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An Escape into Reality”: Computers, Special Effects, and the Haunting Optics of Westworld (1973)

Col­in Williamson

Abstract | As one of the ear­li­est exper­i­ments with inte­grat­ing com­put­er-gen­er­at­ed spe­cial effects into cel­lu­loid film­mak­ing, Michael Crichton’s sci­ence fic­tion film West­world (1973) imag­ined the tran­si­tion into a dig­i­tal future with a famil­iar apoc­a­lyp­tic nar­ra­tive about dis­obe­di­ent machines and vir­tu­al real­i­ties. In this essay I move away from “escapist” and “futur­ist” read­ings of the sci-fi genre and explore how West­world was “an escape into real­i­ty,” to bor­row Isaac Asimov’s phrase, that immersed audi­ences in the com­put­er­i­za­tion of life, visu­al­i­ty, and the cin­e­ma in 1970s Amer­i­ca. My focus will be on map­ping the film’s use of com­put­er sim­u­la­tion as part of a con­stel­la­tion that includes every­thing from moder­ni­ty in fin-de-siè­cle amuse­ment parks and ear­ly cin­e­ma to dis­cours­es on post­mod­ernism (Bau­drillard) and dehu­man­iza­tion (Son­tag). I will also con­sid­er how the recent HBO series Westworld(2016) reimag­ined Crichton’s film as a way of visu­al­iz­ing and his­tori­ciz­ing ques­tions about the vir­tu­al in our dig­i­tal moment.

Résumé | Le film de sci­ence fic­tion de Michael Crich­ton, West­world, (1973), l’une des pre­mières expéri­ences d’intégration d’effets spé­ci­aux créés sur ordi­na­teur dans l’industrie ciné­matographique, imag­ine la tran­si­tion dans un futur dig­i­tal au sein d’un réc­it apoc­a­lyp­tique sur la désobéis­sance des machines et les réal­ités virtuelles. Dans cet essai, je m’éloigne de la lec­ture diver­tis­sante et futur­iste de la sci­ence fic­tion pour explor­er com­ment West­world a con­sti­tué une “éva­sion dans la réal­ité”, pour repren­dre les mots d’Isaac Asi­mov, qui plonge le spec­ta­teur dans une vie infor­ma­tisée , la visu­al­ité et le ciné­ma de l’Amérique des années 70. Ma recherche s’efforcera de doc­u­menter dans le film l’emploi de la sim­u­la­tion par ordi­na­teur comme une par­tie de la con­stel­la­tion de tech­niques util­isées depuis la moder­nité des parcs d’amusement fin-de-siè­cle et des débuts du ciné­ma jusqu’au dis­cours sur le post­mod­ernisme (Bau­drillard) et la déshu­man­i­sa­tion (Son­tag). Je vais égale­ment exam­in­er com­ment la récente série télévisée West­world (2016) sur HBO a réimag­iné le film de Crich­ton comme une manière de visu­alis­er et d’historiciser les ques­tions por­tant sur le virtuel dans notre époque dig­i­tale.

Brood of hell, you’re not a mor­tal!
Shall the entire house go under?
Over thresh­old over por­tal
Streams of water rush and thun­der.
Broom accurst and mean,
Who will have his will,
Stick that you have been,
Once again stand still!

-Johann Wolf­gang von Goethe, “The Sorcerer’s Appren­tice” (1797)

In a provoca­tive review of West­world (1973), Michael Crichton’s sci­ence-fic­tion film about a futur­is­tic, com­put­er­ized theme park called Delos, Ger­ald Mead and Sam Apple­baum of Jump Cut link the film to the visu­al cul­ture of the Viet­nam War. At the end of West­world one of the main char­ac­ters destroys a homi­ci­dal android gun­slinger (played by Yul Bryn­ner) by set­ting the robot on fire (fig. 1). Reflect­ing crit­i­cal­ly on the film in 1975, Mead and Apple­baum argue that the burn­ing android con­jures “the image of some ‘mad­man’ ignit­ing him­self in front of impas­sive onlook­ers” (12-13). The ref­er­ence is most like­ly to Mal­colm Browne’s pho­to­graph of the Bud­dhist monk Thích Quang Duc’s self-immo­la­tion in Saigon on June 11, 1963. The resem­blance is strik­ing and point­ed­ly unex­pect­ed, not least because one image depicts a spec­tac­u­lar destruc­tion of a fic­tion­al machine in a Hol­ly­wood film and the oth­er is a record of a human being’s pro­found protest of the gov­ern­ment in South Viet­nam. By link­ing the two images togeth­er Mead and Apple­baum demand that West­world be seen, espe­cial­ly by Amer­i­can audi­ences, not as an escape into an imag­i­nary futur­is­tic world but as a kind of futur­is­tic reimag­in­ing of the present, what Isaac Asi­mov called “an escape into real­i­ty” (332).

Figure 1. Westworld: the burning android.

Fig­ure 1. West­world: the burn­ing android.

It is easy to see West­world as a reflec­tion of a world that was for many in the 1970s alarm­ing­ly out of con­trol. The film focus­es on two friends, Peter (Richard Ben­jamin) and John (James Brolin), who vis­it Delos to rev­el in the theme park’s fan­tas­tic worlds pop­u­lat­ed by excep­tion­al­ly con­vinc­ing humanoid robots. Ear­ly on Peter and John make their way to the part of the park known as West­world to immerse them­selves in a sim­u­la­tion of the Wild West in the late 19th cen­tu­ry, a peri­od in Amer­i­can his­to­ry with strong par­al­lels to the vio­lence, impe­ri­al­ism, and racism of the Viet­nam era. Upon their arrival, a voice on a loud­speak­er reas­sures the vis­i­tors that they are “free to indulge their every whim” because “noth­ing can go wrong.” Every­thing, obvi­ous­ly, does go wrong. Along with the com­put­ers that con­trol the park, the robots begin to mal­func­tion, sup­pos­ed­ly through the spread of a virus, or what one of the park’s experts skep­ti­cal­ly calls a “dis­ease of machin­ery.” The ini­tial promise of free­dom quick­ly gives way to a total loss of con­trol over com­put­er­ized tech­nolo­gies: the robots rebel, the sim­u­la­tions become real, and vis­i­tors start dying. Ulti­mate­ly, John is shot and killed by the android gun­slinger, and a chain of vio­lence ensues that cli­max­es at the end of the film when Peter burns the robot “alive” and order, it seems, is restored to the park.

The loss of con­trol in West­world is a famil­iar one. Adver­tise­ments for the film empha­sized the volatile rela­tion­ship between humans and machines by fea­tur­ing the now com­mon­place fig­ure of the com­put­er “glitch.” Posters with the tagline “Where noth­ing can pos­si­bly go worng” con­tain a minor mis­spelling that presages dis­as­ter (fig. 2); when the line is spo­ken in voiceover in a trail­er for the film, the audio is plagued by a sim­i­lar glitch: “Where noth­ing can pos­si­bly go wrong…go wrong…go wrong.” The fatal com­put­er mal­func­tion that undoes the safe­ty of the amuse­ment park recalls “HAL” in Stan­ley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and the long his­to­ry of what Scott Bukat­man calls “dis­obe­di­ent machines,” from Johann Wolf­gang von Goethe’s mag­ic brooms in “The Sorcerer’s Appren­tice” (1797) and the crea­ture in Mary Shelley’s Franken­stein (1818) to the rebel­lious robot­ic cre­ations in Metrop­o­lis (Fritz Lang, 1927), Blade Run­ner (Rid­ley Scott, 1982), and Ex Machi­na (Alex Gar­land, 2015), to name a few. As part of this his­to­ry of (dis)obedience, Crichton’s film grap­ples with endur­ing ques­tions that have long been sta­ples of the sci­ence-fic­tion genre: Will the tech­nolo­gies we cre­ate improve human­i­ty? Will they replace us or destroy us? Will they make us less human? How much con­trol do we real­ly have over them?

Figure 2. Theatrical release poster for Westworld (1973). Source: The Official Site of Michael Crichton.

Fig­ure 2. The­atri­cal release poster for West­world (1973). Source: The Offi­cial Site of Michael Crich­ton.

While West­world’s nar­ra­tive taps into well-worn anx­i­eties about tech­nol­o­gy, the film still has much to teach us, par­tic­u­lar­ly about how Amer­i­cans were nav­i­gat­ing the rapid­ly chang­ing tech­no-sci­en­tif­ic land­scape of their his­tor­i­cal moment. Shad­ow­ing Crichton’s futur­is­tic theme park were wide­spread efforts to com­pre­hend and cope with aston­ish­ing devel­op­ments in every­thing from space explo­ration and Cold War sci­ence to mass com­mu­ni­ca­tion, mol­e­c­u­lar biol­o­gy, and com­put­ers. The 1970s were ush­ered in by a wave of cul­tur­al criticism—for exam­ple, Nigel Calder’s Tech­nop­o­lis (1969), William Braden’s The Age of Aquar­ius (1970), Zbig­niew Brzezinski’s Between Two Ages (1970), and Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock (1970)—that grap­pled with the social, polit­i­cal, and philo­soph­i­cal impli­ca­tions of these changes by imag­in­ing pos­si­ble futures and end­ings for a soci­ety in tran­si­tion. Tof­fler famous­ly char­ac­ter­ized the tran­si­tion as a “super-indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tion” that threat­ened to out­pace society’s abil­i­ty to adapt to changes that many held to be the stuff of sci­ence fic­tion rather than real­i­ties of con­tem­po­rary life. Rehears­ing ear­li­er crit­i­cisms by Georg Sim­mel and Wal­ter Ben­jamin about the shocks of moder­ni­ty at the end of the 19th cen­tu­ry, Tof­fler remarked:

In the com­ing decades, advances in these fields [of sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy] will fire off like a series of rock­ets car­ry­ing us out of the past, plung­ing us deep­er into the new soci­ety. Nor will this new soci­ety quick­ly set­tle into a steady state. It, too, will quiver and crack and roar as it suf­fers jolt after jolt of high-ener­gy change. It offers no return to the famil­iar past. It offers only the high­ly com­bustible mix­ture of tran­sience and nov­el­ty. (217)

It is pre­cise­ly this imag­ined future of a present world on the verge of going up in flames that haunts West­world and is reflect­ed, I argue, in the fig­ure of the burn­ing android.

In what fol­lows I explore how these con­cerns about “future shock” in the ear­ly 1970s get nego­ti­at­ed in West­world’s treat­ment and use of com­put­ers. In 1973, com­put­er tech­nolo­gies were just begin­ning to rad­i­cal­ly trans­form Amer­i­can life and, over the decade, would “cre­ate a total­ly new human envi­ron­ment,” to bor­row Mar­shall McLuhan’s words (viii). At stake in this trans­for­ma­tion was the sta­bil­i­ty of not only the archi­tec­ture of soci­ety but also con­vic­tions about foun­da­tion­al cat­e­gories such as “real­i­ty” and “human­i­ty,” which were being chal­lenged by com­put­ers’ capac­i­ties for sim­u­la­tion. It is sig­nif­i­cant, from this per­spec­tive, that Crichton’s film was among the ear­li­est exper­i­ments in com­bin­ing com­put­er­ized spe­cial effects with cel­lu­loid film­mak­ing in Hol­ly­wood. For Brynner’s char­ac­ter, Crich­ton col­lab­o­rat­ed with exper­i­men­tal com­put­er ani­ma­tor John Whit­ney, Jr. to sim­u­late the vil­lain­ous gunslinger’s robot­ic point-of-view, which was achieved by using com­put­ers to trans­form cel­lu­loid footage into high­ly pix­e­lat­ed images.1 On the sur­face, the result­ing elec­tron­ic machine vision—essentially West­world as “seen” by a computer—is a small but mar­velous spe­cial effects inno­va­tion. Con­sid­er­ing the cli­mate in which the inno­va­tion occurred, how­ev­er, I argue that the use of dig­i­tal spe­cial effects, to bor­row Kris­ten Whissel’s term, “emblema­tized” the emer­gence of a new way of see­ing (and see­ing with) com­put­ers in 1973.

To this end, I sit­u­ate West­world’s “robot POV” in a broad­er dis­course of uncer­tain­ty that took shape around the spread of com­put­er­i­za­tion in ear­ly-1970s Amer­i­ca and that helps us, look­ing back on that decade, see how the film res­onat­ed and res­onates in com­plex ways. West­world’s use of spe­cial effects, and the nar­ra­tive in which it embeds them, make the film part of a rich con­stel­la­tion that includes every­thing from the moder­ni­ty of fin-de-siè­cle amuse­ment parks and ear­ly cin­e­ma to ideas about post­mod­ernism and the posthu­man that con­verge around com­put­ers in the late-20th cen­tu­ry and that con­tin­ue to unfold. Fur­ther­more, that Crichton’s film was recent­ly reimag­ined in our dig­i­tal moment as an HBO tele­vi­sion series sug­gests that the orig­i­nal was both time­ly and pre­scient. Look­ing close­ly at this con­stel­la­tion, I read West­world not only as an alle­go­ry for a world in crisis—for exam­ple, as a haunt­ed inscrip­tion of the visu­al­i­ty of the Viet­nam War or a reflec­tion of an apoc­a­lyp­tic Cold War imaginary—but also as a meta-text about the chang­ing nature of the sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy that went into mak­ing the film itself.

Futuristic Visions of a Digital Present

Com­put­ers are most­ly used against peo­ple instead of for peo­ple; used to con­trol peo­ple instead of to free them.

-People’s Com­put­er Com­pa­ny (1972)

Among the spe­cial effects employed in West­world is a curi­ous spec­ta­cle of see­ing through a robot’s eyes. After the android gun­slinger shoots John dead, it sets out in relent­less pur­suit of Peter, whose per­spec­tive on the chase is peri­od­i­cal­ly inter­cut with shots of the gunslinger’s point-of-view. The robot POV is sig­naled by the appear­ance of high­ly ras­ter­ized footage that con­sists of pix­els arranged in an array of 3,600 rec­tan­gles. The array is intro­duced in the first shot of the gunslinger’s view of Peter des­per­ate­ly flee­ing on a horse from the scene of his friend’s mur­der when he real­izes that the robot is out for blood (fig. 3). The effect is an ear­ly ver­sion of a com­put­er­ized film aes­thet­ic and a nov­el attempt to visu­al­ize the optics of an elec­tron­ic machine, a kind of topos in the his­to­ry of what Alexan­der Gal­loway calls “com­put­er­ized, cyber­net­ic, machinic vision”—variations of which would lat­er appear in sci­ence-fic­tion films such as Robo­Cop (Paul Ver­ho­even, 1987), Preda­tor (John McTier­nan, 1987), and Ter­mi­na­tor 2 (James Cameron, 1991) (Gal­loway 53).2

Fig­ure 3. The ras­ter­ized robot POV.

From the audience’s per­spec­tive, the amount of abstrac­tion in the image makes West­world’s robot POV dif­fi­cult to read. The mosa­ic of tiny rec­tan­gles used in the spe­cial effect reg­is­ters only gen­er­al impres­sions of shape, colour, and move­ment. The gunslinger’s lack of visu­al acu­ity is exploit­ed for dra­mat­ic effect at sev­er­al points dur­ing the chase when Peter briefly avoids detec­tion by becom­ing motion­less and blend­ing with the oth­er infor­ma­tion in the gunslinger’s visu­al field. At one point, for exam­ple, Peter mas­quer­ades as a bro­ken android and lies down on a table in a lab where machines from the park are brought for repairs (fig. 4). Peter is ulti­mate­ly dis­cov­ered when he moves slight­ly and gives him­self away.3 How­ev­er, this small nar­ra­tive func­tion aside, for the most part the robot POV is a cin­e­mat­ic attrac­tion, an inter­est­ing tech­no­log­i­cal arti­fact.Figure 4. The gunslinger’s view of the tables in the lab where Peter is hiding.

Fig­ure 4. The gunslinger’s view of the tables in the lab where Peter is hid­ing.

The use of spe­cial effects to imag­ine how a com­put­er sees was the result of a rich con­ver­gence of art and sci­ence. The robot POV was cre­at­ed by exper­i­men­tal film­mak­er and com­put­er ani­ma­tor John Whit­ney, Jr., who was giv­en the task of sim­u­lat­ing how the gunslinger’s elec­tron­ic eyes broke the world down into small ani­mat­ed rec­tan­gles. The desired effect was lim­it­ed by con­ven­tion­al spe­cial-effects tech­nolo­gies at the time and the fact that the film indus­try had not yet adopt­ed the dig­i­tal meth­ods made avail­able by com­put­ers. Whit­ney found inspi­ra­tion and a solu­tion in the sci­en­tif­ic visu­al­iza­tions made by NASA’s Jet Propul­sion Lab­o­ra­to­ry dur­ing the Mariner pro­gram (1962-1973). In par­tic­u­lar, the pro­gram suc­cess­ful­ly used a space­craft to trans­mit close-up images of Mars in bina­ry code, which was con­vert­ed by com­put­ers back on Earth into pho­tographs that con­sist­ed of cod­ed shades of black and white com­piled into ras­ter­ized images (fig. 5). Whit­ney col­lab­o­rat­ed with com­put­er sci­en­tists to devel­op a sim­i­lar tech­nique where­by a com­put­er scanned cel­lu­loid footage and con­vert­ed each frame of film into a series of val­ues that could be manip­u­lat­ed at will for aes­thet­ic pur­pos­es. Whit­ney explains:

Once the com­put­er has “read” the image and con­vert­ed it to a series of num­bers, there is tremen­dous flex­i­bil­i­ty in what the com­put­er can then do with this numer­i­cal infor­ma­tion. The image can be recon­sti­tut­ed with dif­fer­ent con­trasts, dif­fer­ent res­o­lu­tions, dif­fer­ent col­ors. We can enlarge, stretch, squeeze, twist, rotate it, posi­tion it in space in any way. In fact, the only lim­i­ta­tions are imposed by the cre­ative tal­ents of the per­son oper­at­ing the machine. (1478)

In oth­er words, the com­put­er trans­formed the cel­lu­loid image into a kind of “plas­mat­ic” dig­i­tal paint­ing.4

Figure 5. Bottom half of Mariner 4 photograph of craters on Mars, 1965. Source: NASA Image ID number: Mariner 4, frame 09D.

Fig­ure 5. Bot­tom half of Mariner 4 pho­to­graph of craters on Mars, 1965. Source: NASA Image ID num­ber: Mariner 4, frame 09D.

Whitney’s cel­e­bra­tion of the “lim­it­less” artis­tic con­trol afford­ed by com­put­ers echoes the very utopi­an fan­ta­sy about the rela­tion­ship between humans and machines that ani­mates West­world. With­in the film, the amuse­ment park’s sim­u­la­tions of the Wild West and two oth­er “worlds”—Roman World and Medieval World—are made pos­si­ble by an intri­cate net­work of com­put­er tech­nolo­gies. The androids are linked to a com­mand cen­tre where tech­ni­cians observe all of the activ­i­ties in the park on com­put­er screens and video mon­i­tors (fig. 6). The resem­blance to NASA’s mis­sion-con­trol room is unmis­tak­able (fig. 7). Crich­ton claims that one of the inspi­ra­tions for the film was the Kennedy Space Cen­ter, and the oth­er was Dis­ney­land (“Behind the Scenes” 1397). The sur­veil­lance sys­tem in West­world is used to con­trol the androids’ behav­ior in sce­nar­ios that are designed to ful­fill each guest’s desires, such as win­ning a gun­fight with­out the stakes or con­se­quences of com­mit­ting an act of vio­lence against a real human being. Indeed, the entire premise of West­world is that com­put­ers make it pos­si­ble for each guest “to indulge their every whim” with­out lim­its.

Figure 6. The computer control room in Westworld.

Fig­ure 6. The com­put­er con­trol room in West­world

.

Figure 6. The computer control room in Westworld.

Fig­ure 7. View of Mis­sion Con­trol dur­ing lunar sur­face Apol­lo 11 extrave­hic­u­lar activ­i­ty, 1969. Source: NASA Image ID num­ber: S69-39593.

This premise was already in the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion by 1973. Three years ear­li­er in Future Shock, Tof­fler spec­u­lat­ed on the impend­ing real­iza­tion of

sim­u­lat­ed envi­ron­ments that offer the cus­tomer a taste of adven­ture, dan­ger, sex­u­al tit­il­la­tion or oth­er plea­sure with­out risk to his real life or rep­u­ta­tion. Thus com­put­er experts, robo­t­eers, design­ers, his­to­ri­ans, and muse­um spe­cial­ists will join to cre­ate expe­ri­en­tial enclaves that repro­duce, as skill­ful­ly as sophis­ti­cat­ed tech­nol­o­gy will per­mit, the splen­dor of ancient Rome, the pomp of Queen Elizabeth’s court, the “sex­oti­cism” of an eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry Japan­ese geisha house, and the like. Cus­tomers enter­ing these plea­sure domes will leave their every­day clothes (and cares) behind, don cos­tumes, and run through a planned sequence of activ­i­ties intend­ed to pro­vide them with a first-hand taste of what the original—i.e., unsimulated—reality must have felt like. They will be invit­ed, in effect, to live in the past or per­haps even the future. (228)

Tof­fler saw such sim­u­lat­ed envi­ron­ments tak­ing shape in the ways that artists were begin­ning to exper­i­ment with the uses of elec­tron­ic media to cre­ate immer­sive and inter­ac­tive vir­tu­al-real­i­ty expe­ri­ences that would con­tin­ue through the decade. Brack­et­ing the release of West­world, for exam­ple, are com­put­er artist Myron Krueger’s pio­neer­ing “Psy­chic Space” (1971) and “Video­place” (1975), inter­ac­tive (audio)visual instal­la­tions that allowed users to con­trol com­put­er­ized envi­ron­ments by mov­ing through “respon­sive” spaces out­fit­ted with state-of-the art sen­sors, cam­eras, and pro­jec­tors.5

The way that West­world rep­re­sents the pos­si­bil­i­ties of com­put­er­ized sim­u­la­tions is not only an invo­ca­tion of these kinds of real and imag­ined exper­i­ments, but it also calls to mind the dis­course of pow­er in the his­to­ry of ani­ma­tion. As Don­ald Crafton explains, ear­ly ani­mat­ed films fre­quent­ly dis­played hands in the act of ani­mat­ing drawings—what he calls the “hand of the artist” motif—to reflect how ani­ma­tors exer­cise a “god-like” con­trol over their cin­e­mat­ic cre­ations (415). In West­world, experts wield com­put­ers like gods to ani­mate Delos for park vis­i­tors. The com­put­er­ized com­mand cen­tre func­tions as a kind of omni­scient dream machine where engi­neers and tech­ni­cians take on the role of all-pow­er­ful artists who, like Whit­ney, have com­plete cre­ative con­trol over every detail of the park’s mise-en-scène. The artists behind the scenes use com­put­ers to sim­u­late real­is­tic worlds; pup­peteer the androids that make those sim­u­la­tions look and feel so real; sur­veil and manip­u­late; ful­fill desires; and bend real­i­ty itself to the will of those in charge. There is no lim­it, it would seem, to what humans can do with the com­put­ers they cre­at­ed. That is, of course, until the pup­pets cut their strings.

The robot rebel­lion that throws Delos into chaos is obvi­ous and inevitable, part­ly because it was fore­ground­ed in West­world’s mar­ket­ing cam­paign, but also because the trope is per­va­sive in sci­ence fic­tion and ani­ma­tion. Before the gun­slinger shoots and kills John, there is grow­ing con­cern among the park’s experts that the machines are malfunctioning—a robot­ic snake bites John in the desert and a knight stabs a guest—but the aber­rant behav­ior is con­sid­ered to be a glitch, like a com­put­er virus. When the gun­slinger mis­be­haves, it is clear that the glitch is actu­al­ly a sign of life and that the machines are not mal­func­tion­ing but rather assert­ing their auton­o­my from the artist-engi­neers who cre­at­ed and con­trolled them. Thus, when we see through the gunslinger’s elec­tron­ic eyes, we are asked to see the android as more than a machine; this is a vision that has a life of its own. We lit­er­al­ly see with the com­put­er as it becomes uncon­trol­lable. That this way of see­ing the android as a trans­gres­sive fig­ure occurred at a time in Amer­i­can his­to­ry when com­put­ers were just begin­ning to set rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tions in motion makes the trope of the dis­obe­di­ent machine in West­world deeply his­tor­i­cal.

It is not coin­ci­den­tal that the spec­ta­cle of the robot POV is intro­duced at the same moment that the utopi­an fan­ta­sy of Delos col­laps­es. When Whit­ney turned to com­put­ers to craft West­world’s spe­cial effects, the Unit­ed States was in the midst of what Car­roll Pursell refers to as a “cri­sis of con­fi­dence” about tech­nol­o­gy (134). The cri­sis was broad­ly a shift away from post­war opti­mism toward “anti-tech­nol­o­gy views” (172). The views were large­ly moti­vat­ed by Cold War uncer­tain­ties about uncon­trol­lable tech­nolo­gies and grow­ing fears of experts, cor­po­ra­tions, and the mil­i­tary-indus­tri­al com­plex in light of the tech­no­log­i­cal real­i­ties and vio­lence in Viet­nam. This shift in per­cep­tion extend­ed as promi­nent­ly to the machin­ery of war as it did to com­put­ers. In the years between 1971-1973, com­put­er sci­ence made unprece­dent­ed advances in cyber­net­ics research, the inven­tion of the inter­net, and the devel­op­ment of micro­proces­sors that grad­u­al­ly made com­put­ers avail­able to the pub­lic. Views of these inno­va­tions were not entire­ly utopi­an. Com­bined with McLuhan’s rad­i­cal crit­i­cal the­o­ries of the elec­tron­ic-infor­ma­tion age and the fact that com­put­ers were large­ly the domain of cor­po­ra­tions and gov­ern­ment enti­ties rather than of “the peo­ple,” the com­put­er, Pursell explains, devel­oped a “reputation…as an impersonal—even antipersonal—force in soci­ety” (185).

It is sig­nif­i­cant that com­put­ers were con­cur­rent­ly tak­en up by sci­ence-fic­tion films and imag­ined as dis­obe­di­ent machines. In 1974, Vin­cent Can­by reflect­ed in the New York Times on a trend root­ed in 2001 and tak­ing shape with films such as West­world and Richard Heffron’s then-antic­i­pat­ed sequel, Future­world (1976): “The com­put­ers of today are the Franken­stein mon­sters of yesterday’s goth­ic fic­tion. We are tam­per­ing with the Unknown” (8). Quot­ing Michael Webb of the Amer­i­can Film Insti­tute, the Wash­ing­ton Post report­ed sim­i­lar­ly: “Today’s mon­sters seem to be flash­ing dials, end­less banks of com­put­ers whirring silent­ly behind walls of gleam­ing glass” (Kriegs­man C1). The nar­ra­tive struc­ture of West­world—from free­dom to disaster—reads like a roadmap of com­pet­ing dis­cours­es on com­put­ers and the broad­er cri­sis of con­fi­dence tak­ing shape around tech­nol­o­gy in post­war Amer­i­ca. Yet the artists behind West­world’s dig­i­tal aes­thet­ic also wield­ed com­put­ers to pro­duce won­ders, and in this respect the film is as much a futur­is­tic vision of com­put­ers in the ear­ly 1970s as it is an exper­i­ment in test­ing their cre­ative pow­ers.

Westworld and/as the Cinema

The imagery of dis­as­ter in sci­ence fic­tion films is above all the emblem of an inad­e­quate response.

-Susan Son­tag, “The Imag­i­na­tion of Dis­as­ter” (1965)

In addi­tion to coin­cid­ing with key inno­va­tions in the his­to­ry of com­put­ers, West­world appears at a point in the his­to­ry of spe­cial effects when Hol­ly­wood was just begin­ning to explore the aes­thet­ics of com­put­er-gen­er­at­ed imagery (CGI). In the 1960s, com­put­er graph­ics relat­ed to tech­niques and tech­nolo­gies of the mov­ing image cir­cu­lat­ed most­ly in the realm of exper­i­men­tal ani­ma­tion. Main­stream inno­va­tions in what we now call dig­i­tal spe­cial effects did not rise to promi­nence until the late 1970s and ear­ly 1980s with the use of com­put­er tech­nolo­gies in films such as Star Wars (1977) and Tron (1982).6 West­world thus made its home in an impor­tant tran­si­tion­al peri­od in Amer­i­can film his­to­ry that saw a new cin­e­mat­ic optics emerge from the inter­sec­tion of old­er film­mak­ing practices—namely those relat­ed to the pho­to­re­al­ist tradition—and the dig­i­tal aes­thet­ics made pos­si­ble by com­put­ers.

From this per­spec­tive, West­world is quite rich as an alle­go­ry for the cin­e­ma. In a 1973 inter­view with Amer­i­can Cin­e­matog­ra­ph­er, Crich­ton acknowl­edged that the premise of the film—visitors liv­ing out fan­tasies in a futur­is­tic amuse­ment park—was deeply cin­e­mat­ic: “In some ways,” he explained, “it’s a movie about peo­ple act­ing out movie fantasies…wondering what it would be like to be an actor in an old movie” (“Behind the Scenes” 1397). As Crich­ton would have it, when Peter and John vis­it West­world they are not sim­ply expe­ri­enc­ing a sim­u­la­tion of the Wild West, but step­ping into the cin­e­mat­ic West­ern. Delos is the “old” cin­e­ma remade as a “new” immer­sive vir­tu­al-real­i­ty sys­tem, an updat­ed ver­sion of Buster Keaton’s dream in Sher­lock Jr. (1924) of pro­ject­ing him­self into the movies. The reflex­iv­i­ty in West­world touch­es on every­thing from the resem­blance between the com­put­er­ized com­mand cen­tre and the behind-the-scenes labour on a movie set to the fact that the android gun­slinger was played by Yul Bryn­ner, who appeared notably as the gun­slinger Chris Adams in John Sturges’s West­ern The Mag­nif­i­cent Sev­en (1960). Bryn­ner appar­ent­ly wears the same cos­tume in both films (fig. 8).Figure 6. The computer control room in Westworld.

Fig­ure 8. Left: Bryn­ner as the android gun­slinger in West­world. Right: Bryn­ner as Chris Adams in The Mag­nif­i­cent Sev­en.

By weav­ing a nar­ra­tive out of androids and amuse­ment parks, Crich­ton (inten­tion­al­ly or not) taps into two of the cinema’s longest stand­ing affini­ties. With regard to the gun­slinger, it is impor­tant that the cin­e­mat­ic appa­ra­tus was linked from the very begin­ning, tech­ni­cal­ly and the­o­ret­i­cal­ly, to the automa­ton. As Alan Cholo­denko argues, the link is one of the most endur­ing through­out film his­to­ry because the automaton’s abil­i­ty to blur the line between human and machine speaks to the very nature of the cin­e­ma: they are both “vital machines” capa­ble of pro­duc­ing uncan­ny illu­sions of life and motion. In West­world, for exam­ple, the robots are only rec­og­niz­able as such by their “shim­mer­ing” eyes. We have seen how the gunslinger’s dis­obe­di­ence makes the android with­in the film a vital machine, a com­put­er that appears to have a life of its own. The ques­tion of vital­i­ty is com­pli­cat­ed by the fact that, for audi­ences of West­world, the android is played by a liv­ing human being. Fol­low­ing Cholo­denko, the gun­slinger can also be seen as an embod­i­ment of the cin­e­ma, for the cin­e­ma is an automa­ton.7

Con­sid­er that the spe­cial effect Whit­ney cre­at­ed to sim­u­late the android’s vision was made pos­si­ble by a com­put­er: that is, the com­put­er­ized robot’s vision was in fact com­put­er gen­er­at­ed. A curi­ous dou­bling is at work in Whitney’s footage where­by the “real” computer—Whitney’s—is fold­ed into the “fic­tion­al” one, impli­cat­ing both machines in the nar­ra­tives of free­dom and dis­as­ter that play out in the film. There is a nice res­o­nance, for exam­ple, between the gun­slinger who dig­i­tal­ly “reads” the land­scape with­in the film and the com­put­er that “reads” the cel­lu­loid image to pro­duce the spe­cial effect for the gunslinger’s POV. The dou­bling act is par­tic­u­lar­ly sig­nif­i­cant in light of the fact that the robot POV is a mov­ing image in tran­si­tion. Whitney’s spe­cial-effects sequence was strik­ing in 1973 because it resem­bled ear­ly arcade video-game aes­thet­ics more than any­thing “cin­e­mat­ic” at the time.

The rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Delos is doing sim­i­lar reflex­ive work. Like automa­ta, amuse­ment parks share a his­to­ry with the cin­e­ma that can be traced to the emer­gence of motion pic­tures. Begin­ning in the 1890s, amuse­ment parks and the cin­e­ma co-evolved as emblems of moder­ni­ty. They were both sites where the nov­el shocks, dan­gers, and bewil­der­ing expe­ri­ences of mod­ern life were trans­formed and put on dis­play as safe, enter­tain­ing, and even lib­er­at­ing spec­ta­cles. Coney Island, for exam­ple, was designed as a vir­tu­al city apart—like the Emer­ald City in Oz—where, John Kas­son explains:

[V]isitors were tem­porar­i­ly freed from nor­ma­tive demands. As they dis­em­barked from fer­ry­boats with fan­ci­ful names like Pega­sus…they felt them­selves pass­ing into a spe­cial realm of excit­ing pos­si­bil­i­ty, a dis­tinc­tive milieu that encour­aged types of behav­ior and social inter­ac­tion that in oth­er con­texts would have been viewed askance. (41)

The par­al­lels with Crichton’s amuse­ment park are reveal­ing. Delos is pitched in the film as “the vaca­tion of the future,” where real­i­ty is remade into a fan­ta­sy and vis­i­tors are “free to indulge their every whim” by immers­ing them­selves in a sim­u­lat­ed world with­out lim­its. The film also opens with a scene that close­ly resem­bles Kasson’s descrip­tion of vis­i­tors arriv­ing at Coney Island. When we are intro­duced to Peter and John, they are trav­el­ling by hov­er­craft to Delos. After they dis­em­bark from this mech­a­nized Pega­sus, they take on new iden­ti­ties as cow­boys in West­world, where they are free to indulge in vio­lence with­out con­se­quence because real­i­ty in Delos is a game. The hov­er­craft sequence even includes a view from the cock­pit that sim­u­lates one of the ear­li­est con­ver­gences of motion pic­tures and tech­nolo­gies of vir­tu­al trav­el: the Hale’s Tours ride sim­u­la­tors that pop­u­lat­ed fin-de-siè­cle amuse­ment parks and World Fairs.8

It is remark­able that West­world should rean­i­mate these affini­ties amidst a “cri­sis of con­fi­dence” about tech­nol­o­gy. In Elec­tric Dream­land, Lau­ren Rabi­novitz argues con­vinc­ing­ly that at the end of the 19th cen­tu­ry “amuse­ment parks and movies taught Amer­i­cans to rev­el in a mod­ern sen­si­bil­i­ty that was about adapt­ing to new tech­nolo­gies” (2). That is, by expe­ri­enc­ing the real­i­ties of mod­ern life vir­tu­al­ly and safely—e.g., as a mechan­i­cal ride or a motion picture—people could bet­ter adjust to rad­i­cal­ly new tech­nolo­gies and envi­ron­ments that were, in real­i­ty, over­whelm­ing, fright­en­ing, and poten­tial­ly dis­as­trous. Angela Ndalia­n­is has argued sim­i­lar­ly that, because spe­cial effects tend to dis­play broad­er tech­no­log­i­cal changes dur­ing peri­ods of intense inno­va­tion, they “have a great deal to do with accli­ma­tiz­ing audi­ences to dif­fer­ent forms of visu­al engage­ment” (259). By embed­ding its spe­cial effects in a nar­ra­tive about automa­ta and an amuse­ment park mod­eled on fan­tasies about com­put­ers and the cin­e­ma, West­world reads like an edu­ca­tion in the rapid­ly chang­ing tech­no­log­i­cal land­scape of its his­tor­i­cal moment.

The idea that West­world is “about adapt­ing to new tech­nolo­gies” is use­ful for mak­ing sense of the film’s impulse toward reas­sur­ance. Almost as soon as West­world imag­ines com­put­ers rebelling and threat­en­ing human­i­ty it imag­ines the machines’ spec­tac­u­lar destruc­tion: the android gun­slinger is ulti­mate­ly burnt to ash­es. The sig­nif­i­cance of this nar­ra­tive of (un)controllability is deep­ened in light of the fact that com­put­ers in the 1970s were rev­o­lu­tion­iz­ing the rela­tion­ship between human­i­ty and tech­nol­o­gy. Cyber­net­ics and phi­los­o­phy were rais­ing pro­found ques­tions about what it means to be human, to be con­scious, and to be alive. As N. Kather­ine Hayles has shown, ear­ly com­put­ers con­tributed to con­cep­tu­al­iz­ing “humans as infor­ma­tion-pro­cess­ing enti­ties who are essen­tial­ly sim­i­lar to intel­li­gent machines” (7, orig­i­nal empha­sis). In this anal­o­gy, the human mind was reimag­ined as a thing that was not bound to the human body, a “posthu­man” idea that gets visu­al­ized in West­world by the robot POV: we trans­fer our sub­jec­tiv­i­ty to a com­put­er. Although more latent in 1973, com­put­ers sim­i­lar­ly upend­ed the nature of the cin­e­ma when the dig­i­tal image began to erode the cel­lu­loid image’s index­i­cal bond to real­i­ty, which set in motion a cri­sis of visu­al­i­ty that con­tin­ues to unfold today.

Sym­bol­i­cal­ly, then, we might say that the robot POV is what Vivian Sobchack calls a “tran­si­tion­al object,” hov­er­ing some­where between the past and the future, utopia and dis­as­ter, the famil­iar and the unfa­mil­iar. Writ­ing about com­put­er ani­ma­tion in WALL-E (Andrew Stan­ton, 2008), Sobchack pro­pos­es that the tit­u­lar char­ac­ter, a mechan­i­cal trash com­pactor with a microchip core, “serves [in our con­tem­po­rary moment] as a bridge to the future present of tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment” (387). For Sobchack, WALL-E’s embod­i­ment of the old and the new, the mechan­i­cal and the elec­tron­ic, alle­go­rizes and medi­ates the tran­si­tion in the cin­e­ma from a cel­lu­loid past to a dig­i­tal future. I sug­gest we read Whitney’s spe­cial-effect arti­fact in West­world sim­i­lar­ly as a kind of “bridge” that, although it is ulti­mate­ly set on fire, medi­ates an aes­thet­ic and cul­tur­al tran­si­tion shaped by the cinema’s inter­sec­tion with ear­ly com­put­er ani­ma­tion tech­niques. (The par­al­lel that Ing­mar Bergman draws in Per­sona [1966] between the footage of a self-immo­la­tion that appears on a tele­vi­sion screen and the sub­se­quent melt­ing of the cel­lu­loid film­strip is uncan­ni­ly res­o­nant here.)9

As if haunt­ed by the grow­ing pow­er of com­put­ers to pull real­i­ty and human­i­ty apart at the seams, the spec­ta­cle of the gunslinger’s “death” thus seems to invite the audi­ence to bear wit­ness to human­i­ty assert­ing its defin­i­tive con­trol over an increas­ing­ly com­put­er­ized world. A cen­tral con­cern about the ways that com­put­ers were rev­o­lu­tion­iz­ing life in the ear­ly 1970s was the loos­en­ing of what Tof­fler called “man’s grasp on real­i­ty” (231). The con­cern was fueled by a sense that com­put­er tech­nolo­gies were begin­ning to erode the dis­tinc­tion both between real­i­ty and illu­sion in their capac­i­ties for sim­u­la­tion, and between human and machine in their impli­ca­tions for phi­los­o­phy and biol­o­gy, includ­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty that “life” and “human” would have to be re-imag­ined if com­put­ers were suc­cess­ful­ly com­bined with liv­ing organ­ic mate­r­i­al. The ero­sion was com­pound­ed by the fact that com­put­ers were open­ing the human expe­ri­ence up to infi­nite new pos­si­bil­i­ties at a rate that threat­ened to exceed people’s abil­i­ty to antic­i­pate, let alone con­trol, the short- and long-term effects of the changes tak­ing place: “The prob­lem,” in Toffler’s view, “is whether [humans] can sur­vive free­dom” (187). Con­sid­er­ing this, we might say that, if Delos is a com­put­er­ized “elec­tric dream­land,” a vir­tu­al space where the free­doms made pos­si­ble by com­put­ers are unleashed, the unrav­el­ling of that dream­land is pre­sent­ed as a night­mare from which Amer­i­can audi­ences can wake up. In deliv­er­ing this les­son West­world posi­tions the cin­e­ma as a safe space for play­ing with and alle­vi­at­ing anx­i­eties about fright­en­ing tech­no­log­i­cal changes that were already under­way in Amer­i­can cul­ture.

Writ­ing in the 1960s, Susan Son­tag called the trend of “imag­in­ing dis­as­ter” this way in sci­ence fic­tion an “inad­e­quate response” to real­i­ty because it does not oblige audi­ences to address the very real “ter­rors” that get fic­tion­al­ized and resolved in the cin­e­ma. West­world’s reas­sur­ances no doubt make the film com­plic­it in pre­serv­ing an illu­sion of safe­ty in the face of rad­i­cal changes that radi­ate out­ward from film and com­put­ers to the fate of human­i­ty itself. The act of cov­er­ing over can be seen as an attempt to make the uncer­tain­ties of mod­ern life bear­able, to imag­ine safe­ty in the ongo­ing night­mares of the Cold War, for exam­ple, when humans were grap­pling with the pos­si­bil­i­ty of their own self-anni­hi­la­tion, which, as Son­tag points out, “could come at any time, vir­tu­al­ly with­out warn­ing” (224). What gets left out, how­ev­er, is a clear sense that chang­ing the course of sci­en­tif­ic and tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion is imper­a­tive and requires action.

It is pre­cise­ly what West­world does not ask audi­ences to see or do that motived Mead and Apple­baum to invoke “the image of some ‘mad­man’ ignit­ing him­self in front of impas­sive onlook­ers” with which I began this arti­cle. Draw­ing a par­al­lel to the West­ern genre’s ten­den­cy to mythol­o­gize and glo­ri­fy Amer­i­can impe­ri­al­ism, they crit­i­cized West­world for pro­tect­ing the Amer­i­can psy­che from the dark social and polit­i­cal real­i­ties of the ear­ly 1970s. While I am pri­mar­i­ly con­cerned with the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of tech­nol­o­gy and dis­as­ter in West­world, their indict­ment is worth quot­ing at length for what it reveals about the reach of the film’s fan­ta­sy of con­trol:

It is not [the guests’] con­scious aware­ness that these are robots, non-human machines, that deter­mines their reac­tions, but rather their feel­ing and con­vic­tion that these “oth­ers” are some kind of less-than-human humans, real, liv­ing objec­ti­fi­ca­tions of their fan­tasies. So what we have in fact are the begin­nings of a rather thin­ly dis­guised racial per­spec­tive, an exploita­tion jus­ti­fied by an explanation—the “oth­ers” are less than human—and by an eco­nom­ic right—the “guests” pay.… Nor does it seem coin­ci­den­tal that for the leader of the robot revolt Crich­ton should cast the for­mer king of Thai­land, the leader of the mad Huns, Mex­i­can rad­i­cal, inscrutable hired killer, the sug­ges­tive­ly Mon­gol-fea­tured Yul Bryn­ner. Along with infrared sens­ing devices, weapons that kill only the “ene­my,” will­ing, thank­ful pros­ti­tutes, etc., West­world sim­ply pro­vides the tri­umphant, guilt­less hero that Indochi­na didn’t. (12-13)

Much more can and should be said about West­world as a kind of racial­ized war game—Mead and Apple­baum offer a fair­ly thor­ough dis­cus­sion of this. Here it is notable that the film’s “vaca­tion of the future” premise con­jures a relat­ed dis­course of pow­er in his­to­ries of trav­el in film and relat­ed media. Delos’s promise of safe­ty and free­dom to vis­i­tors who embark on futur­is­tic jour­neys in the park is rem­i­nis­cent of the kind of mas­tery promised by amuse­ment parks, World Fairs, and the trav­el­ogue genre in the cin­e­ma. These oth­er forms of vir­tu­al trav­el are his­tor­i­cal­ly wedded—particularly in the ear­ly-20th century—to what Jen­nifer Peter­son calls a “visu­al impe­ri­al­ism,” a mode of rep­re­sen­ta­tion fil­tered through “racial per­spec­tives” of colo­nial­ism and tourism that ren­dered for­eign and exot­ic places safe and con­sum­able for West­ern audi­ences (8) (see also Ruoff, Vir­tu­al Voy­ages).

This is all to say that West­world was engaged in a sim­i­lar kind of cul­tur­al work aimed at ren­der­ing the “mon­strous” and “vil­lain­ous” com­put­er safe at a time when the effects of that tech­nol­o­gy were only begin­ning to come into focus. This dimen­sion of the film betrays the sim­plic­i­ty of its nar­ra­tive of reas­sur­ance, not to men­tion the sim­plic­i­ty of its spe­cial effects. Crich­ton offers the com­put­er up as a high­ly seduc­tive machine—like the cinema—with the poten­tial to sat­is­fy an endur­ing human desire to exceed the lim­i­ta­tions of real­i­ty and the human expe­ri­ence. The fan­ta­sy is a messy one in which the com­put­er emerges as nei­ther utopi­an nor dystopi­an; it is an object of debate and a tool Crich­ton uses to grap­ple with the dif­fi­cul­ty of com­pre­hend­ing what a dig­i­tal future might look like, and what might become of human­i­ty if it con­tin­ues to push tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion in the direc­tion of that future. The fan­ta­sy is also not sim­ply escapist. West­world works through the cin­e­ma to exper­i­ment safe­ly with the real­i­ties of its unsafe his­tor­i­cal moment while cov­er­ing over a whole range of social and polit­i­cal issues. Look­ing back on the film from our con­tem­po­rary moment, the future present that Crich­ton imag­ined in 1973 feels very close to home. Giv­en that our net­worked, media-sat­u­rat­ed, and increas­ing­ly vir­tu­al real­i­ty resem­bles Delos more than it ever has before, we might ask: What kind of work can West­world do for us now?

The Memory of Reality

Don’t give your­selves to these unnat­ur­al men—machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines!

-Char­lie Chap­lin, The Great Dic­ta­tor (1940)

In 2016, HBO renewed Crichton’s film as a 10-part tele­vi­sion series that devi­ates sig­nif­i­cant­ly from the path West­world imag­ined in 1973. The new ver­sion fol­lows the tra­jec­to­ry of the orig­i­nal, but it unfolds large­ly from the per­spec­tive of the androids, name­ly a rancher’s daugh­ter named Dolores Aber­nathy (Evan Rachel Wood) and Maeve Mil­lay (Thandie New­ton), a madam in a broth­el in West­world. Where­as the gunslinger’s POV was an impor­tant spe­cial effects attrac­tion in Crichton’s film, the shift to the android per­spec­tive in the HBO series is pri­mar­i­ly a nar­ra­tive device. Dolores and Maeve are unaware of their machine natures, but as they play out their pro­grammed roles over and over for the park’s guests, they slow­ly become haunt­ed by mem­o­ries that cause them to ques­tion what they con­sid­er to be their human­i­ty. Their ques­tion­ing is profound—What does it mean for a machine to feel uncer­tain about its nature? Or for humans to imag­ine a machine’s uncer­tain­ty for that mat­ter? The ques­tion­ing is also the source of the androids’ dis­obe­di­ence: Dolores embarks on a quest to unrav­el the mys­tery of her place in Delos, and Maeve arranges her own escape from the park by mod­i­fy­ing her pro­gram­ming. Ulti­mate­ly, it is revealed that one of the park’s founders, Robert Ford (Antho­ny Hop­kins), spent decades secret­ly design­ing the androids’ search for answers that would lead to their rebel­lion and free­dom. Unlike the orig­i­nal West­world, how­ev­er, there is no fiery android death; in 2016 the machines win and, as if tak­ing up Chaplin’s call, declare their human­i­ty.

While a lengthy analy­sis of the series is beyond the scope of this arti­cle, the man­ner in which the 2016 ver­sion renews the alle­gor­i­cal dimen­sions of the orig­i­nal is worth men­tion­ing, even if only to open up a dia­logue about what the con­nec­tion reveals about our endur­ing fas­ci­na­tion with that decade and how we are deal­ing with the “future shock” of our con­tem­po­rary moment. Most notable here is the fact that the lack of reas­sur­ance in HBO’s West­world is per­va­sive and daunt­ing. Where­as Brynner’s gun­slinger is cold and mechan­i­cal, these new androids are human­ized and sym­pa­thet­ic, the trag­ic vic­tims and play­things of humans who com­mit acts of mur­der and sex­u­al vio­lence almost mechan­i­cal­ly. See­ing humans mech­a­nized and machines human­ized com­pels us to ques­tion our human­i­ty, espe­cial­ly when by the end we might find our­selves root­ing, against our nature, for our own demise. To com­pound the inver­sion, some char­ac­ters that we are ini­tial­ly led to believe are human—such as the lead pro­gram­mer Bernard (Jef­frey Wright)—are lat­er revealed to be androids, which makes every­one in Delos sus­pect. As the machines’ exis­ten­tial crises unfold it becomes more and more dif­fi­cult for them and for us to deter­mine if their ques­tion­ing is a sign of life or the result of their pro­gram­ming; if the mem­o­ries that haunt them are real or fake; and if what we are wit­ness­ing is occur­ring in an android’s dream or in “real­i­ty.” The nar­ra­tive also employs an increas­ing­ly ambigu­ous flash­back struc­ture and “reboots” so often that even deter­min­ing pre­cise­ly where, when, and if events occurred becomes a chal­lenge. The web of uncer­tain­ty is one from which there is appar­ent­ly no escape for us.

Yet why weave the web? If Peter’s destruc­tion of the gun­slinger in 1973 is more or less com­fort­ing, what is the suc­cess­ful robot rebel­lion in 2016 doing? The dif­fer­ence no doubt makes the new West­world more dis­tinct­ly post­mod­ern than its pre­de­ces­sor. Take, for exam­ple, Jean Baudrillard’s quite fit­ting assess­ment of the spec­tre that haunts both West­worlds: Dis­ney­land. Writ­ing in 1981 in the light (or shad­ow) of the impact of elec­tron­ic media on con­cep­tions of real­i­ty, Bau­drillard claims, “Dis­ney­land is pre­sent­ed as imag­i­nary in order to make us believe that the rest is real” (12). In oth­er words, humans cre­ate “sim­u­la­tions,” such as amuse­ment parks, androids, and the cin­e­ma, to answer the ques­tion of what is “real”—i.e., real­i­ty is real because Dis­ney­land is fake. Bau­drillard sug­gests that the faith we place in this dis­tinc­tion cov­ers over the fact that the dis­tinc­tion is imag­i­nary, that there is no “real” and “sim­u­la­tion” but only the “hyper­re­al” (12-13). Where­as Crich­ton ques­tions but ulti­mate­ly pre­serves this faith—Peter suc­cess­ful­ly defends real­i­ty against the sim­u­la­tion and secures the dis­tinc­tion between both categories—the HBO series seems to be explor­ing what it would be like to embrace hyper­re­al­i­ty, per­haps as a way of work­ing through the unique chal­lenges of our his­tor­i­cal moment.

In an inter­view about West­world (2016), the show’s cre­ators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy sug­gest that their ver­sion grap­ples with the fact that, in the 21st cen­tu­ry, humans are liv­ing very real lives in the vir­tu­al real­i­ties made pos­si­ble by videogames and the inter­net. Nolan explains:

As our world becomes more clois­tered and the expe­ri­ences we choose for our­selves, espe­cial­ly in the West, we’re able to design not just our envi­ron­ment but also our intel­lec­tu­al envi­ron­ment to suit our pref­er­ences and predilec­tions. We are, you know, sort of design­ing this odd pro­phy­lac­tic uni­verse in which we can—we can do what­ev­er we want (qtd. in Gross).

On one lev­el, the idea is that com­put­er­ized tech­nolo­gies have final­ly trans­formed our real­i­ty into the Delos that Crich­ton imag­ined. On anoth­er, we have so thor­ough­ly dif­fused the real into the elec­tron­ic phan­tas­mago­rias we cre­ate that “real­i­ty” exists for us in the dig­i­tal age only as a flick­er­ing mem­o­ry. The West­world that Nolan and Joy imag­ined is thus a fraught escape into the plur­al real­i­ties in which we find (or lose) our­selves every time we turn on our TVs, boot up our com­put­ers, or pick up our smart­phones.

By ask­ing us quite unapolo­get­i­cal­ly to bear wit­ness to the dis­ap­pear­ance of real­i­ty as we knew it, it may well be that that the dark mir­ror the HBO series holds up to us is doing a dif­fer­ent kind of work than the orig­i­nal. The series is notice­ably less about spe­cial effects and more about the impos­si­bil­i­ty of dis­en­tan­gling human­i­ty from the dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies that define how we expe­ri­ence, under­stand, and “design” our envi­ron­ment, as Nolan puts it. See­ing from the per­spec­tive of the androids now is not like imag­in­ing see­ing through the eyes of an unfa­mil­iar machine—as the com­put­er­ized robot POV allowed audi­ences to do in 1973—but like encoun­ter­ing some­thing like our android selves. It is also reveal­ing that the per­spec­tive audi­ences are asked to take now is shift­ed from the pre­dom­i­nant­ly male cast in 1973 to female leads in 2016, and that many of the cen­tral char­ac­ters in the TV series are peo­ple of colour, espe­cial­ly giv­en the promi­nent lack of diver­si­ty in the orig­i­nal film. The new West­world seems to grap­ple more open­ly (although prob­lem­at­i­cal­ly) than the orig­i­nal with the pol­i­tics of race and gen­der that are cur­rent­ly play­ing out, some­times vio­lent­ly, in the media, in the cin­e­ma, and in soci­ety in the Unit­ed States.10

It thus can­not be coin­ci­den­tal that West­world has reap­peared at a time when human­i­ty is once again being torn apart at the seams by forces that are increas­ing­ly incom­pre­hen­si­ble. Just as Mead and Apple­baum saw their vio­lent his­tor­i­cal moment reflect­ed and refract­ed in the sub­lime image of the burn­ing android, we might be haunt­ed by the uncom­fort­able and quite dev­as­tat­ing famil­iar­i­ty of the new West­world. Par­tic­u­lar­ly in the Unit­ed States, the tech­no-sci­en­tif­ic real­i­ties of sur­veil­lance, cyber­war­fare, social media, and gov­er­nance are wreak­ing hav­oc in old and new ways on every­thing from pol­i­tics, race, gen­der, and class to civ­il lib­er­ties and the very fab­ric of cul­ture, if not human­i­ty, itself. Is it any won­der that the first sea­son ends with a strik­ing scene of a diverse android army led by women emerg­ing from the woods on the edge of West­world seek­ing vio­lent ret­ri­bu­tion? (fig. 9) View­ers find no solace in this place because this is not a cin­e­ma of reas­sur­ance.11 Indeed, per­haps that is pre­cise­ly the point: to bring us clos­er to what Son­tag might call an “ade­quate” response to the ter­rors and uncer­tain­ties of our present real­i­ties. If noth­ing else, when look­ing out at our West­world, we should feel the deep urgency of Goethe’s ques­tion, “Shall the entire house go under?”1 Acknowledgments I would sincerely like to thank Nathan Holmes and Andrew Pendakis for their excellent editorial guidance, and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on an early draft of this article. Part of this paper was also presented at the 2018 Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference in Toronto, and I am grateful for the generous feedback I received from panelists and attendees there, particularly Tanya Shilina-Conte.

Fig­ure 9. Top: Dolores Aber­nathy (Evan Rachel Wood) tak­ing aim to assas­si­nate Robert Ford (Antho­ny Hop­kins) and ini­ti­at­ing the android rev­o­lu­tion. Bot­tom: The android army emerg­ing from the woods to bring a vio­lent end to human­i­ty. Episode: “The Bicam­er­al Mind.”

Works Cited

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Turnock, Julie. Plas­tic Real­i­ty: Spe­cial Effects, Tech­nol­o­gy, and the Emer­gence of 1970s Block­buster Aes­thet­ics. Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2015. Print.

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Image Notes

Fig­ure 1. The burn­ing android. Repro­duced from West­world, direct­ed by Michael Crich­ton (MGM, 1973), DVD.

Fig­ure 2. The­atri­cal release poster for West­world (1973). Source: “West­world.” The Offi­cial Site of Michael Crich­ton. http://​www​.michael​crich​ton​.com/​w​e​s​t​w​o​r​ld/

Fig­ure 3. The ras­ter­ized robot POV. Repro­duced from West­world, direct­ed by Michael Crich­ton (MGM, 1973), DVD.

Fig­ure 4. The gunslinger’s view of the tables in the lab where Peter is hid­ing. Repro­duced from West­world, direct­ed by Michael Crich­ton (MGM, 1973), DVD.

Fig­ure 5. Bot­tom half of Mariner 4 pho­to­graph of craters on Mars, 1965. Source: NASA Image ID num­ber: Mariner 4, frame 09D.

Fig­ure 6. The com­put­er con­trol room in West­world. Repro­duced from West­world, direct­ed by Michael Crich­ton (MGM, 1973), DVD.

Fig­ure 7. View of Mis­sion Con­trol dur­ing lunar sur­face Apol­lo 11 extrave­hic­u­lar activ­i­ty, 1969. Source: NASA Image ID num­ber: S69-39593.

Fig­ure 8. Left: Bryn­ner as the android gun­slinger in West­world. Repro­duced from West­world, direct­ed by Michael Crich­ton (MGM, 1973), DVD. Right: Bryn­ner as Chris Adams in The Mag­nif­i­cent Sev­en. Repro­duced from The Mag­nif­i­cent Sev­en, direct­ed by John Sturges (The Mirisch Com­pa­ny, 1960), DVD.

Fig­ure 9. Top: Dolores Aber­nathy (Evan Rachel Wood) tak­ing aim to assas­si­nate Robert Ford (Antho­ny Hop­kins) and ini­ti­at­ing the android rev­o­lu­tion. Bot­tom: The android army emerg­ing from the woods to bring a vio­lent end to human­i­ty. Repro­duced from West­world (Sea­son 1, Episode 10), direct­ed by Jonathan Nolan, (HBO, 2016).

Acknowledgments

I would sin­cere­ly like to thank Nathan Holmes and Andrew Pen­dakis for their excel­lent edi­to­r­i­al guid­ance, and two anony­mous review­ers for their help­ful com­ments on an ear­ly draft of this arti­cle. Part of this paper was also pre­sent­ed at the 2018 Soci­ety for Cin­e­ma and Media Stud­ies Con­fer­ence in Toron­to, and I am grate­ful for the gen­er­ous feed­back I received from pan­elists and atten­dees there, par­tic­u­lar­ly Tanya Shili­na-Con­te.

Notes

1 John Whit­ney, Jr., is the son of the Amer­i­can exper­i­men­tal com­put­er ani­ma­tor John Whit­ney, Sr. Both were pio­neers in ear­ly com­put­er­ized spe­cial effects. The avant-garde con­nec­tion is vis­i­ble in the abstract­ness of the gunslinger’s POV.

2 For more on iter­a­tions of machine per­spec­tives, see also Rogers, Cin­e­mat­ic Appeals.

3 Indeed, Crich­ton would use the play between ani­mate and inan­i­mate sim­i­lar­ly in the con­text of char­ac­ters try­ing to avoid being detect­ed by dinosaurs in his 1990 nov­el Juras­sic Park, which Steven Spiel­berg adapt­ed for his land­mark spe­cial effects film three years lat­er.

4 See fur­ther Eisen­stein 1986 and Manovich 2001.

5 See fur­ther Krueger 1977.

6 For more on the ear­ly com­put­er­i­za­tion of spe­cial effects, see Turnock.

7 Mar­tin Scorsese’s dig­i­tal 3D film Hugo (2011) offers an inter­est­ing alle­go­ry of ear­ly cin­e­ma as an automa­ton. For more on this, see Williamson.

8 For more on Hale’s Tours, see Rabi­novitz 2012 and Field­ing 1970.

9 I am very grate­ful to Tanya Shili­na-Con­te for bring­ing this con­nec­tion to my atten­tion. For more on the par­al­lel between the self-immo­la­tion and the burn­ing cel­lu­loid in Bergman’s film, see Tatiana Shili­na-Con­te, Black Screens, White Frames: Recal­cu­lat­ing Film His­to­ry, PhD dis­ser­ta­tion, State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York at Buf­fa­lo, 2016.

10 In an out­stand­ing arti­cle on the sub­ject, Aaron Bady argues that the HBO ver­sion ges­tures beyond but ulti­mate­ly does not escape the West­ern genre’s his­tor­i­cal sanc­tion­ing of Amer­i­can racism and impe­ri­al­ism.

11 I am bor­row­ing “cin­e­ma of reas­sur­ance” from Charles Muss­er and Car­ol Nelson’s descrip­tion of how Lyman Howe’s ear­ly-20th cen­tu­ry trav­el­ogues pre­served an ide­al image of Amer­i­ca against the real­i­ties of racism and impe­ri­al­ism at the turn of the cen­tu­ry.