HBO’s latest prestige drama Westworld, based on Michael Crichton’s 1973 film, posits a world in which rich guests can visit a theme park populated with robotic hosts. These hosts act out narratives pulled straight from Wild West tropes, allowing visitors to join or interrupt unfolding stories at will. Because Westworld is a techno-thriller, there’s a wrinkle and things take a turn for the entropic. Because Jonathan Nolan developed the show, the ensuing chaos is psychological, physical, cerebral, and temporal.
When Nolan is around, memories, identity, and time all tend to get twisted.
Nolan, who has built a remarkably successful screenwriting career injecting digestible philosophy into accessible science fiction and hanging out with his older brother Christopher, is best known for Memento, Interstellar, The Prestige, and the TV series Person of Interest. Westworld stands out from his other work in that it seems like the capstone to a career-long project. It is a vivid and thrilling tapestry that surfaces all the best existential quandaries without skimping on the gunfire. It represents peak Nolan, and that provides a bit of a window into the show’s direction.
The themes of memory, reality, duality, and relativity loom large in Nolan’s movies, but perhaps they loom largest in Westworld. Go back through the man’s catalogue (spoiler alerts) and patterns start to emerge.
While Jonathan Nolan didn’t write the screenplay for his brother’s breakout neo-noir Memento, he’s responsible for its intricate structure. The film was based on the younger Nolan’s short story titled “Memento mori”, which tells the literally backwards story of Leonard Shelby, a man with short-term memory loss who is trying to exact revenge on his wife’s killer. (Spoiler: He’s forgotten that he actually murdered the man a year prior to the events of the film and his violent streak is being used by a lowlife thug named Teddy for his own financial purposes.)
As in Memento, memory is a theme at play in Nolan’s Westworld; the once-vulnerable-now-violent man without memories gets an update and becomes a once-vulnerable-now-violent robot who isn’t supposed to remember anything. The park’s hosts are meant to relive every day without legitimate memories, only programmed storylines to live out for guests. But after a new software update, their previous programming begins creeping up in something akin to their subconscious, and then everything goes to pot.
Teddy says he manipulates Leonard “to give [him] something to live for” in Memento. The same could be said for Anthony Hopkins’s Dr. Robert Ford, Westworld’s creator and resident Dr. Frankenstein, whose update has given “reveries” to the park’s intentionally unwitting bots. While these programmed recollections and emotions are meant to make the robots appear more human to the actual humans that visit them, they wind up revealing the truth of their inhumanity. The killer learns that they are killers. The greatest mysteries are internal.
Nolan’s first screenplay credit with his brother was on the 2006 dueling-magicians drama The Prestige, which pitted Hugh Jackman’s jealous illusionist Robert Angier against Christian Bale’s Alfred Borden. The goal was to figure out to how the latter achieved a supposedly impossible magic trick called the “Transported Man,” in which Borden somehow instantaneously traveled between two armoires placed at opposite ends of a stage. The film itself was a sort of trick, showing viewers limited perspectives hinting at a bigger plot before then taking a turn right before the credits.
As it turns out, Borden was able to pull off the long con by hiding a twin brother. It’s a brutal punchline to a joke that gets rolling when a demoralized Angier enlists the aid of famed scientist Nikola Tesla (played by David Bowie) to create an unearthly machine that conjures actual spatio-temporal doppelgängers to complete the same illusion. What is magic becomes real.
The dense idea at play in the Nolans’ movie — and in Westworld — is the potential falsehood at the core of the common conception of individuality. A copy, Nolan seems eager to point out, can be just as “real” as the real thing. When a robot like the father of the innocent, robotic frontier girl Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) malfunctions, he’s replaced and no one questions his identity. He is her father only because he is programmed to be her father. But it’s all a deception. He isn’t really her father because she doesn’t have one. He’s an infinitely replicable stand-in for an idea. Westworld’s construct uses science to enhance nature (for better or worse) and blurs the lines between magic and reality much like Tesla’s infernal machine in The Prestige.
In the 2014 sci-fi epic Interstellar, time is relative and duration is a tool. In the film, Matthew McConaughey’s astronaut Joe Cooper heads out on a seemingly futile mission to travel the cosmos looking for habitable planets that could save those left on a dying Earth. He wants future generations to thrive, but he’s mostly in it to ensure his daughter’s survival — and sure, I guess his son too.
Epochs are the film’s narrative crutch in moments both big and small. In one scene, McConaughey and a fellow astronaut played by Anne Hathaway muck up a trip to a potential Goldilocks planet, and when they return to their ship they find out 23 Earth years have passed for the poor bastard who waited for them.
But in the film’s climax, Nolan makes time more complex, more literal. Having travelled through a black hole — which theoretically consumes matter and light and compresses time — McConaughey finds himself in an actual three-dimensional tesseract representing time itself. He is able to communicate with a younger version of his daughter (Mackenzie Foy) who has since grown up in Earth time to become a scientist (played by Jessica Chastain) studying her father’s journey. The tesseract is a closed-time loop: The only reason Cooper was able begin his journey in the first place and live through it was because of the events he influenced in the past by communicating from inside the tesseract. It’s all a dramatic, somewhat confusing portrayal of fate.
The hosts of Westworld also function in a time loop constructed by the park’s employees. “There is a path for everyone,” Dolores says throughout the premiere episode, and she’s not wrong. Each host is meant to live out predetermined storylines that guests can participate in and interact with in a number of ways. The details could change, but the outcome does not. That is the case until the robots begin breaking free from their fixed stories. With Westworld, Nolan is highlighting the dangers of free will that represent the flip side of true freedom.
When the loop gets snipped and time flows forward, worlds are won or lost.