How HBO's Westworld  Was Wired

HBO adapts a cult sci-fi classic to modern anxieties.

An elaborate amusement park, inhabited by dangerous creatures designed in a lab, spins out of control after the introduction of human error. Most would recognize this as the plot of the 1993 movie Jurassic Park, based on the novel by the late Michael Crichton. But the log line applies just as well to Westworld, a sci-fi B movie Crichton wrote and directed two decades earlier. In that film, the theme park was populated not by petri-dish dinosaurs but by hyperrealistic androids meant to look like stock characters from the Old West, with whom ultrarich visitors could act out childhood fantasies—or more depraved desires. And the bad guy wasn’t a velociraptor but a dead-eyed Yul Brynner as a gunslinging Terminator.

The genius of HBO’s new TV adaptation, also called Westworld, is in making us root for the robots. If the film was about technology run amok, the series is a warning about the hubris of technologists (with a few swipes at one-percent entitlement and violent video games). The robots seem more human and the humans—acting on their reptilian impulses—more robotic. As one park employee puts it, paraphrasing Alan Turing, “If you can’t tell the difference, does it matter?”

The series was created by married couple Jonathan Nolan (brother and collaborator of The Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan) and Lisa Joy, and executive produced by J. J. Abrams, who long ago discussed a remake with Crichton. 

Together they’ve concocted a wonderfully creepy genre mash-up—part Shane, part 2001: A Space Odyssey, part Groundhog Day—that reflects contemporary anxieties about artificial intelligence. The first couple of episodes are slowed somewhat by the obligation to explain how it all works. (Don’t ask too many questions.) To be fair, the problem of exposition also dogged the original movie, which is why the premise might best be suited for an episodic format.

The principal cast consists mostly of movie stars, including Anthony Hopkins, Evan Rachel Wood, and Thandie Newton. A slithering Ed Harris fills Brynner’s boots as the murderous Man in Black. And in the show’s greatest twist on the original, he’s all too human. Sundays at 9 p.m; hbo.com.