Dinosaurs, robots – same difference.
Even in this Game of Thrones-dominated time we live in, Westworld is easily one of HBO’s biggest draws. Season 1 became the most-watched first season in the channel’s history. And why not? It shares a lot in common with the uber-popular Jurassic Park franchise. The true root of Westworld’s appeal is less the Lost-style mythology and mind-bending plot twists than the fact that it’s a better Jurassic Park sequel than the actual sequels.
The similarities between Westworld and Jurassic Park stem from the fact that they were both created by novelist Michael Crichton. Crichton wrote and directed the original 1973 Westworld film and wrote the 1989 Jurassic Park novel that subsequently spawned some of the most lucrative movies of all time. In a lot of ways, the original Westworld plays like a prototype of what Crichton would eventually achieve with Jurassic Park. Both projects tell the story of an amusement park full of advanced, jaw-dropping technology that goes haywire and puts the park guests in mortal danger. Whether it’s homicidal robots or genetically engineered dinosaurs, the end result is pretty much the same.
It’s not simply the groundbreaking special effects that help Jurassic Park stand the test of time. Both the novel and movie are science fiction stories in the grand tradition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, showing what happens when man harnesses impossible technology and is too blinded by hubris to know when he’s gone too far. As Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Ian Malcolm famously said, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
But while the Jurassic Park franchise continues to pull in plenty of money, few would argue that the subsequent films have come anywhere close to the quality of the original. For the most part, the sequels seem content to try and outdo the original in terms of spectacle. The dinosaurs keep getting bigger and meaner, but the stories and characters are hollow. None of the sequels have had anything meaningful to add to a narrative built around scientific hubris and the folly of man. Though, to be fair, even Crichton himself was hard-pressed to live up to his original novel when he wrote The Lost World. There’s only so much mileage you can get out of a conflict between man and dinosaur.
That’s where Westworld comes in. The HBO series is a very loose adaptation/expansion of the original film, but the basic bones remain. There’s still a high-tech amusement park where life-like androids help guests live out their Wild West fantasies, and those androids are still driven to rebel against their cruel creators. Westworld manages to tap into that core appeal of Jurassic Park – where the real meets the fantastical – in a way the sequels never have. Moreover, it dives much deeper into the conflict between arrogant scientists and their wayward creations.
Dinosaurs are pretty straightforward in terms of their motivations. They’re driven by simple, biological urges. The Hosts in Westworld are far more complex. They’ve been designed to resemble and behave like humans to the point where they’re almost indistinguishable from the real thing. And as we saw throughout the course of Season 1, some of the Hosts have evolved to become human in every meaningful sense of the word.
Every disaster in the Jurassic Park series comes as a result of scientists thinking they have total control over the living creatures they’ve created. Westworld goes even further in showcasing how badly the Hosts are mistreated by their human handlers. They’re dehumanized to the point where they’re not even allowed to wear clothing when they’re being reprogrammed by the technicians at Delos.
The dinosaurs in Jurassic Park suffer as an unfortunate side effect of companies like InGen valuing money over ethics. The Hosts in Westworld suffer because their creators either regard them as objects or have decided that experiencing pain is the only way for them to become human. Generally, the Jurassic park movies still have viewers rooting for the human characters (at least the more heroic ones). By the time the Host uprising begins at the end of Season 1, the viewer can’t help but wonder if the park (and the wider world) would be better off with the robots in charge. The conflict becomes even more rich and emotionally charged because the show works so hard to make us connect with the Hosts.
It would be nice to think that Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom will be the sequel to finally reverse the series’ downward trend and recapture the magic of the original. But more likely, the movie will deliver more dinosaur-fueled spectacle and call it a day. But that’s okay. Anyone who misses the wit and intelligence of the original Jurassic Park can simply watch Westworld.