‘Westworld’ is a science-fiction/western/thriller television series, created by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy and broadcasted by the American television network HBO. It is the second spin-off of the sci-fi/thriller movie ‘Westworld’ (1973), written and directed by Michael Crichton, taking its name and its main plot storyline about a futuristic adult theme park which starts suffering from malfunction. It is a concept made even more familiar to the audience after the creation of Steven Spielberg’s ‘Jurassic Park’ in 1993, which was based on a novel from the aforementioned Michael Crichton.
Showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy wanted to make the series much darker and cerebral than the 1973 film. And they succeeded – the show has taken the original premise and has intelligently added layers of complexity to its plot that resonate with where humanity finds itself in the 21st century.
Humans versus Robots
The whole storyline develops in a future where technology has given seemingly endless possibilities to humans, which has resulted in the creation of a highly sophisticated theme park offering rich clients the chance to visit the long gone era of the Old West. The guests, who are called ‘newcomers’, get to do whatever they want with their time and interact however they want with the ‘hosts’ – robots, who look and act exactly as living people and whose android features cannot be spotted by the naked eye. Every inner, deeply hidden fantasy of the guest can be realistically experienced, revealing every person’s true nature. Some choose to be friendly and adventurous, but others choose to experience what it feels like to torture, beat, rape and murder without having to take any legal responsibility for it. But, as Shakespeare once said, “These violent delights have violent ends”.
A crucial detail is that contrary to this, the androids are programmed in such a way that it makes them incapable of hurting the real human beings. Adding to their unfavorable position is the fact that they are able to feel – artificial or not – emotions, and that they are not aware of being divergent compared to ‘living’ people. Which means that everything happening to them can actually have an impact on their behavior. Although their memory is erased after each day, some of them start remembering the horrors they are forced into. In other words, as Christopher Orr (2016) has formulated it for The Atlantic :
The audience watches androids become more human—as the humans become less so
And this is what serves as fertile soil for a great plot development which challenges the viewer with fascinating philosophical questions and scientific concepts, touching on topics such as behavior towards non-human creatures, fantasy against moral, control over high technology and the origin of consciousness.
Debates on moral sensitivity
The issues the series addresses correspond greatly with a topic that has recently increased its visibility in the public sphere – the notion of ‘moral sensitivity’. It is a term used in medical studies, referring to the ability of identifying existing moral problems and the moral consequences of decisions made regarding a patient (Nejadsarvari, Abbasi, Borhani et al., 2015). The term has also become the object of game studies and the topic of current debates on their findings. It is a problem which interests the whole of society in general, since these games are played mainly by young people and many examples of underage terrorists have been present throughout the years.
Findings have been quite controversial, with a lot of studies arguing that on-screen violence increase the risk of youths developing dangerously high levels of aggression, while some state that this is not a potential factor to be blamed. Other studies, however, like one published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking recently, show that violent video games may in fact have just the opposite effect on players. Some researches even provide empirical evidence supporting this statement. These findings indicate that committing ‘‘immoral’’ virtual behaviors in a video game can lead to increased moral sensitivity of the player (Grizzard, Tamborini, Lewis et al., 2014)
‘Westworld’ is not just a TV show, but a series of questions for humanity to ponder.
The question of whether playing violent video games leads to violent behavior in real life can be extended to movies and television programmes with brutal content as well. ‘Westworld’ focuses not only on the experiences of guests in the park, but also on those of the androids. By portraying the robots as victims of humans’ lust for being entertained and feeling powerful, it certainly triggers a change in the viewer’s understanding of ethics and morality. As a result, many people may find that they have become more morally sensitive than they were before watching the show.
Not just another time-killer
Given these points, it can be said without exaggeration that writers and producers have created ‘Westworld’ not only as a TV show, but as a series of questions for humanity to ponder. They have made use of a lot of complex topics and concepts without trivializing them, which is a hard task to embark on. A lot of references to renowned films and stories such as ‘Frankenstein', 'Blade Runner', 'A.I.', 'Ex Machina', 'Jurassic Park', 'The Truman Show' and 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' can be sensed. The series has been accused of having too much graphic content and violence, but this is something highly necessary for fulfilling the task of establishing contact with every viewer’s inner dark side and thus conveying the message of the internal battle between good and evil in everyone’s soul.
Knowing the amount of talent involved, ‘Westworld’s 22 Emmy Nominations were no surprise. As expected from an HBO production, the design and choice of set, costumes and soundtrack are astonishing. The impressive ensemble of high caliber actors does a great job at bringing their respective characters to life. Their marvelous acting skills bring the show to its high level. The programme deserves even more attention, since it gives hope that there is still a part of television left which does not contribute to the passiveness of society nowadays, but even fights against it.
‘Westworld’ is intelligent and full of mysteries for the patient viewer to uncover. Watching it makes you start wondering and asking yourself uncomfortable questions about concepts like humanity and consciousness in relation to artificial intelligence, which makes it a contemporary screenplay masterpiece that I strongly recommend to everyone interested in an in-depth exploration of the human mind and behavior.
Grizzard, M., Lewis, R., Prabhu, S., Tamborini, L. & Wang, L. (2014). Being Bad in a Video Game Can Make Us More Morally Sensitive.Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, 17
Abbasi, M., Bazmi, S., Borhani, F., Ebrahimi, A., Hosein, M., Kalantar, M., Kiani, M., Nejadsarvari, N. & Rasooli, H. (2015). Relationship of Moral Sensitivity and Distress Among Physicians . Trauma monthly, 20 (2)