I’ve been watching HBO’s Westworld with great interest. The 1973 film starring Yul Brynner remains a guilty pleasure of mine, as do any science fiction movies that in retrospect say something about the periods in which they were made. The most obvious examples are the ’50s-era films that served as allegories for the Cold War, their radioactive monsters trouncing Japan and their marauding aliens functioning as stand-ins for the Soviets nipping at our borders.
But art as exorcism of social and technological fears predates Godzilla and Klaatu by quite a bit. The 1818 publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus is a fine example, and as its subtitle suggests even in the early 19th century it was a latecomer to the genre. The haunted summer during which Shelley drafted her classic novel falls between the invention of the battery (1800) and the electric motor (1821). Electricity was the cutting edge technology in 1818, the spear tip of the next global transformation. Would harnessing its power be a boon to mankind, or would it be its downfall?
Two centuries later that question seems quaint. Electricity is given no more thought than running water. Today it’s just another utility of no consequence until we have no access to it, which was equally true when Michael Crichton created Westworld back in 1973. In fact, we’d harnessed a lot more than electricity by the early seventies. We’d been to the Moon, tamed the atom, and learned to cook a hot dog in 20 seconds.
American manufacturing had been on a two decade run of automating our lives, allegedly to maximize our leisure time. All of that Jetsons-style automation. What if the machines ran amok? Like Frankenstein’s monster before him and the Terminator after, Westworld’s Yul Brynner blasted away at the humans who created him, giving (and eventually burning away) a face to the fear of automation lurking in the era’s psyche.
But technological fears weren’t the only ones with which moviegoers grappled at the dawn of the seventies, or the dawn of the 19th century for that matter. Shelley’s monster begins his second life as an innocent child; granted, an oversized, horribly disfigured one, but an innocent nonetheless. His monstrous behavior evolves from the brutal treatment he receives from a community that dehumanizes him. Frankenstein represents not just a fear of the dawning electrical age, but a fear of the other.
This dimension is mostly missing from the original Westworld, in which James Brolin and Richard Benjamin shoot and fuck the amusement park’s robots with little or no moral struggle. Around that same time, though, Rod Serling was using science fiction to explore the fear of the other on his legendary television series The Twilight Zone, where humans found themselves exhibits in Martian zoos or meals from aliens. In one of the series’ most famous episodes, a conventionally beautiful woman is the ugliest person on a planet of pig-faced people.
Exploring otherness by flipping the script was a hallmark of the show, so it’s little wonder that Serling was chosen to adapt Pierre Boulle’s novel into the screenplay for 1968’s Planet of the Apes. In that film technology serves as no more than a tool to move the story along–yada yada yada they travel through space, yada yada yada nuclear holocaust. The movie’s real concern is fear of otherness.
The world of Planet of the Apes is one where our closest genetic cousins have replaced us as the dominant species, literally enslaving humanity. The film was released in the United States on April 3, 1968: The following day, Martin Luther King was assassinated. I imply no causation with this correlation; rather, my point is that the filmmakers had captured the zeitgeist. Planet of the Apes was to the civil rights era what The Day the Earth Stood Still was to the Cold War.
What makes the Westworld reboot so interesting is that like 2015’s Ex Machina, the series interweaves both of these subtexts found in the best science fiction. We no longer fear electricity or machinery (unless you have a secret fear of Roombas): Today artificial intelligence dominates the collective technology anxiety. Will our autonomous cars eventually develop consciousness? Will our inevitable humanoid sex robots retaliate against their human abusers? Is there a moral dilemma inherent to mistreating an android hooker? Will we all end up batteries in the Matrix?
These sorts of questions are taken quite seriously by some as the 21st century unfolds. Two hundred years from now they may seem as quaint as the fear of electricity once was, or perhaps they’ll seem prescient as we serve our android masters.
And these are the questions that the new Westworld explores, but it also seems to tackle our real-life problems with otherness. The show’s creators present an idealized other that can be abused, raped, and murdered, but unlike its 1973 predecessor, we as viewers are privy to the fact that these machines are developing both memories and emotions. Like a classic Twilight Zone, the script is flipped–the “other” is our proxy in this world. We empathize with the dehumanized and vilify the people behaving inhumanly.
With 50 years’ distance, this might emerge as the zeitgeist of the 20-teens, a decade that has seen increasing sensitivity to otherness. From Black Lives Matter to the rights of women, immigrants, the 99 percent, and the LGBTQ community, we’re experiencing a decade where the “machines” are rising up against their oppressors. Whether they will overcome the burgeoning alt-right movement remains to be seen, but we as “viewers” are faced with the same opportunities for introspection and compassion presented by the new Westworld’s creators.
Will HBO’s Westworld reach the canonical status of Frankenstein, The Twilight Zone, and Planet of the Apes? It’s the right sci-fi story at the right moment, but only time will tell.