The Uncanny Fembots of Westworld

There have been numerous instances of women as robots on screen. The HBO television series WESTWORLD is the latest, and creator Jonathan Nolan balanced making his robots too similar to humans, or not similar enough. Within the series itself, computer programmers grapple to keep a distinguishable line between themselves and their creations. The resemblance can be uncanny.

The “Uncanny Valley” refers to the repulsion some people can feel when robots look similar to but not quite like humans. The term “The Uncanny” was first used by psychiatrist Ernst Jentsch in an essay in 1906. He described, “the uncanny as a condition of uncertainty or ambiguity about whether a being is animate or inanimate–or whether an entity that appears lifeless is actually alive,” writes Julie Wosk in My Fair Ladies: Female Robots, Androids, and Other Artificial Eves.

The robots of WESTWORLD are identifiable by their eyes. In one of the first shots of the first episode, a fly crawls across a fembot’s eyeball and she does not blink. Her eyes’ sclera have a glassy sheen and their irises have a sharp point of luminescence. Evan Rachel Wood plays Dolores, the oldest fembot of a model programmed by a group of computer scientists to populate an immersive world. Humans pay to access this world and the world is populated by robots (hosts). The hosts are programmed to speak and act within the constraints of their given role, with minor improvisations. As in JURASSIC PARK, the drama happens within the park amongst its 1,400 guests and at the park’s control center run by Theresa (played by Sidse Babett Knudsen of BORGEN). In the control center, rows of decommissioned hosts, identifiable by slick skin, blank stares, and high-contrast veins, stand in a phalanx waiting for dispatch, like the fetus field in the MATRIX. The hosts are beautiful–they are too perfect, remarks one guest.

The hosts are developed by programmers, played by Anthony Hopkins and Jeffrey Wright, who discuss whether the robots are too lifelike. As In Ridley Scott’s BLADE RUNNER, the robots in WESTWORLD are almost indistinguishable from humans. In BLADE RUBBER, a test called the Voight-Kompf Test is used to distinguish between a human and android–it measures autonomic responses like pupil dilation which are part of the sympathetic nervous system. In WESTWORLD, androids are similar enough to humans to be seductive and robotic enough so that guests feel no empathy when they kill them.

Jonathan Nolan’s WESTWORLD is inspired by Michael Crichton’s movie of the same name from 1973, nine years earlier than BLADE RUNNER. The robots of Crichton’s WESTWORLD can, like in BLADE RUNNER, be subjected to a test to determine if they are real. They are identifiable by their hands, which are not “perfect” yet. The film’s central characters are two male guests who enter the pioneer world of the 1880s ready to screw and kill. A Sci-Fi film turned Western, WESTWORLD also subverts the genre of the Western as justice is (literally) thrown out the window and one man tries to rescue a jailed princess only to discover that she is a fembot.

Crichton takes the idea of immersive gaming (as seen, for example, in David Cronenberg’s EXISTENZ) as far as can be imagined. The 1973 WESTWORLD has three different worlds–West World, Medieval World, and Roman World–from which guests can choose to be immersed. In Nolan’s WESTWORLD, there is only one location, but guests can be caught up in 100 different narratives. The park is so popular because people can act out their fantasies free of moral consequences.

Current robotics research has mostly centered on human-robot interactions. Medically-driven research is concerned with making robots that can help humans, as in the production MARJORIE PRIME where a robot acts as a caretaker, or the film ROBOT & FRANK in which a robot plays a similar role.

WESTWORLD is co-written by Michael Crichton, Lisa Joy, and Jonathan Nolan who also directs several episodes. It was created by husband-and-wife team Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy. The first season consists of ten episodes, and HBO has renewed WESTWORLD for a second season. It is a nominee for a Golden Globe for Best Television Series of 2017.