In “The Adversary,” the befuddled head of Westworld’s programming division, Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), travels to the abandoned nether regions of the park’s cavernous Mesa Gold facility. He’s on a mission to figure out how and why someone has been surreptitiously mining data from the park’s hosts, as it amounts to techno-corporate espionage. While out in the boonies, trudging through abandoned offices strewn with the metal carcasses of old host models, Bernard’s flashlight passes by an upright figure decked out in a black hat, grey shirt, and black trousers. It was a throwaway moment for most, but fans of Michael Crichton’s original 1973 film Westworld remembered that figure well. The blurry figure was none other than the original movie’s robotic villain, the unnamed Gunslinger, played by actor Yul Brynner.
Fan theories abound that the HBO series somehow links to Crichton’s cinematic source material as a sequel, and it’s easy to see why. The series hinges on an incident that happened 30 years ago within the timeline of the show, an incident that somehow devastated the park nearly beyond repair. This critical failure may be a nod to the film, where a sort of digital malfunction causes the park’s robots to become bloodthirsty, particularly the Gunslinger. A widespread and debilitating event, like the original film’s robots-run-amok conceit, seems to be the perfect kind of narrative prequel crutch to use to lead into the new show.
Still, the incident three decades ago is the show’s only real reference to what happened in the past, and there haven’t been any hints of park hosts previously killing the guests. In contrast, the 1973 film’s 1976 sequel, Futureworld, addressed the PR nightmare fallout of robots killing humans head on, and incorporated it into its plot. For the most part, the HBO shows creators see Crichton’s rich source material as something good for mere easter eggs as much as it has been for prescient existential questions about contemporary technology.
Co-creator Jonathan Nolan said as much in an interview with Entertainment Weekly after the premiere episode. “It’s playful but not meant to be literal,” he said in regards to everything in the Westworld film supposedly happening in the same universe as the show. “We wanted to connect to the ideas in the original film, but also take a look at this place as a cultural institution that is not new, because these ideas aren’t new.”
As far as Nolan is concerned, there are enough differences here for his show to be inspired by Crichton’s original instead of being a straight-up sequel. The show isn’t really lifting specific details from the plot of the 1973 film beyond making references to the same omnipotent corporation running the show (Delos). That does still mean the events of the movie could have existed in the show’s past and reverberates in its present. The case in point is the background appearance of Brynner’s Gunslinger.
In another talk with EW, Nolan still denied any real connection: “It was a little tip of the hat,” he said. “We didn’t want to feature it too heavily, we don’t want you reading too much into that.”
It seems like a pretty cut and dry denial of legitimate connective tissue between the two, but asking people not to read too much into Westworld, which is entirely predicated on people reading into it, seems like a silly misdirection. Westworld is also executive produced by J.J. Abrams, the brilliant filmmaker who also stubbornly denied for a year that the villain in Star Trek Into Darkness played by Benedict Cumberbatch was Khan when, in fact, Cumberbatch was Khan. Add the explicit Brynner reference in “The Adversary” to that tradition of fandom denial, and you’ve got to wonder. As much as you’d think Nolan and company are genius storytellers, we can only trust them up to a point. Why keep teasing the original if theres no valid link between it and the show?
Those kind of winking nods can be “playful,” as Nolan said, but in a show like Westworld where it’s almost all about guessing it can be frustrating as well.