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Is Westworld Just a Fancy Porn Theater?

The ambitious sci-fi-Western apparently takes place in a world without shame, or the internet

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Who would go to Westworld? On the surface, the appeal might be obvious: Guests are unmoored from traditional concepts of right and wrong, given freedom to unleash their inner monster, with no judgments and no laws to break. No one actually gets hurt. Maybe.

But who would travel to a place to play Fuck, Marry, Kill with androids? From stag films to VHS to the internet, technology has put sex entertainment on an inexorable march away from public spaces — porn theaters, video stores, those weird booth places — toward the privacy of your home. The notion that, in a technologically advanced future, people would go somewhere, in the presence of others, to rape and murder androids seems very antiquated to me. It ignores the internet and it ignores the power of shame.

Which, in a way, makes sense. When the original Westworld — written and directed by a 30-year-old Michael Crichton — hit theaters in the fall of 1973, the internet was still just a Department of Defense project and two of the hottest movie trends were science fiction and pornography. Some of the weirdest, darkest, and ultimately influential sci-fi movies ever made were released in the period between 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and 1977’s Star Wars. And Crichton was right in the middle of that wave, breaking out with his 1969 best seller The Andromeda Strain, establishing himself as a sci-fi author who relied heavily on science.

This wave of sci-fi occurred concurrently with the so-called Golden Age of Porn (SFW link), when a handful of adult films reached a level of critical and mainstream acceptance never seen before or since. Deep Throat was one of the highest-grossing films of 1972. Roger Ebert gave three stars to The Devil in Miss Jones, which tells the story of a woman’s sexual exploits while in limbo following her suicide. It was the 10th-biggest hit of 1973, with a box office take of $15 million. Imagine a porn movie today grossing more than, like, San Andreas. That was the 1970s.

The original Westworld, which grossed only $10 million at the box office, represented a weird synergy between those two trends. The sex in Westworld isn’t explicit, nor is there much of it. About 20 minutes into the movie, shy hero Peter (Richard Benjamin) and his frisky friend John (James Brolin) visit a saloon, where they partake of the charms of local bordello-bots. The sex is depicted as a bunch of PG-13-level rolling around punctuated by dissolves to show that this went on for a while. After the act, John and Peter commiserate in postcoital bonhomie, with John delivering the line that sums up the theme of the film: “Boy, machines really are the servant of man!”

Most of Westworld is made up of a violent denouement between man (Peter) and machine (the ur-Terminator Gunslinger played by Yul Brynner). But it’s very much a product of the ’70s in the way it depicts the titular theme park as the only place guests can access the adult entertainment they desire. The sexual subtext of pliable, humanoid androids was so clear that it was perhaps inevitable that an actual porn movie would steal the conceit. Thus, 1978’s SexWorld — one of the earliest porn parodies — about a theme park where people go to fuck robots.

S, who would go to the Westworld featured in the HBO series? That really depends on what the world outside the park is like. We know that the show takes place in a future where disease has been eradicated and it is technologically possible to create robots that are largely indistinguishable from real people. This Westworld park would cater to the rich. According to the show’s “Discover Westworld” site, entry to the park costs $40,000 per day, or $560,000 for a two-week stay. So the guests are certainly going to be at least millionaires, with lots of cash and free time to burn. If you’re rich enough to go to Westworld, you’re rich enough to buy your own robot, or a fleet of robots. There appear to be higher levels of play, too; in the series premiere, “The Original,” Teddy (James Marsden) shepherds a group of guests to a brothel. One exclaims, “This place is fucking wild.” His more experienced compatriot replies, “This is basic. Level one. You ride out of town, that’s when the real demented shit begins.”

DiscoverWestworld.com
DiscoverWestworld.com

But, there’s a social stigma attached to these kind of diversions. Everything that happens at Westworld is recorded and observed, in real time, by park staff. It’s a high-tech version of a porn theater: It does not track that billionaires of the future would gleefully walk into a situation that is so obviously a complicated blackmail scheme. Every hacker alive would be trying to crack Westworld.

What if the park is actually a virtual reality simulation, a kind of super-high-def Red Dead Redemption–style open world MMORPG game? This has been mentioned as a possibility by fans. But a couple of things disprove the VR theory:

  1. The Discover Westworld ARG (alternate-reality game) talks about guests needing to visit a decompression chamber upon exiting the park. This suggests an underground location, or perhaps an off-world site, but certainly someplace real.
  2. The show’s Delos Incorporated website contains numerous email threads detailing park workflow, interdepartment rivalries, various HR issues, and proper host (animal and human) disposal procedures.

Even if Westworld was set in virtual reality, it does not solve the problem of the social stigma that would be attached to going full Ted Bundy on realistic-looking human simulacra. Technology has given us easier access to our desires, but it hasn’t made people less susceptible to shame and embarrassment. Any number of recent hacks and leaks have heightened our awareness of how enmeshed in technology we are, and how easily private lives can be made public. Everyone does things in virtual spaces that they don’t want people to know about. If video emerged of Mark Zuckerberg dragging a screaming computer-generated woman by her hair into a barn, he would, at a minimum, be embarrassed. And, having seen it, we would be creeped out. Why are the guests who visit Westworld different?

HBO
HBO

Certainly, people will one day have sex with robots, if they aren’t doing so right now. In Hamlet on the Holodeck, Janet Murray’s 1997 tome on the future of narrative in the age of the internet, the author describes an exceptionally witty chatbot named Julia. Created by Michael Mauldin of Carnegie Mellon University, Julia was designed to live in text-based multi-user dungeon (MUD) games, where she impersonated a female player. She was apparently so good at her role that one player spent 13 days trying to seduce her. I can’t imagine that that dude, or anyone who today, tomorrow, and for many years to come, has sex with a robot, would want to be outed as having done so. Clearly, in the reality of Westworld, something has changed.

Through two episodes, Westworld has kept our attentions focused on the park, on the machinations (sorry) of the people who keep it going, and on the emerging inner life of the host robots. In “The Original,” a guest mentions that his first visit to the park was in the company of his wife and kids. The Delos ARG has an email thread in which someone in the sales department laments the drop-off in families staying at Westworld. If the society outside of Westworld has come to a point where raping and slaughtering tearful and terrified robots is not just OK, but family entertainment, then I’m more interested in what happened out there.

We’re only two episodes in. Perhaps Westworld has a drastic zoom-out in store for us, something that grounds the park in a larger societal context, and explains why, in a high-tech world, casual public savagery would be culturally acceptable. If not, it misunderstands our relationships to sex and shame, and the role technology plays in compartmentalizing them.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.