'Westworld': Inside the Paranoid-Android Reboot of the Year

HBO's bold new series updates a Seventies sci-fi classic for the A.I. age — and makes humans the bad guys

How HBO's bold, ambitious new series 'Westworld' updated a classic movie about evil robots for the A.I. age — and why they made humans the bad guys. Credit: John P. Johnson/HBO

Think of Westworld, the 1973 science-fiction thriller about a Old West-themed resort where tourists live out their wildest Billy the Kid fantasies with the help of androids, and you probably picture Yul Brynner's gone-rogue robot gunslinger, and the eerie sight of his face slipping off to reveal a mass of crackling circuitry. Writer-producer Jonathan Nolan remembers that impact of that image; he also recalls seeing the movie as a kid and being freaked the fuck out. "It scared the shit out of me, actually," he says. "But looking back on it, what I realize is that it's the great granddaddy of a lot of sci-fi you see now. There's a ton of its DNA in The Terminator, for example. And when the movie came out, in terms of video games, all you had was Pong; it completely anticipates the idea of 'sandbox' games like Grand Theft Auto."

So when J.J. Abrams approached Jonathan and his wife, Lisa Joy Nolan, about adapting Michael Crichton's film into a TV show a few years ago, they readily agreed — as long as they could make one key change. "Humans are the heroes in the movie," he says. "We wondered, 'What if we flipped it? What if we make the robots the good guys, and people are the ones who are horrible and fucked up?'"

"I'll put it to you this way: Interstellar was, for me, a love song of a human spirit," Jonathan adds, referring to the 2014 movie that he co-wrote with his brother, director Christopher Nolan. "The first season of the show that Lisa and I put together — it's pretty much the exact opposite of that."

In this Westworld, which premieres on HBO on October 2nd, there's still a futuristic theme park populated by "hosts," as the showrunners call their mechanical hospitality workers. Homo sapiens still show up in droves, paying a lot of money to slap on a Stetson, cross the uncanny valley and live out their every hero-worship fantasy, sexual fetish and homicidal impulse, all consequence-free. But this time, the character you're rooting for the loudest isn't a flesh-and-blood person but a young frontier fembot (Evan Rachel Wood) who becomes self-aware and develops a serious question-authority glitch. Most of the humans are either morally compromised or straight-up monsters, including the park's Promethean creative director (Anthony Hopkins), and a programmer (Jeffrey Wright) trying to avoid a straight-up paranoid-android revolution. And then there's Ed Harris' mysterious man in black, a psychopath who's trying to find "another level" to the resort — and who may be the park's spurs-wearing version of the devil.

"It's science fiction, it's a Western, it's an existential drama and an intellectual nightmare," Wood says, "and I've never really read or seen anything quite like this — including the movie. And for those of us playing the hosts, it was also like the Acting Olympics: 'I need you to have a panic attack, and then I need you to be in character, and then I need you to go into computer mode, and then I need you to breathe, and then I need you to be downloading ... ' I mean, they just kept layering stuff. Plus we were all getting the scripts week to week, so we never knew what was going to happen in any given episode." Wright confirms that the cast was usually going into any given episode cold until the next batch of pages came in a few days before shooting. "At which point," the actors says, "there would suddenly be a flurry of texts going back and forth between everybody. 'Did you just read what I read?! What the hell is happening here? What sort of hallucinogenic windows are we being asked to climb through?'"

Everyone from the network suits to the showrunners knew this would be a fairly bold attempt to blend grad-level philosophy and Game of Thrones-style spectacle, with a look Nolan compares to "Alien meets Kubrick and Terrence Malick." Perhaps it wasn't surprising, then, that a project this ambitious ran into stumbling blocks. HBO shut down production for months to get the writing into shape, and the show was mired in a minor scandal when news leaked of a contract requiring extras to sign up for "genital-to-genital" contact. Nolan admits there were problems but says it was all part of making a complex series. "When you're doing a high-wire act like this, with a cast like this, it's going to come under a lot of scrutiny," he says. For her part, Wood says rumors of Roman-style robot orgies were exaggerated. "I kept reading those stories," she says, "and I'm thinking, 'Why was I not on set those days?'"

If this Westworld 2.0 doesn't erase visions of Yul Brynner with a Seventies robot face, it does leave viewers rethinking their relationship to technology, artificial intelligence and what, if anything, makes humankind the more soulful species. "There were days where I had existential-crisis moments and started to wonder, 'Wait, am I a robot?'" Wood says. "Then, after I watched the pilot, I was genuinely creeped out by myself. It fucked with all of our heads, I think."