Imagine a not-too-distant future in which a rich corporation has built the most fantastic tourist resort in the world. Leveraging new technologies, scientists have created attractions that offer visitors a chance to immerse themselves in another world. But something is going wrong. Safely protocols are failing. The corporate board won't shut the park down. And then the bloodshed begins.
If I told you this scenario was based on a Michael Crichton novel, you'd be right to think of the multibillion-dollar Jurassic Park franchise. But even as the latest installment, Jurassic World, breaks global box office records, HBO has put its money behind an even earlier Michael Crichton vision of a theme park gone wrong: Westworld.
The new show debuts in January. HBO recently released its first look, a mere 30 seconds of video that tells almost nothing. There will be sexy robots and fighting robots; Anthony Hopkins will be the mad genius behind them, and Ed Harris will be the menacing but alluring android gunslinger.
To get a better sense of what the new show might be like, I went back and re-watched the 1973 movie Westworld, which Crichton wrote and directed; read his novelization (the movie came first); and watched the sequel ( Futureworld). I even tried to get my hands on the widely panned, short-lived TV series based on the movies. The original, at least, holds up. It's classic Crichton, offering a well-conceived premise in which we get immersed—so much so that by the time the plot breaks out, I was disappointed that we were going to see the whole thing collapse.
Westworld tells the story of the amusement park of Delos, where tourists, for the lofty price of $1,000 a day, can go to a quasi-historical world based on our own: Roman World, Medieval World, or West World. In each, they put on costumes, and get to fight and/or fuck robots to their hearts' content, and in total safety as the robots can't hurt them... or can they? After the first wave of inevitable carnage, one tourist takes off first through the Western desert, then the other worlds and the tunnels beneath, pursued by the implacable Gunslinger. Through the eyes of this robot, played by Yul Brynner, we see a pixelated world as he tracks his foe, only to be foiled by luck, quick thinking, and the power of fire to override his infrared sensors.
It would be hard to overestimate the influence of Michael Crichton, who died in 2008, on modern mass-media storytelling. He was never, to my mind, the most innovative writer, but he knew how to build a novel or a script around a hook, and he knew how to take a winner and make it a franchise. Not only was Jurassic World the huge hit of the summer, but he also created ER. In fact, he wrote the original script for the hospital show in 1974, and it endured constant rejection until he and Spielberg, who directed the picture, found a buyer in the 90s. The rest is TV history. Crichton has plenty of stinkers in his résumé, but he's certainly provided material in this case that has enough depth to create a new hit show. And HBO is due for a new hit show.
It's true that Girls and Veep are both excellent comedies, and of course John Oliver's 18-minute rants not only dominate my Twitter feed after every show but may have changed government internet policy. The funny stuff, though, is not what propelled HBO to the top of our current Golden Age of High-Quality Television. HBO needs a violent, sexy, gritty, unique, artistic, intelligent, captivating drama in the tradition of its great shows. It needs a new Sopranos, Deadwood, or The Wire (or Rome, Oz, Six Feet Under, Boardwalk Empire... take your pick).
Game of Thrones has continued to surge in both ratings and controversy throughout its fifth season, but there are only two years left. Then what? True Detective Season 2 was widely panned; Rolling Stone called it, "the year's most passionately disliked show." The Brink and Ballers are "not good."
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Because Westworld is set in an amusement park, the movie deliberately invokes clichés. You might roll your eyes if a show presented a duel at high noon or a tavern brawl replete with a body sliding down the bar, but that's precisely the point here. The tourists want to participate within those clichés: stabbing Caesar, playing poker with Wild Bill Hickok, or commanding armies in a great medieval siege. HBO, via Rome, Deadwood, and Game of Thrones, has been providing its own takes on these archetypal events and settings, so Westworld has the chance to get very meta.
There are two problems. First, the show is going to need to be patient. We know there will be a robot revolution, but if the show rushes toward it too quickly, we'll lose the chance to enjoy a new take on the innovative setting that Crichton dreamed up so many years ago. Second, while I like the setting, Crichton didn't really give us any interesting characters around which to base a franchise.
Westworld's best character is Yul Brynner, who plays the Gunslinger. And yet he says little other than "draw" or "your move." He's the "villain" of West World, designated to start fights and be gunned down by the tourists. He's also got souped up infrared vision, killer instincts, and an implacable hatred for humanity. In many ways, Brynner's portrayal is a precursor to the more famous killer robots played by Schwarzenegger in Terminator or Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner. None of the humans are all that interesting, even the nominal hero, Richard Benjamin.
Show creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy are going to have to do better. Crichton gave them the premise and some iconic images on which to draw. Now they have to advance it from a single good movie to a world to which we'll want to return show after show, season after season.
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