Watching Michael Crichton’s Westworld now, it’s hard to believe that it’s quite as old as it is. The hit 1973 film about an Western-themed amusement park populated by robots who overcome their programming and attack the guests got a sequel, Futureworld, in 1976, and Michael Crichton himself was behind a TV spinoff, Beyond Westworld in1980, but that only ran for five episodes, and the potential has laid dormant since.
It’s surprising that a cult property with such a fun, modern concept has been absent from popular culture for nearly 35 years, even while there have been some attempts to get a film reboot off the ground and almost everything else has been remade already. JJ Abrams and Jonah Nolan evidently share that view and last August it was announced that the pair, through Abrams’ Bad Robot and Warner Bros. TV, had started work on developing a reinvention of Crichton’s film for HBO.
Nolan and his wife Lisa Joy have co-written the pilot script, Nolan will himself direct, and JJ is executive producing along Bryan Burk and Jerry Weintraub. They’ve described their version as “a dark odyssey about the dawn of artificial consciousness and the future of sin,” but we knew all of that already, and just hoped they didn’t mean this would feel like a prequel to Almost Human.
We’ve been doing some digging into the new show and have uncovered the specific approach to that Nolan and Joy are taking. It actually sounds very interesting indeed, taking the very loose concept of the film and running off in a brave new direction.
The story will still take place in a Western themed amusement park populated by robots and guests, but whereas Crichton’s film had guests played by James Brolin and Richard Benjamin as its lead characters, the TV version would focus more on the park’s robot attractions. But of course, they wouldn’t be aware that they’re robots.
The concept makes me think of Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse – and, while Whedon is in mind, the sci-fi-Western tropes also feel a little bit Firefly – but with the greatest of respect to Eliza Dushku, Westworld is gunning for actors who have a little more dramatic range.
The new take also calls to mind the recent films in the Planet of the Apes series, with the humans portrayed as less sympathetic than the ‘others.’ It probably bodes well for Westworld that there are so many interesting touchstones of modern pop culture that come to mind. It’s the right story for now.
Bad Robot are talking to some pretty big names about this project. In fact, one’s of them has an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a handful of BAFTAs sitting on his mantelpiece at home, so let’s lead with him.
We’ve learned that Sir Anthony Hopkins has been offered the role of Dr. Ford, the man who runs this new version of Westworld. If he chooses to take the role, Hopkins will be playing a character who sounds part Dr. Moreau, part Blade Runner’s Dr. Tyrell, and just a little bit like Jurassic Park’s John Hammond. And hey, let’s throw in Ed Harris’ Christof from The Truman Show for good measure and, not for the first time in Hopkins’ career, Alfred Hitchcock too.
Dr. Ford is the uncompromising creator of the park and conductor of the creations inside it, and he views the robots as utterly inhuman, little more than livestock. In the wider context of the show, he’s looking like a complex kind of ‘big bad’.
I never said all actors are cattle; what I said was all actors should be treated like cattle – Alfred Hitchcock.
But before we get too carried away with one of the greatest actors of his generation taking a recurring role on a TV show, I should say that, while this does sound like a meaty role and a big expansion of the part played by Alan Oppenheimer in the film, Dr. Ford is certainly not the show’s main character. A pair of robots from the park seem to be the two principle leads, and those roles have been offered to James Marsden and Evan Rachel Wood.
Wood, who has history with HBO after an arc on True Blood, would play a character named Dolores Abernathy, while Marsden has been offered the excellently named role of Teddy Flood. They’d be our heroes and our way into Westworld, at least in the early episodes. Just by virtue of one of these characters being female you can tell how much of a departure this is from the original film.
Dolores is created to be a sassy farm girl; the beautiful girl next door type who has no idea that the life she’s living is a lie. She’s essentially a slave to the guests of the park but has no idea – although this probably won’t remain the case over the course of the series, should there be a full series order.
Wood has shown that she’s more than capable in the likes of The Wrestler, The Ides Of March and another HBO project, Mildred Pierce, and I can see her being a good fit for this part.
Flood, meanwhile, would be your classic Western hero. He’s all about adventure and romance; his two pursuits in life are the open plains and, as I’m sure you guessed, the lovely Dolores Abernathy. I’m excited about this particular piece of casting; Marsden has the kind of classic good looks, wit and acting chops to be all kinds of fun in a role like this.
There is an inherent tragedy to this romance. It sounds like Flood’s job is to be killed by the guests over and over again, and no matter how close he comes to winning Dolores’ heart, her programming means she’ll always end up with one of the guests instead. This is what brings Dollhouse to mind but thank goodness this is a project being developed by HBO, a place where Nolan and Joy could really explore the black heart of the concept. Is one of the show’s leads an unknowing sex slave? And another doomed to die, over and over, just for the gratification of others?
I should reiterate that these actors haven’t necessarily accepted the roles yet, but they’ve certainly been sought for them, and as far as I’m concerned they’re all excellent choices. Hopkins would be the big get, and hopefully he’ll look to the movie stars that HBO have attracted with other projects and see the merit of taking a part on TV.
We don’t know yet how Bad Robot are thinking of the rest of the cast, but there are many interesting roles to fill. The character that sounds the closest to Yul Brynner’s indelible creation in the original feature is called Harlan Bell; a ‘Most Wanted’ kind of gunslinger who is the resort’s villain by design. Interestingly he’s only bound to become more sympathetic when he discovers his true nature.
The more straightforward, ground level villain seems to be a wealthy guest going by the name of ‘The Man In Black.’ If JJ casts Titus Welliver here then Lost fans will lose their minds.
The Man in Black enjoys brutalising the robots hosts of the park and visits yearly to exorcise his demons in a truly sadistic manner. Of course, so did the heroes in the original Westworld, and we were asked to root for them. It’s going to be a lot harder to root with the guests when the robots are properly developed characters.
As the story goes on, The Man in Black will come into contact with a mysterious robot host that he’s never met before and, from here, start unravelling the secrets of Westworld. Is there a wider conspiracy with Hopkins’ Dr. Ford at the centre of it perhaps? Anyway, the casting of The Man in Black will be key. I wish I had some idea who they had in mind.
Many of the other regular roles will be robots in the park or staff who work in the programming division. There will be a good number of recurring roles around the characters we’ve described already.
It all sounds very promising so far, but of course it will come down to the execution. Nolan’s previous TV work was as creator of Bad Robot’s Person Of Interest, while Joy has worked on Burn Notice and Pushing Daisies. That’s all solid, big scale stuff, but our hopes for Westworld, based on the concepts we’ve shared and the rest of the information we’ve been made party to, are significantly higher. If they really get this right, it’s going to be essential.