History of the Future: Westworld (1973)

On February 28, 2024, ASU Center for Science and the Imagination partnered with Majestic Neighborhood Cinema Grill for a screening of Westworld. This screening is part of a greater film series: The History of the Future, exploring gripping, cinematic visions of the future across the past five decades. 

The film was introduced by Devan Hakkal. Read his introduction below.

An Epidemic in the Wild West

Devan Hakkal

Westworld, and the larger park, Delos, is a theme park where guests are able to indulge in their wildest dreams, which for some reason always has something to do with physically abusing the humanoid robots. Shockingly, we see the characters excited to have the opportunity to shoot someone without actually taking a life. But what really strikes me here is what this reveals about the reality that the characters are being sold at the theme park. A reality where personal agency can be, on the surface, unlimited.

And this is how we usually think of the concept, especially in the Wild West where Cowboys and outlaws answer only to themselves in the open desert. The park leans into this trope – the West from adventure novels and Clint Eastwood movies meant to embellish the plight and heroism of their characters. Instead of a truly accurate, gritty, and tough frontier life, it’s a Wild West fit for amusement. The guests going to Delos are fulfilling a cultural memory of the Wild West that’s curated by the way we talk about it, not by any actual history.

The park compensates for its historical inaccuracy with a commitment to realism in the props that fill the theme park. Not just the human robots, but even the horses and rattlesnakes are so remarkably advanced as to be indistinguishable from real ones. As I watch this film, I always notice how it is actually because of this technological advancement that the robots are able to rise up against the park guests. They’re robots so advanced that they have the ability to gain their own personal agency and use it against the humans. 

This is a lesson of hubris. Same as in Jurassic Park when Jeff Goldblum said, “They were so busy asking if they could, they forgot to ask if they should.” The theme park engineers and technicians should have seen this risk and not pushed the envelope on killer robots. And, don’t get me wrong, that’s a great lesson to be learned, but let’s take a second to look at what exactly these technicians were doing before we say case closed. 

In 1973, these technicians introduced a new idea to audiences seeing the film: “the computer virus.” Now, today we know what a computer virus is and we can imagine malware that you accidentally downloaded from a spam email, but in 1973 these words only had their individual meanings and connotations. Together, they describe a contagion that spreads through the robot population the same way a virus spreads through a human one. This new term represents an agency outside of the personal one we normally think of, that is, the agency of our words and discourse. How we describe and talk about things in our discourse affects how we think about and conceptualize them. If you’ll remember back to my plug of our Center for Science and the imagination, this is the same thing we’re trying to dig into, “how imaginations of the future help shape the actual realities of tomorrow.”

“Computer virus” is an imagination that is directed more toward the audiences watching the film. Of course, these robots aren’t actually susceptible to the real viruses that infect humans, but by talking about and imagining them like they are, we begin to understand the future through that lens. A lens that humanizes the machine, and defines its personal agency in terms of how well it can act like a real human. 

Now, part of the fun in watching this film is laughing about how strangely the visionaries of the 70’s thought we’d be using technology today – and I’m here for it. But the future as portrayed in Westworld is perhaps closer than we’d like to admit. We may never actually get to a point where robots can have personal agency in the exact same sense as humans, but half a century after this film’s release, we can use it to look at the ways we think about, talk about, and relate to our futures.

Michael Crichton decided to tackle this using “computer virus” to give audiences a new insight about the robot’s experience and give it a human vulnerability. But what descriptions of the future could help us understand personal agency from a purely robotic perspective? How might we describe a machine’s agency in terms that aren’t trying to make the robot more human, but instead give the robot its own unique identity? I know that sounds a little far off, but a brief example my dad and I came up with was if our Roomba is expressing its agency when it decides for itself how to roam around our house. Not a particularly inspired example, but who knows, if we start seriously thinking about it in that way maybe one day we’ll start giving it the weekend off. 

Devan Hakkal, an ASU Alumni who curated The History of the Future for three seasons while obtaining his undergraduate degree in Film and Media Studies. Between 2022 and 2024, Devan, along with the team at the Center for Science and the Imagination, revived the series and shared ideas of the future with a new audience.

History of the Future is examining gripping cinematic visions of the future emanating from different moments in recent history. In partnership with Majestic Neighborhood Cinemas, experts from ASU faculty and abroad introduce films that have shaped the reality we know today. Connecting past depictions of the future to the present and seeing how the hopes and anxieties of the last five decades have influenced how we tackle the problems of tomorrow.