No special wisdom is required to know that Michael Crichton had a thing about amusement parks. And not a good thing either. Nor was he fond of wealthy indulgences.
As one of the characters in the theme park of HBO’s “Westworld” – based on Crichton’s 1973 movie – puts it in the Sunday premiere, “hell is empty. All the devils are here.”
Consider Crichton’s “Jurassic Park,” the ultimate story about what can go wrong at a theme park patronized by the wealthy. It’s hell with prehistoric teeth. Spielberg’s film and the spawn it sired were all based on a Crichton novel, as was Spielberg’s “The Lost World.”
But then maybe the ultimate story about wealthy people amusing themselves at the world’s nastiest amusement park is “Westworld,” whose TV series elaboration is one of the smartest TV series of the year.
It comes to us from Jonathan Nolan, the brilliant younger brother of Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight” trilogy, “Inception”) who so often relies on his younger brother as a writer and co-writer. (“Memento” and “The Prestige,” for instance – terrific films and two of the smartest and dandiest films to come along in the past 20 years).
Just so you know how much the Nolans like keeping things in the family, “Westworld” was created by Jonathan and his wife Lisa Joy Nolan.
Crichton’s “Westworld” was his debut as a film director. It was based on an ingenious Crichtonesque idea – a theme park where wealthy folks can enact their favorite fantasy scenarios with animatronic creatures designed to be physically and intellectually indistinguishable from human beings. To paraphrase the old joke, nothing can go wrong, go wrong, go wrong …
After a stodgy and disjointed beginning, the premiere of the HBO version slides into first-rate television. And if that progress “up from sluggishness” seems familiar, it’s approximately the way things worked at the beginning with the premiere of Nolan’s nicely paranoid series for CBS “Person of Interest.”
Any freelance Freudian or amateur psychoanalyst might observe that Crichton, who died of a lymphoma at 66 in 2008, must have had some kind of trauma at an amusement park early in life. “Westworld” and “Jurassic Park” are brothers in fantasy.
Perhaps he was denied entrance to a ride because he was too tall. Crichton was 6-feet-9 and was frank about how alienated he felt attaining that height so early in life. He was also frank about the difficulties created in the world by his brilliance, which was no more adjustable and every bit as extreme as his height.
He started writing as a teenager and graduated from Harvard Medical School, even though he was never a practicing physician. He was a tireless writer under his and other names. “The Andromeda Strain” launched him into best-sellerdom. He remained there, off and on, for the rest of his life.
The original “Westworld” was the first time the movie honchos let him make his own movie. It was a dandy, starring Yul Brynner, in gunslinger black straight out of “The Magnificent Seven” and Richard Benjamin as a naive park visitor.
Nolan’s complex TV series set of variations on “Westworld” stars Ed Harris as “The Man in Black,” Evan Rachel Wood as a sweet, sunny android in the park, Thandie Newton as a wisecracking animatronic saloon hooker, and Jeffrey Wright as the park programmer responsible for making sure the androids are in working order for the park’s well-heeled guests, who constantly reassure the audience they “pay plenty” for the privilege of raping, torturing and murdering whomever they choose in this robot universe.
You can’t really compare Nolan with Crichton in intellectual wherewithal, but if ever there was a fellow to invent a rich fantasy taking off where Crichton finished, Nolan would be the guy.
By the time the premiere episode is over, it has graduated from remarkable physical beauty and confusion to a fantasy that is richly inventive and fascinating.
Just as “Jurassic Park” did, “Westworld” has a creative senior citizen on the premises who invented everything and oversees the creative direction of his baroque way of amusing the upper classes. (Think Richard Attenborough as his counterpart in “Jurassic Park.”)
In “Westworld,” he’s played by Anthony Hopkins, who has, just for fun, tried to give his robot creatures a new wrinkle to make them more realistic: a capacity for “reverie.”
Which, we realize quickly, entails memory.
Which, in turn, could be trouble, considering how abominably these “human” machines have been treated by those who “paid plenty” for the privilege.
Which makes it very cool television.