HBO’s Westworld is a huge modern hit. But the series’ origins can actually be directly traced back more than 40 years, to the sci-fi cinema of the 1970s as well as to co-creator Jonathan Nolan’s past stories on artificial intelligence… and his fascination with video games.
The concept of Westworld dates back to the cynical streak of science-fiction that dominated the late-’60s and early ’70s. These films predicted a dark and dire future for humankind that tracked with the overall attitude of the era. Events like the Vietnam War and Watergate had taken a toll on public consciousness, and the sci-fi cinema of the era reflected this.
One of these films was The Andromeda Strain — a tale of an alien microorganism that threatens to wipe out all of mankind. The movie was based on a novel by Michael Crichton, a Harvard Medical School grad. It was his first major hit, opening the door for a career that would spawn Jurassic Park, Congo, and several more best-selling sci-fi thrillers. Soon, though, Crichton also revealed he had a keen interest in filmmaking.
He made his directorial debut just a few years later with Westworld, a thriller about a futuristic Western-themed amusement park filled with malfunctioning, murderous androids. The film is actually not based on a Crichton novel — he wrote the script directly for the screen.
Westworld was supposed to be a theme park to let people live out their wildest Old West fantasies, but (of course!) everything goes wrong, though the movie leaves it up to audiences to decide why this malfunction happens. Whereas the AI in Colossus: The Forbin Project took over the world expressly to protect mankind — whether they liked it or not — it’s never clear why Westworld’s robots go berserk. There’s a clear comparison here to 2001’s homicidal computer HAL-9000: Is it simply a glitch that drives robots like Yul Brynner’s Gunslinger to kill? Or have they gained sentience? Are these androids rebelling against the unending cruelty of their masters? What are the implications of creating these beings? It’s a question left for the viewer to ponder…
The film was well-received, but perhaps its biggest impact was in its depiction of the Gunslinger. The character was created as an ode to Brynner’s classic Western identity from The Magnificent Seven. But with its glowing eyes, steady pace, and single-minded determination, it’s also a clear forerunner to The Terminator. Halloween director John Carpenter has also said the indestructible Michael Myers was inspired by the Gungslinger. And of course, Halloween itself spawned many a slow-walking, undying slasher killer.
There are several more emerging sci-fi tropes in Westworld that would become genre staples in the years that followed. Its vaguely corrupt corporation Delos hit the same year as the up-to-no-good company in Soylent Green. And it predates the likes of Omni Consumer Products, the Tyrell Corporation, and Weyland-Yutani by years. Additionally, a computer virus is raised as a possible reason for the Westworld malfunction, which in 1973 was a much more novel concept. And the film is also said to have been the first to use digital image processing in a Hollywood movie — the robot POV was modified to appear pixelated, which may look familiar to Terminator fans.
In the years that followed, a couple of attempts were made to capitalize on Westworld’s success. The sequel Futureworld came without Crichton’s involvement, and was poorly received. Still, the film is perhaps most notable for taking another step forward for computer generated imagery in movies: It’s the first feature to use 3D CGI in a brief sequence depicting a computer image created by Ed Catmull, who would go on to be president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios. Additionally, a TV series Beyond Westworld followed in 1980 but only aired for three episodes before getting axed.
But surely the most successful continuation of the Westworld concept was and is Crichton’s Jurassic Park. While that series isn’t about murderous robots overtaking a theme park, it is about artificially-created dinosaurs overtaking a theme park, which isn’t far off. In some ways Westworld feels like a kind of first draft of the dinosaur series. While one is about robots and the other raptors, at the core of both you still have perfectly designed systems that go awry, the pursuit of profits leading to mayhem, and subjugated creatures rebelling.
The Westworld name would lay dormant for more than 30 years, until Jonathan Nolan and the HBO series comes in. Jonathan and his brother Christopher Nolan have co-written several films in the past, and two of these movies feel like direct predecessors to Nolan’s Westworld. The sci-fi opus Interstellar features two strong AI characters, though they’re loyal and lovable to their humans — sort of the opposite of Westworld’s androids. And The Prestige is very concerned with the notion of illusion.
As more and more modern films pose increasingly complicated questions about AI, a long-form TV series about the topic was ripe for exploration. Whether it truly is or not, intelligent AI feels like a technology that’s just around the corner. Nolan, incidentally, also created the CBS series Person of Interest before resurrecting Westworld. That show depicted an artificial intelligence that watched our every move, and could out-think us at every turn. Eventually a second, more ominous AI was introduced, setting up the idea that these things can be good or evil. Obviously this is a concept that’s come into play on Westworld too.
Nolan’s interest in video games, and in particular open world games, also plays directly into his depiction of the reimagined Westworld — and his desire to create the show in the first place. “[It] was the idea of life ever more beginning to resemble a game,” Nolan told IGN in 2016. “That with enough wealth and sufficient technological advancement that you could get to a point where you live, as a lot of people do, a significant portion of your life in a fantasy universe … You really dissolve into that experience and live your life inside — not a real world but a curated world. One that’s distinct from the real world because there’s intention there, there are rules. There is a narrative. Life, real life, resists narrative throughlines. There aren’t hidden levels. There’s just f**king chaos. But in the game universe there are always deeper levels of meaning.”
To find out what those deeper levels are, we’ll just have to continue watching Westworld.