Since it popped up online last week, the trailer for HBO’s new science fiction series Westworld has been viewed almost 2.5 million times. That’s because it offers a raw, original vision of what a robot uprising might really be like in the twenty-first century. Of course, it starts with gaming.
Westworld has an interesting history. Written for the screen by Michael Crichton in 1973, the original movie was about a western theme park populated by robots who glitch out and go rogue. The robots are programmed to get shot in gunfights and to rent themselves out for sex in the downtown whorehouse, but suddenly they start killing their human customers. There are a few hints that the robots might be achieving a kind of sentience, but mostly we’re meant to think that they’ve simply malfunctioned in a dangerous way. The original Westworld is ultimately about how amusement parks are disasters waiting to happen, a concern that showed up again in Crichton’s 1990 novel Jurassic Park (which became the basis for the eponymous blockbuster movie franchise). Crichton was preoccupied throughout his life with system failures, whether in science, business, or entertainment, and he viewed the park in Westworld as a flawed system because it had no safety measures.
The new Westworld series is helmed by Lisa Joy (a producer on the cracklingly fun Burn Notice) and Jonathan Nolan, who recently wrapped up his creator/producer duties on the final season of AI thriller Person of Interest. Both Joy and Nolan have experience with breakneck pacing and techno-thrillers, and their vision in Westworld takes the Crichton story to a very different place. As you can see in this trailer, they’ve preserved the basic premise, which is that people will pay to interact with robots in theme parks. Westworld is very much an adult theme park, with sex and violence serving as the primary lures for people bored with their high-tech lives. It’s basically a game world writ large, with perfectly realistic robots called “hosts” replacing consoles and VR rigs. What’s new in this version of the story is that it’s very clear that the robots are developing human-equivalent consciousness. This isn’t just a glitch in the machine; it’s a robot uprising that happens to take place in a theme park.