Westworld, War Film, & the Importance of Choice

The most interesting thing to me in a story is character. A movie, a book, a play, a podcast, a short film, an anecdote… any of these things lives or dies by the characters within. And my favorite types of characters are the ones who think for themselves and make a decision that is different from what most other people would do.

Star Wars! Luke Skywalker makes the choice to leave Tatooine and help aid the rebellion! That’s a choice that most people wouldn’t make. It’s a choice that 99% of the characters on Tatooine probably wouldn’t have made; instead choosing to turn over the droids, make a quick buck, and continue on with their lives. But that wouldn’t have made a very good movie, or a very good story.

At this point, I should point out that I’m going to be spoiling the First Season of HBO’s Westworld. So if you don’t want to know… stop reading now.

When we’re dealing with Westworld, we’re dealing with characters who, as far as we know, have very little ability to make choices of their own. The “Hosts” are robots, created and built by humans, and programmed to act a certain way. Within “real” circumstances, they make choices as far as they can react to the stimulus provided by the “Guests” to the park, but outside of that, their memories are wiped at the end of every cycle and they begin the whole thing anew as if nothing had ever happened.

We’re led to believe in the first episode that some of these Hosts are retaining memories, despite the fact that the people running the park are erasing them. Then we’re led to believe, throughout the entire season, that the character of Maeve has become smarter than her programming, and is plotting to escape the park. In every episode, this was the one storyline that kept me watching. This was the ONE story that had me coming back week after week, because the show was getting at the idea of true consciousness and robots with free will.

Cut to… the Season Finale. Where it is revealed that Maeve’s attempts to escape were programmed. Someone (we are led to believe that it is possibly Anthony Hopkins’ character of Ford) added new coding to her that layed out, step by step, everything that she would do in her attempts to escape the park. When this is shown to her, she refuses to believe it, and continues on with her plan.

To me, this shows that I have watched 10 episodes of a show where none of the characters I was supposed to care about were actually making any choices. It’s a show where the only real consequences came from the few human characters who, at the end of the day, were just people attending a theme park. I watched almost 11 hours of programming and the giant, “shocking” reveal was that… I should never have cared about anything that was going on the whole time.

It’s the same story with the rest of the hosts as well. By the end of the season, we realize that even when it seemed as though they were acting of their own volition, they were actually acting on some deep-rooted code that Arnold, their creator, had planted in them many years ago, before killing himself by programming one of his creations to shoot him.

I felt insulted. I felt betrayed. I felt that I had watched 10 episodes of nothing, with exactly zero characters to care about, and nothing but a hollow mystery about a maze remaining. One that had pretty much been spelled out well enough 8 weeks earlier that I was able to predict exactly where it was going. Normally, that wouldn’t bother me. But when you fail to give me a character to latch onto, that’s it for me.

For a long time, I couldn’t figure out why I didn’t like watching most war films. And it was Westworld that finally gave me the answer. War Films are usually about men who don’t have a choice. Men who are given orders, and then follow through on those orders. Yes, they display courage, valor, heroism… but only when being forced to do something against their will.

The most interesting moment in The Hurt Locker is when Jeremy Renner decides to go back to war, despite knowing how bad it’s going to be, despite knowing exactly how much pain he’s going to go through, because he just can’t handle the mundane life at home.

Saving Private Ryan is lauded as one of the greatest films of all time. I never understood why I didn’t love it as much as I’m supposed to. The opening sequence is one of the most gripping and traumatic ever filmed. It is praised for its realism. It is praised for the sheer amount of technical and directorial brilliance that went into it. And at the end of it… I still wasn’t hooked.

I know. This is one of those opinions that I should probably keep to myself. I’m probably going to get hate mail. I know these things. “Saving Private Ryan is, and should be seen as, a masterpiece” they will say. But really… the story of the movie is about a group of men who are sent on a mission that they don’t want to be on. They are sent to save Private Ryan, and they spend a good portion of the movie complaining about it.

I, personally, don’t want to see a movie where my leads are not invested in their own story. I don’t want to follow a story if the characters have not made choices that led them along their journey.

I’ll admit there are exceptions. Lone Survivor is a film that hinges on a choice–one that ends up getting all but one of them killed (spoilers in the title of the movie). That’s interesting to me. That’s a terrible choice to have to make–but the characters made it. And now I’m invested.

The ending of the first season of Westworld was a slap in the face to my sensibilities. It set up an exciting story about characters finally being able to make these kinds of interesting choices… and then said, “we were just joking. That was all a part of someone else’s plan.” There was intrigue and mystery along the way, sure, but that’s not enough. At least not for me.

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