by Jay Johansen | Jun 19, 2020
The 1973 movie Westworld is about a vacation resort where people can act out fantasies of being a cowboy in an elaborate park with elaborate sets and human-looking robots to act out the parts. The guests can have shoot-outs with the robots, bar fights, etc. Then one day -- and this isn't a spoiler, the ads telegraphed this -- then one day something goes wrong with the robots and they start killing the guests.
An essential element of the cowboy fantasy is supposed to be having shootouts with the robots. And the robots are programmed to always lose. But then one of the robots challenges a guest to a duel, he expects the usual, they'll both draw and the robot will be just a second slower than him, but instead the robot outdraws him and shoots him. And about this time all the robots are running amok and shooting people.
(If you're wondering why I'm writing a critique of a 1973 movie in 2020, by the way, the reason is simple: I just happened to think of it. Maybe the fact that HBO has made a series based on the movie helped bring it to mind, though I only saw part of one episode of the HBO series and then lost interest. But anyway ...)
The movie had one rather huge plot hole. Why in the world do the guests and the robots have guns that fire real bullets?
There's a scene in the movie where a character explains that there's some safety device in the guns that are given to the guests that detect a person's body heat so that the gun won't fire if it's pointed at a living human being. He demonstrates by pointing a gun at his friend and pulling the trigger, and it just clicks. And the robots are programmed to never actually shoot someone. But the guns will fire when pointed at robots. And so every night, after a day of fun and games, the staff of the park run around and pick up all the robots that guests have shot up, bring them to a service facility, and repair them.
Need I point out that this is nuts?
Why not just have fake guns that make a loud noise but don't actually fire a bullet? The guns of course could be made to look real and sound real, but be harmless. The robots could be programmed so that when someone points a gun at them and fires, they squirt some fake blood and fall over.
The advantages of guns firing blanks are obvious. First and foremost, safety. I don't care how sophisticated this safety device is that makes the guns not fire when pointed at a person. What if it malfunctions? If you showed me a gun, fired it at some innocuous target to demonstrate that it fires real bullets, and then told me that it has a safety device to prevent it from firing when it's pointed at a person and you'd like to demonstrate this by pointing it at me and pulling the trigger, I think I'd say no thanks. What are you going to say? Hey, "we've tested it and the safety device works over 90% of the time"? What if someone points a gun at a robot, but the robot moves out of the way just before he pulls the trigger and there is a person behind him? What if the gun isn't pointed at anyone but the bullet richochets? Is this safety device sophisticated enough that it not only detects if it is pointed at a person, but calculates the trajectory of the bullet? Ditto for programming the robots not to ever actually hit a person. What if there's a software bug? That is, in fact, the whole plot of the movie, that there was a software bug and the robots started shooting people.
Even if we assume that the safety devices are 100% reliable, this would be dumb. We're told that these robots are very complex and expensive. Why would the owners want to have them shot up every day and have to be repaired? It would be a lot more cost-effective to just have them programmed to fall over and pretend to be dead rather than actually be damaged. Indeed, the realism of the game would likely be much better. Real bullets that really damaged the robots might expose metal and plastic parts. They might well result in the robots malfunctioning in ways that would not in the least resemble a person dying. There could be sparks and leaking hydraulic fluid instead of blood. Etc. But a programmed death scene with some fake blood could be very realistic.
Of course, the real reason why the park owners made the dumb decision to use guns with real bullets was because it was necessary to make the plot work. If the guns were all fake and the robots malfunctioned and started shooting people ... so they'd shoot blanks at people. The guests might be annoyed that when they shot at the robots they didn't fall over and play dead, but no one would be hurt. The story would have been: The robots malfunction and don't act out their roles properly. Guests complain to the park management, who apologize, give the guests a refund, send everyone home, and shut the park down for a ocuple of days while they fix the programming. Guests are disappointed that their vacation was ruined. The stockholders are very mad. The End. That would be boring.
© 2020 by Jay Johansen
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