On a loop: variations on a theme of authenticity in Westworld

Notions of reproduction and originality are at the heart of authenticity debates and nowhere is the difference between copies and fakes more clearly shown than in theme parks. The Western theme park Westworld has all the tropes and romance of the classic nineteenth-century Frontier town; the steam train puffing into town, sidewalks, the saloon, the villains, hero and heroine. Even the roles and names of the characters, Clementine Pennyfeather and Dolores Abernathy are classic Americana, drawn from collective memory.

Knotts Berry Farm, this is not. To seem more real, the costumes were fabricated by 3D printers. These customers aren’t passive observers of the staged, formulaic cheroot-chewing gunfights. While the storylines are timed and recurring, playing with seriality, Westworld offers a far more viscerally immersive, adult experience. These robot hosts are disposable, and reprogrammable, put into cold storage when they malfunction. The theme park storylines remain the same, different robots act the parts interchangeably. Participants are “safe”, even in ‘black hat’ or Man in Black mode, indulging their fantasies, they cannot be shot or harmed by their robot hosts, even as they range further away from the more controlled township to have a more authentically dangerous experience. Theme parks are considered to be highly regulated environments which are so thoroughly established that they could now be argued to be authentic. This is one reason why news of serious accidents resulting from lapses in health and safety is so deeply upsetting. But as Westworld departs from the choreographed performances, the illusion of control shatters and the risks are uncontainable.

Halfway through the season, as the plot continues to unfold, it is the modern backstage, an interconnecting world of glossy tech available through a door, which seems unreal while the recreated town of Sweetwater is more original. Monument Valley, with its the landmark surreal buttes, is instantly recognisable as the shorthand for Westerns such as The Searchers, where it is more than a backdrop to the action, it is a force. Monument Valley starkly contrasts with the technology and virtual reality which manipulate the theme park. However, even the scenery appears to be on a loop, with staged repetitions of the same iconic tourist images we can’t help but capture, impossible to break out of the circle.

The repetition reinforces feelings of unreality. Westworld is constructed by Dr Ford (a play on Henry Ford) whose conveyor-belt reproductive manufacturing style was famous. Dolores Abernathy becoming sentient, aware that her life is fabricated, longs to escape the park boundaries, echoing the era when the notion of Manifest Destiny was inherent in the pioneer’s journey westward. In films such as Easy Rider, Badlands, Wild at Heart, Kalifornia, and Thelma and Louise the journey into the wilderness away from civilisation, contains challenges, murder and death, suggesting that freedom to travel authentically through vast spaces and notions of adventure and counterculture are punishable by more conventional forces and Frontiers, when crossed, are full of threat. Baudrillard (1988) observed that the real America is consumerist, the shopping malls, the theme parks, it is the West which is empty, outside the loop.

Artificial intelligence is no longer a copy when it becomes self-aware, as Delores is when she arrives in the ironically-named Pariah. Some of the automatons have been given backstories to make them seem more genuine, however it is their growing resistance, existential anxiety and consciousness of exploitation which makes them truly authentic; more so than many of the guests who do not question their own behaviour, who are Othered. The Man in Black barks at a guest, who had acknowledged his life outside Westworld, that he is “on holiday” and this glimpse into his alternative reality as a philanthropist seems unreal. In the episode Contrapasso where all characters start to rebel against their roles, the more authentic selves seem to appear. In Contrapasso, the different selves start to merge as performances are dropped, suggesting that it is our memories and willingness to break out of our inscribed patterns which makes us human.

Even time is controlled and 3D printed; the Head of Quality Assurance, Theresa Cullen, realises that a table where she sat with her parents when she was a child is the same table where she now sits with Dr Ford. The first barkeep, a prototype resembling Buffalo Bill, the original Western showman, is a now arcane model. Ford instructs him to put himself away, and he climbs obediently and jerkily onto a shelf, the mythical western nineteenth century zipping himself into a body bag. Yet it is the digitally altered face of Anthony Hopkins, projected onto the body of an actor to portray the young Ford, which gives the most unsettling effect in Westworld. The voice unmistakeable, the effect startling, life on a loop.

 

 

 

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