The late novelist Michael Chrichton is most remembered as the creator of Jurassic Park, the dinosaur-clone amusement park story that has spawned a whole series of blockbuster films. In fact he wrote some 28 novels, which have sold over 200 million copies, plus screenplays for movies and television, nonfiction books, short stories and magazine articles.
One of Chrichton’s early movie projects was a 1973 science-fiction film called “Westworld,” which he also directed. In many ways it was a precursor to “Jurassic Park,” as it was also about a theme park populated by creatures that modern science had made possible in order to entertain us. In both cases, humans make misjudgments and the creatures become dangerous to the park guests, to say the least.
In “Westworld,” the creatures were humanoid robots that populated an Old West town. Unlike Jurassic Park, which was essentially a glorified zoo, it was intended for adults to interact with the town’s inhabitants. What could be more exciting that a confrontation with a gunslinger or a romance with a dancehall girl?
A little too exciting, as it turned out, just like an encounter with a real live dinosaur. The message of the two films, according to Chrichton, was to beware the development of advanced technology by huge, mindless corporations which were driven solely by the profit motive. Those corporations would inevitably take risks, and would inevitably make mistakes.
It is impossible to watch those movies, however, without getting another message, similar to the one Mary Shelley delivered 200 years ago in Frankenstein. When people start tinkering with sentient life forms, it doesn’t end well.
Chrichton has been gone for a decade now, but his ideas are still very much with us. In October of 2016, HBO launched a large-scale television series called “Westworld,” which is loosely based on the film. It’s an ambitious endeavor, not merely from a technical standpoint, but also in terms of its plot complexity and layering of themes.
One of those themes is surely that same caveat about the dangers of playing God, but there is a lot more going on here, some of which has not yet been fully revealed to us. The premise is pretty much the same as the movie, that adult humans pay a lot of money to have adult experiences with Western characters portrayed by robots.
Although nobody could be as cool as the original gunfighter, played in 1973 by Yul Brynner, these new robots are much more sophisticated than their predecessors. Apparently some sort of flesh-and-circuitry hybrids, they seem to feel authentic emotions and physical pain. They also have memories, which may be real or programmed.
Unfortunately, the humans in the story are no more evolved that they were 45 years ago. Most of them are crude, insensitive and sadistic, and they take every opportunity to abuse their android “hosts.” If they can do whatever they want with the robots, they generally choose rape, torture and murder.
We the audience, though presumably humans, naturally tend to side with the robots. We would like to see them fight back against the rich jerks who mistreat them, and ultimately we would like to see them escape. “Spartacus” comes to mind.
Spoiler alert. At the end of season one the hosts do indeed revolt against the “guests,” and it’s still not clear what the androids will do with the power they have seized. There are some indications that they will be just as bad as their human tormenters were, or worse, but we can hope that the suffering they endured will make them more sensitive to the suffering of others.
In 1887, the British historian Lord Acton wrote a letter to the Archbishop of the Church of England, in which he penned the now-famous line, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Many others have expressed a similar sentiment, that a person’s sense of morality decreases as his or her power increases.
The series premiered on October 2, 2016, which was almost exactly one year prior to a news story broken by The New York Times in which the actress Ashley Judd accused movie mogul Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault. That article triggered a tsunami.
The writers of the TV series, the husband-and-wife team of Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, could not have foreseen the cascade of events that would lead to the “me too” movement, and yet the show seems to be very much a part of it. Though it is often hard to figure out what “Westworld” is about, it makes one point very clearly. Men with power abuse women.
The revelations started last fall with the entertainment industry, but quickly spread through the arts and sciences, technology, business, government and education. Virtually every day another prominent man was brought down in disgrace, fired or forced to resign. Some of them made abject apologies to the women they mistreated, some adamantly denied the allegations, and others were somewhere in the middle.
After seven months, the perp walks are still continuing. Just this morning, for example, the lead story in the news was about Eric Schneiderman, the attorney general of the State of New York. Four women have accused him of sexual battery and various other forms of assault. Ironically, he was trying to bring charges against Harvey Weinstein for similar offenses.
I know a lot of you are thinking, “It’s not every man.” That’s true, and I’ve said the same thing myself, but the problem is pervasive. As Oprah Winfrey said at the Golden Globes in January, it’s a story that “transcends any culture, geography, race, religion, politics or workplace.” If you think it doesn’t permeate the school supply business, you’re kidding yourself.
Many years ago, for example, I was friends with a woman who worked at one of the more prominent suppliers in the industry. She told me that not only had her boss been highly inappropriate with her, but that his boss had been as well. Both men were married and old enough to be her father.
Her reaction was anger and disgust. She didn’t report the incidents to (what we then called) personnel, nor did she expect or even want help from anyone else. She simply did what millions of women have done before and since. She quit.
How many women have had their career paths blocked or diverted by unprincipled men? Judging by “#metoo,” nearly all of them.
The remedy may seem a bit like the French Revolution, in which the entire nobility was accused of something and executed, but that may be the price we need to pay. There is a reckoning going on, and it’s long overdue.
You can e-mail Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org.