American sci-fi novelist Philip K. Dick once wondered what androids dream about. HBO’s upcoming television series Westworld asks the question, “What happens after they wake up?”
Judging by the show’s latest trailer, the answer appears to be, “Nothing good.”
Based on the 1973 film of the same name, Westworld is about an American West-themed amusement park in which robots fulfill the every desire of the guests who pay to visit. Anthony Hopkins is perfectly cast as Dr. Robert Ford, the chief architect of Westworld, and Evan Rachel Wood plays Dolores, an android who discovers that her “life” is no life at all. The series was created by Jonathan Nolan (who co-wrote, with brother, the screenplays for The Prestige, The Dark Knight, and Interstellar) and produced in part by J.J. Abrams.
In the original film (written and directed by Michael Crichton), the robots start misbehaving due to a virus in their software. In the HBO series, though, there’s no such technical malfunction. Rather, the robots work too well—they become self-aware and, encouraged by the sinister “Man in Black” (played by Ed Harris), some decide to retaliate against the humans controlling them.
“No choice you ever made was your own,” the Man in Black says. “You have always been a prisoner. What if I told you, I’m here to set you free?”
Artificial consciousness has been explored plenty of times before, in dozens of films like The Matrix, Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey (and, of course, the original Westworld), as well as TV series like Battlestar Galactica and Nolan’s own Person of Interest.
But there’s never been a better time for a sweeping cable series devoted solely to the subject, just as our real-life technology is advancing to the point where we’ll soon have to grapple with these same questions: Is it ethical to create a sentient robot and force it to carry out our will? Does it have rights? What does it really mean to be human? Can that experience be replicated in a machine? What happens when the robots realize their “lives” are artificial?
In the 1973 film version, the story’s primary point-of-view was that of the humans (those visiting the park); the HBO series will shift to the perspective of the robots. This isn’t just a story of robots run amok—the audience is meant to sympathize with these machines, most of which (or is it whom?) have never known a reality outside what their human masters have made for them. While the Man in Black’s methods may be extreme, perhaps he has a point. How would you feel if one day you discovered someone built you for the sole purpose of entertaining others?
It seems the show will be, in large part, about the blurring of moral lines—just like another popular, high-concept HBO series that will soon go off the air. Westworld premieres on HBO Oct. 2.