‘Westworld’ is a gripping sci-fi brain-teaser

Ed Harris portrays the Man in Black, in the HBO series, “Westworld.”
Ed Harris portrays the Man in Black, in the HBO series, “Westworld.” AP

“Imagine there are two versions of yourself. One that feels these things and asks these questions, and one that’s safe. Which would you rather be?”

That’s the fundamental question asked in the very brainy but thoroughly gripping sci-fi series “Westworld,” based on Michael Crichton’s 1973 film and premiering 9 p.m. Sunday on HBO.

The update, developed by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, and coproduced by J.J. Abrams, is set in a futuristic theme park where people can live out their darkest fantasies. We don’t necessarily know much about the actual lives of the town’s “guests,” but they are able to interact with any number of “hosts” who are, in fact, extremely lifelike robots, programmed to participate in scripted scenarios with their visitors.

Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), a young woman in cornflower blue, leaves the general store and attaches her parcel to the saddle of her horse. A single can drops to the dusty street and rolls away. A man stoops to retrieve it and approaches her to give it back.

We see the scene multiple times. Often, the man is the gunslinger known as Teddy Flood (James Marsden). Other times, he is someone else. The scenario involves the man accompanying Dolores back home where she finds her father shot to death.

Perhaps the one image that grounds the whole series is a player piano in the saloon known as the Mariposa. We see the piano roll start to move and hear a tune. Later, we see the image again, the roll start to move, but another tune is played. The same, yet different – that’s what “Westworld” is all about.

Behind the scenes, there is concern that some of the “hosts” are beginning to demonstate aberrant behavior. In stark contrast to the old fashioned Western town, the operations for Westworld are housed in a dark, futuristic structure overseen by the creator of the theme park, Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins). It’s probably not accidental that the character is named for the man who killed Jesse James, one of the best-known icons of the real Old West.

Ford is deceptively genial, almost doddering at times, but he has a clear vision of what he wants Westworld to be. The organization is a corporation, though, and the engineers are always wary of the people in charge of the narrative division. Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) oversees the division that programs the “hosts.”

Guests like Logan (Ben Barnes), a return visitor, and his friend, William (Jimmi Simpson), a first-timer, get to do whatever they want. Logan has sex with any available male or female host, and dispatches them at will when his trigger finger starts itching. His friend William is reluctant to bed down with one of the dance hall girls working at the Mariposa, and he’s not interested in killing any hosts at first. But eventually, the town’s pervasive atmosphere of wanton sex and brutality liberate him from his own moral code.

And that’s really the thematic core of “Westworld,” the exploration of how common values influence us to do things we might not otherwise do on the one hand, but also impose societal rules which we’re obligated to obey at the same time. It’s the concept explored notably by William Golding in “Lord of the Flies.

As the series explores the nature of the human mind, we contemplate the dualism of existence itself – good and evil, spirit and flesh, hope and heartbreak. Presumably, the guests at Westworld lead what we would call ordinary lives within civilized society whose rules they more or less follow. As visitors to Westworld, they are free to break any rule they wish.

Crichton’s original film was a hit back in the ‘70’s, but in some ways, perhaps he – and the film – were ahead of their time. The new “Westworld“ makes a different kind of sense within the context of 21st century life, when so much of interaction with each other is carried out through machines–computers, smartphones and the like. How are our true emotions homogenized and altered by those devices? Think about how well we have learned to compartmentalize our emotions through little cartoon emojis.

Have we, in our world today, become the “guests” transmitting our thoughts, feelings and secrets through little handheld “hosts”? If so, do you ever wonder which version of ourselves is real?