New 10-episode HBO series ‘Westworld’ raises ethics questions

Anthony Hopkins, left, and Jeffrey Wright in the new 10-episode series ‘Westworld’

Ask straight questions of the creators and cast of “Westworld,” and you might not get straight answers.

When does “Westworld” take place? Where in the world — or beyond it — is this weird adult amusement park where humanoid robots cater to all whims and fantasies of visiting guests? Are you real?

Executive producers Jonah Nolan and Lisa Joy, who envisioned the seductive and scary HBO update of the 1973 Michael Crichton film, and the noted actors who populate “Westworld” weren’t ready to talk specifics ahead of the Sunday premiere of the series.

But ask them how “Westworld” reflects or could even change the world in which we live, and the players can go on at length.

“The movie was way ahead of its time, and Crichton’s mind was light-years ahead of the reality,” said Jeffrey Wright, who plays Bernard Lowe, the head of Westworld’s programming division. “We’ve finally begun to catch up a bit, so there are even-greater resonances and implications now, and I think Jonah and Lisa are exploring in ways that simply weren’t as topical in 1973.

“But at the same time,” Wright said, “the issues of the technology marry very well with human ideas and curiosity about the nature of things and what is it that our sentience is comprised of.”

“Westworld” is a high-concept series with high hopes to be more than a show about rich people having sex with robots. As such, it’s impossible to discuss “Westworld” without pondering its broader themes of consciousness, consent, artificial intelligence and the nature of sin.

The similarities between the original film and the new, 10-episode series basically begin and end with the premise: Guests pay handsomely to live out their fantasies in the Wild West bacchanalia populated by “hosts.”

Gone are scientists in wrinkled lab coats fretting from their control room of whirling tape decks. The new face of this operation is a smartly suited Anthony Hopkins as the reclusive Dr. Robert Ford, creator of the hosts and father of Westworld.

The vintage robots of yesteryear have been shelved in favor of hosts who are nearly indistinguishable from humans. Grown in milky vats, their muscles genetically grafted strand by strand, they can drink, stutter, sweat, cough, bleed and “die.”

Splayed out like Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man,” the hosts are treated more like props than works of art, as seen in the first footage with outed-host Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood).

But the showrunners behind the scenes know she’s much more than a generic “fembot.” Just mentioning the sci-fi trope to Joy, a former writer for “Pushing Daisies” and co-producer on “Burn Notice,” causes the co-creator to pause and ponder. (But not before pointing out that “Westworld” employs manbots as well.)

At the start of the series, the park is undergoing a crisis after a “glitch” in the hosts appears to be giving them sentience.

That glimpse of humanity begins to unravel the world and its players and opens up ethical questions — questions that prompted many of the cast members to sign on. Although “Westworld” is definitely a shiny, sci-fi artifact with all the visual trappings, it also is much more than that — which intrigues the actors.

“That has to be the core of any successful artistic endeavor,” said James Marsden, who plays cowboy Teddy Flood. “There has to be that human element to the whole thing. If it’s just ornamental spectacle, you’ll start to see how hollow it is.”

Nolan and Joy endeavored to make “Westworld” meaty at its core, going as far as halting production for a few months to tinker with scripts to make them just right.

Both co-creators emphasized that by building the implausible pleasure island for adults, they were hoping to force the audience to ask larger questions of themselves.

Thandie Newton, who fights for women’s rights in her private life, hopes that the show and her character, Maeve, trigger conversations.

“This is one of those big, bombastic statements, that I don’t want to turn people off, but I really think it’s part of the solution when it comes to violence against women, when it comes to gender equality,” she said. “This was the first time in my life I was able to do the work that I do as an activist through the role.”

Actress Wood warned, however: “It’s going to be a hard look in the mirror. But I think you will also see the potential that we possess. We’re not at Westworld yet; it could be a cautionary tale.”

“It’s definitely provocative,” said Ed Harris, who plays the mysterious, and not very nice, Man in Black — a guest who has been visiting the park for 30 years.

“I’ll be real interested to see how it’s received — not so much critically but audience-wise, if people get into it or not. I think they will.”

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