogated, head shrunk, and repaired as tech staff and administrators carry out their duties. Where are the park guests crying out in distress “what the hell is happening?” as things come unglued? Instead, everyone is coolly and cruelly detached. Killings occur with regular indifference; characters often just meander off as though nothing of importance occurred. (This is a really tired cinematic cliché by now: the antagonist or protagonist walking away in the foreground impervious to the large explosion occurring in the background. How dumb … badass.) Playing with confusion over which characters are hosts/guests and which emotions are honest/manufactured is obvious and expected, I suppose, but not nearly as interesting, to me at least, as the show runners might hope.

Performances are generally good, especially the actors who portray hosts. Switching in and out of robot/character mode is handled exceedingly well. The human characters, on the other hand, are mostly stand-and-deliver monologuing bores, pausing frequently to fill time for emphasis and dramatic effect but only faintly embodying real characters of inherent interest the way Yul Brynner’s gunslinger was so captivating. His portrayal had real menace, whereas megalomania, violence, and killing in the new series are throwaway devices incapable of inspiring honest emotion. (Same is true of superhero punchfests.)

This contrasts with effective character deaths (and resurrections) in HBO’s Game of Thrones (GoT). At first, GoT appeared to be an unapologetic excuse for medieval mayhem, a cheap imitation of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (LoTR) but with dragons (banished to The Hobbit in Tolkien) and, of course, lots of boobs. GoT’s reliable nudity actually got to be jokey (bewbs!) before GoT unexpectedly found its narrative depth and stopped goosing audiences so much. (After all, hadn’t Skinemax already covered that territory?) Nudity in Westworld is even more pronounced (male and female) and beyond prurient interests may actually serve character by dehumanizing the hosts. How much the principal actors are artfully swapped with body doubles and/or covered (e.g., the merkin) versus actually exposed is a question others might consider, but it’s rather banal for me now (in a way it admittedly wasn’t in my pre-Internet 20s).

As well as suspension of disbelief works wonders to enhance viewing of television and cinema, it fails when individuals know too much about how the sausage is made, either in terms of narrative design, show production, or the subject matter of the show. What does a boxing film look like to a real boxer? Probably pretty lame. I suspect the same is true for criminal violence to an actual criminal, though they may stupidly adopt some of the habits of their fictional counterparts, because, ya know, the kewl factor. Perhaps I know too much about consciousness (what there is to know, anyway) to really enjoy Westworld. Its depictions strike me as subtly and substantially wrong, like an Oliver Stone historical drama that plays fast and loose with fact in the higher service of narrative cohesion. It feels somehow like a betrayal. That discomfiting feeling of wrongness has been the surprising reveal of the early 21st century, namely, that we’ve been busy building and reinforcing false narratives for centuries already but without the metacognitive awareness that in doing so, we profoundly undermine our own relationships with the world and retreat into preferred fictionalized versions. Though intended for pure entertainment, Westworld reinforces the multilayered flight from reality and purports to examine its psychology. It’s smart, perhaps, but not nearly smart enough. Nor are we.

Slowly, more folks are taking note of this effect, what I’ve called our epistemological crisis. Another blogger (on my blogroll) rather portentously calls it the semantic apocalypse. The shared social-cognitive dilemma is about as deep, significant, and thoroughgoing as they come, and too much blame can’t be laid on Westworld as the latest log on the fire. In the meantime, audiences of Westworld can be carried off with misdirection and misframing, unaware and untroubled by more terrifying threats only hinted at. What might this psychological horror story have been if we held machine intelligence in less awe as a near-term prospect and focused instead on our own failed intelligence?

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