5 trails for navigating Westworld

From Tarkovsky to Kurosawa, the world of Westworld is rich with references to the great films and directors of the past. Here are some useful signposts to point your way.

Westworld season two (2018)
  • Spoiler warning: This feature gives away major plot details

HBO’s ongoing sci-fi opus Westworld, which wrapped up its mind-bending second season last month, wears its wide-ranging influences on its sleeve as brazenly as any TV drama in recent memory (save, perhaps, for Netflix’s 80s nostalgia trip Stranger Things).

Set in and behind the scenes of a futuristic adult theme park where guests can indulge their wildest fantasies by interacting with realistic humanoid robot ‘hosts’, it’s a beguiling, and often baffling, fusion of high and low culture, where malfunctioning androids quote Shakespeare, Kurosawa-inflected action sequences are choreographed to orchestral arrangements of pop hits, and video-game-like scenarios are suffused with existentialism.

It’s adapted, in the first instance, from Michael Crichton’s 1973 film of the same name, which focuses on the experiences of first-time visitor Peter (Richard Benjamin), whose holiday takes a turn for the terrifying when the robots begin to malfunction and rise up against their human tormentors.

The show takes Crichton’s premise as its starting point, and makes occasional playful nods to the source material. In the film, androids are distinguishable from humans by their unnatural looking hands; in the series pilot, park director Dr Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) discusses the flaws of his earliest hosts, recalling that “a simple handshake would give them away”.

But in most regards, the two versions are worlds apart. The film is a lean, efficient pulp thriller laced with knockabout humour; the series is glacially paced, at times intimidatingly multi-stranded, and takes itself more seriously. As such, it’s very much in keeping with co-creator Jonathan Nolan’s previous collaborations with his brother Christopher.

1. The Nolan connection

The show’s approach to delivering game-changing plot twists feels heavily indebted to The Prestige (2006), which Jonathan wrote and Christopher directed. In this relentlessly twisty tale of feuding stage magicians in Victorian London, a major secret hides in plain sight virtually from the outset – namely, that Christian Bale’s character is in fact a pair of identical twins, who share the identity of both clean-cut illusionist Alfred Borden and his hirsute sidekick Bernard Fallon.

The Prestige (2006)

At the end of Westworld’s first season, meanwhile, we learn that two of our ostensible protagonists, Jimmi Simpson’s wholesome William and Ed Harris’s malevolent Man in Black, are one and the same, and that the action thus far has been unfolding across different timelines, decades apart.

In both instances, the creators distract from these rather simple truths by employing a disorienting non-linear structure, and by directing the viewer’s attention towards more tantalising facets of the narrative – the possibility of a cloning machine in The Prestige; the origins and whereabouts of a mysterious maze in Westworld.

Ed Harris as the Man in Black

It’s not just this ‘puzzle box’ approach to storytelling and preoccupation with concealed identities that marks Westworld as a Jonathan Nolan joint. In each of his feature screenplays (The Prestige, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar), a male protagonist is tormented and motivated by memories of a deceased female partner. In keeping with this peculiar tradition, it transpires in Westworld that the Man in Black’s descent to full-blown depravity is a consequence of his wife’s suicide.

But while the Nolan brothers have a tendency to sideline their female characters, Westworld fares much better on this front, perhaps as a consequence of Jonathan working with a larger team of collaborators, including his wife and co-creator Lisa Joy. William’s troubled partner Juliet (Sela Ward) is given the opportunity to emerge as a complex individual in her own right, while Thandie Newton’s Maeve, a mistreated brothel-madam host who embarks on a circuitous journey to free herself from human control, is perhaps the most fascinating character in the whole show.

2. The Spielberg connection

While Westworld’s view of humanity is largely nihilistic, Maeve is driven, above all else, by an unwavering love for her ‘daughter’, despite understanding that she has been coded to feel this way. As Maeve attempts to navigate this tricky psychological terrain, the series recalls A.I. Artificial Intelligence, the 2001 adaptation of Brian Aldiss’s short story ‘Supertoys Last All Summer Long’, developed by Stanley Kubrick and ultimately helmed by Steven Spielberg.

Thandie Newton as Maeve

This heartfelt sci-fi riff on Pinocchio tells the story of a robot child named David (Haley Joel Osment), abandoned by his human mother Monica (Frances O’Connor), who resolves to win back her affection by making himself a “real boy”. Just as Maeve attempts to resist and rationalise her impulses, the film wrestles with the question of whether the pre-programmed love David feels towards Monica is any different from the irrational maternal bond she forms with him.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

A.I. also anticipates Westworld in its depiction of trauma caused by parents rejecting their children. Unable to bring herself to have David destroyed after he almost drowns her real son, she instead sets him loose in a forest, essentially condemning him to endless heartache. In season two of Westworld, both the Man in Black and corporate bigwig James Delos (Peter Mullan) find themselves in private hells of their own making, constantly tormented by the roles they played in the death of their children.

And A.I.’s divisive end sequence, which is set far in the future and depicts super-advanced robots pondering the mysteries of a long-since-decimated humankind, aligns somewhat with the direction Westworld appears to be heading in – the season two finale’s head-scratcher of a post-credit sequence points towards a distant future in which artificial intelligence has become Earth’s dominant life form.

3. The Kurosawa connection

When Westworld’s creators crib from other artists, they generally do so in a thoughtful and reverential manner. Season two’s excursion to the Edo-period-Japan-themed Shogun World was, perhaps inevitably, billed as a tribute to Akira Kurosawa. But rather than indulge in frivolous orientalism, as many had feared when the setting was teased at the end of season one, director Craig Zobel and writer Dan Dietz paid homage to the maestro in quite ingenious fashion.

Kurosawa’s DNA is embedded in Westworld. His 1954 action masterpiece Seven Samurai was remade by John Sturges as The Magnificent Seven in 1960. Said classic western starred Yul Brynner, whose laconic, black-clad cowboy Chris Adams served as inspiration for the malevolent Gunslinger in Crichton’s Westworld (also played by Brynner), who in turn served as a starting point for Harris’s Man in Black in the show.

Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954)Toho Co., Ltd
...remade as The Magnificent Seven (1960), with Yul Brynner
Westworld (1973)
The Man in Black

In the episode ‘Akane no Mai’, the park’s head of narrative and design Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman) leads a ragtag bunch of robots and humans through Shogun World, where it soon emerges that the park’s hosts and ‘storylines’ have been modelled on those of the Westworld site.

As such, we’re treated to the strange spectacle of hosts meeting their effective doppelgangers, and a glorious ‘remake’ of season one’s Mariposa Saloon heist sequence. It’s a deft nod to the symbiotic relationship between Kurosawa and the western genre, which also serves as a sly commentary on the show’s magpie-like approach to crafting narratives, as well as its preoccupation with the cyclical nature of human life.

4. The Malick connection

Nolan and Joy cited Terrence Malick as a major influence for season two’s other standout episode, ‘Kiksuya’. Again, the tribute felt meaningful, with the creators borrowing many of the great auteur’s trademark techniques – a fragmentary narrative, an emphasis on existential voiceover narration over dialogue, sweeping cinematography, a fixation on natural beauty – to tell a decidedly Malick-esque tale (once you set aside the fact that its protagonist is a robot).

Zahn McClarnon as Akecheta

The episode charts the journey to consciousness of Akecheta (Zahn McClarnon), a Native American host who has been repeatedly reprogrammed, but who can remember his past lives. As he pores over his most precious and painful memories, while grappling with the terrifying question of what lies beyond his world, the episode calls to mind Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011), which concerns a troubled middle-aged man (Sean Penn) pondering the mysteries of the universe through the prism of his own formative childhood experiences. As a sensitive contemplation of the Native American experience, ‘Kiksuya’ also bears comparison with The New World (2005), Malick’s esoteric retelling of the Pocahontas story.

The Tree of Life (2011)

5. The Tarkovsky connection

Taking part in a Reddit AMA earlier this year, Joy and Nolan teased that viewers should keep an eye out for references to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) in forthcoming episodes. This turned out to be something of an understatement, with season two’s overarching narrative proving strikingly reminiscent of the esoteric sci-fi classic.

Stalker (1979)

In the film, three enigmatic characters, each with different motives, embark on a journey across an otherworldly landscape known as the Zone, in search of a room believed to grant visitors their deepest wish. For the eponymous Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky), who serves as a kind of tour guide, the Zone represents an escape from his miserable reality, which he continues to return to, despite the obviously detrimental effect this has on his relationship with his wife and child – it’s implied that his repeat visits are inflicting physical damage on his disabled daughter.

Meanwhile his companion, the Professor, eventually reveals a plan to blow up the room to prevent it being accessed by evil men, but is ultimately dissuaded from this.

In Westworld, much of season two concerns various key players heading decisively towards a mysterious location referred to as the Valley Beyond. In the finale, this is revealed to contain both a vast archive of data about human nature, accumulated through the observation of park guests, and a portal to a digital afterlife where hosts can build their own utopian society.

For the Man in Black, the valley represents the end point of a game he believes Dr Ford has created specifically for him. In a manner that recalls the unhappy domestic life of the Stalker, his all-consuming obsession with the park ultimately costs him his relationship with, and indeed the lives of, his wife and daughter.

Evan Rachel Wood as Dolores

At the same time, Westworld’s oldest functioning host, Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), who gained consciousness and led an uprising against her creators in season one, is intent on decimating the valley, convinced that the digital afterlife is just another tool created by humans to keep hosts oppressed. But like the Professor, she is, after an extremely circuitous sequence of events, persuaded to take a less destructive course of action.

Beyond the Valley Beyond

Given that the above outline barely scratches at the surface of the convoluted action that unfolded in the confounding season two finale, the episode inevitably proved divisive. Some of the big reveals came entirely out of left field, while an eye-wateringly high body count appears to be paving the way for a more intimate third season. Ratings have dropped this year, so it’s possible that HBO are keen to reduce the show’s massive production budget.

But throughout its run to date, Nolan and Joy have consistently proven themselves responsible and sophisticated storytellers, resolving major mysteries, edging the narrative forwards in a continually surprising manner, and ripping off other creators only when it enriches their own work. I can’t wait to see where they take us next.

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