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‘Westworld’ tackles the morality of technology, explains star Jeffrey Wright

HBO has spared no expense in bringing Jonathan Nolan’s and Lisa Joy’s expanded interpretation of Michael Crichton’s cult 1973 film, Westworld, to life.

The basic premise remains the same in that Westworld is a futuristic theme park where the rich can live out a Wild West fantasy by interacting with androids. In Hollywood terms, it’s Jurassic Park (another Crichton creation) meets Deadwood (a classic and traditional HBO Western series).

Westworld is the brainchild of Dr. Robert Ford (played by Anthony Hopkins), the creative director, chief programmer, and founder of the high-tech destination. Helping to bring this next-generation alternate reality world to life is Bernard Lowe (played by actor Jeffrey Wright of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and The Hunger Games). The brilliant and quixotic head of the park’s programming division has focused on creating “hosts” that are so lifelike you can’t tell them from the human “guests” that visit.

“For Bernard’s journey, the question of consciousness is compelling because as he and Ford are responsible for the replication of human behavior, there’s really this task of asking themselves what is consciousness,” Wright told Digital Trends. “What was interesting as an actor as we try to re-create behaviors that best suit whatever story we’re telling or role we’re playing, we’re asking ourselves these questions too. So for that reason, we have this weird refracting multicolor mirror that we’re watching this thing through. The nature of consciousness and what shapes our present understanding of who we are, where we are, is it fact or is it fiction — these things are actually more pressing for Bernard and for me.”

Technology has evolved a lot since the ‘70s, when Crichton wrote and directed the original film.

We live on the precipice of AI-controlled vehicles and robots running assembly lines, while artificial intelligence makes everyday life much easier for many people. But technology also opens a Pandora’s Box of information for the government and big corporations to tap into, which is a subject Oliver Stone explored in Snowden.

“One of the big issues that we touch on is the issue of control over the power of this technology, the control from an individual standpoint and also the corporate control,” Wright said. “If you read Stephen Hawking’s concerns about artificial intelligence, and Elon Musk’s as well, there’s the question of who controls the technology, and what is their intent. As they create greater efficiencies through this technology, what happens to those humans whose jobs were replaced by these systems? And how does that affect the socioeconomics of a place?”

Wright said it’s these types of questions that he’s become more sensitive to because of his work on Westworld, as well as his observations on what’s happening in the real world.

“One of the big issues that we touch on is the issue of control over the power of this technology, the control from an individual standpoint and also the corporate control.”

“We see the ways in which technology is driving the efficiency, but also driving things into the coffers of single corporations and very few hands,” Wright said. “If you look at Kodak, for example, which hired at its peak 140,000 people, and you look at Instagram, which has seven times the market cap that Kodak ever did, but only one percent of the employees — it’s startling.”

Wright said as he received each script for the show from Nolan and Joy, he realized he had never read anything like this before.

“Jonah and Lisa have crossed the Rubicon on this, and there’s some next level cinematic storytelling going on here that’s a culmination in many ways of their histories as writers,” Wright said. “I’ve had the privilege of working with some of the greatest contemporary dramatic writers out there, and Jonah and Lisa are in that room.”

That’s also one reason HBO has been able to assemble a stellar ensemble cast to inhabit Westworld, including Ed Harris as a central “Man in Black” villain, Evan Rachel Wood as kind rancher’s daughter Dolores Abernathy, Thandie Newton as the intelligent madam Maeve Millay, and Clifton Collins, Jr. as a lethal and cunning outlaw.

Producer J.J. Abrams, along with Nolan and Joy, have also been given a very large canvas on which to bring this Old West/sci-fi story to life. With 10 hours to tell the story, the series spends the first couple of episodes establishing the many characters – human and android. One of the many complex themes explored within the framework of this series is that of morality, which is especially interesting with both the western backdrop and the behind-the-scenes technology.

“From Dr. Ford’s perspective, your interaction with these hosts is amoral because they are not human,” Wright said. “They are machines, tools for your indulgence, so the question of morality is moot. But if they’re more than that, this is an unwitting question for the guests. They are just interacting in this surreal space in a fully immersive experience that — as they understand it – is devoid of any pain or pleasure for the hosts.”

Virtual reality is a reality in homes today with Sony’s PlayStation VR, Facebook’s Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive. And even theme parks like King’s Dominion and Universal Orlando are already integrating virtual reality into roller coasters and attractions.

“That’s where technology is, and that just hints at what the coming cinematic experience, which will be even more fully immersed and even more interactive in ways than we now see in video games,” Wright said. “I’m really pleased with the way that this premise is now served by the times much more so than in the early ‘70s when Michael Crichton, who was ahead of the curve, made the first movie. We really understand the relevance that this is not just a cinematic experience, but this is where we will be heading at an accelerated pace.”

Wright said it was obvious from reading the pilot’s script that this world could go anywhere that the imagination allows. With just two seasons of Game of Thrones left, HBO is hoping Westworld is a theme park that audiences will want to return to time and time again. The series premieres at 9 p.m. ET on Sunday across all HBO platforms.