‘Westworld’ And Our Constitutive Loneliness

The title sequence to HBO’s Westworld is visually and aurally beautiful, melancholic, and ultimately haunting: artifacts–whose artifice is clearly visible–take shape in front of us, manufactured and brought into being by sophisticated devices, presumably robotic ones just like them; their anatomies and shapes and forms and talents are human-like; and that is all we need to begin to empathize with them. Empathize with what? The emotions of these entities is ersatz; there is nothing and no one there. Or so we are told. But we don’t need those emotions and feelings to be ‘real’–whatever that means. We merely need a reminder–in any way, from any quarter–about the essential features of our existence, and we are off and running, sent off into that endless mope and funk that is our characteristic state of being.

The robot and the android–the ‘host’ in Westworld–is there to provide bodies to be raped, killed, and tortured by the park’s guests;  we, the spectators, are supposed to be ashamed of our species, at our endless capacity for entertainment at the expense of the easily exploited, a capacity which finds its summum malum with a demographic that is controlled by us in the most profound way possible–for we control their minds and bodies. 1984‘s schemers had nothing on this. And the right set-up, the right priming for this kind of reaction is provided by the title track–even more than the many scenes which show hosts crying, moaning with pleasure, flying into a rage–for it places squarely in front of us, our loneliness, our sense of being puppets at the beck and call of forces beyond our control. (The loneliness of the hosts being manufactured in the title sequence is enhanced by their placement in a black background; all around them, the darkness laps at the edges, held back only by the light emergent from the hosts’ bodies; we sense that their existence is fragile and provisional.)

We have known for long that humans need only the tiniest suggestion of similarity and analogy to switch on their full repertoire of empathetic reactions; we smile at faces drawn on footballs; we invent personal monikers for natural landmarks that resemble anatomic features; we deploy a language rich with psychological predicates for such interactions as soon as we possibly can, and only abandon it with reluctance when we notice that more efficient languages are available. We are desperate to make contact with anyone or anything, desperate to extend our community, to find reassurance that this terrible isolation we feel–even in, or perhaps especially in, the company of the ones we love, for they remind us, with their own unique and peculiar challenges, just how alone we actually are. We would not wish this situation on anyone else; not even on creatures whose ‘insides’ do not look like ours. The melancholia we feel when we listen to, and see, Westworld‘s title sequence tells us our silent warnings have gone unheeded; another being is among us, inaccessible to us, and to itself. And we have made it so; our greatest revenge was to visit the horrors of existence on another being.

Ridley Scott’s Promethean Stinker

I often disagreed with Roger Ebert‘s rating of movies. Sometimes, our disagreement would be a simple matter of Ebert being a little too kind, a little too forgiving. The latest instance of this discord may be found in our differing assessments of Ridley Scott‘s Prometheus. Ebert gives it four stars. I don’t.

I found Prometheus to be a failure as a horror film, a philosophical meditation, or an action movie.   A few visually striking images, some memorable set pieces and an interesting character–the android David–did not compensate for a movie that felt stale quite quickly.

My disappointments began early. Indeed, matters go rapidly downhill once the humans wake up from their hibernatory slumbers on the good ship Prometheus, Their motivations–despite the avowedly profound goal they declare themselves dedicated too–are not particularly interesting and neither are their resultant interactions. Try as I did, I found it hard to get worked up about their fates. So in a movie whose central characters frequently emphasize their soul-centric humanity to their android interlocutor, it is the latter is that is more emotionally affecting, a more compelling focus of our attention and interest. (I think I could have stood a version of Prometheus–shorter, of course–that features David navigating–by himself–the mysteries and attractions of  the LV-223 moon).

The central conceits of the movie–that it can simultaneously terrify, edify and entertain–are rendered false by its failure to address any of these goals with consistency and depth. The horror scenes strive, and fail, to put new spin on old, familiar tropes, sometimes drawn from close by in the director’s own oeuvre; the debates between science and religion–as ludicrously instantiated in human form in its characters– are sketchy; the central speculation–creation and design of humans by giant, really buff dudes who look like Olympians on ‘roids and live in a galaxy far, far away–isn’t particularly exciting; the action scenes suffer from a familiar modern failure: sound and fury with no heart. I am a little baffled by some of the critical acclaim the film has garnered; so impressed are the critics it seems by the overt claims of the film to profundity–the origin of man, the central epistemic and moral crisis of the science versus religion conflict–that they seem not to have examined the evidence presented to them.

Perhaps I’m being harsh. Perhaps. It might also be that when I am presented with glittering surfaces, I expect sublime depth will follow.  Prometheus fails because it seems to devote a great deal of energy in getting its stage to look good without bothering itself with the human-machine-creatures conflict supposed to play out on it. Strangely enough, by the end of the movie, so stricken had I become by the ennui dispensed by its central human characters, that I stopped caring about the human planet itself. I was curiously unaffected by any response approaching anxiety as the mighty Engineer’s spacecraft took off on its putatively Earth-destructive mission; and so, concomitantly, unafflicted by any pride or joy in Captain Janek’s Kamikaze-like ramming action.

Prometheus aspired, I think, to a kind of greatness; its failure is correspondingly larger.