Published on November 14th, 2016 | by Nancy Basile0
‘Westworld’ Opening and its Symbolism
My husband and I have been devouring Westworld on HBO. I’ve been fascinated by the Westworld opening sequence since the start. Several episodes in, I now think I know what most of the imagery represents.
Westworld is based on a 1973 sci fi movie, written by Michael Crichton. Rich patrons pay to visit Westworld, a theme park that seems like stepping back into the late 1800s, out in the western territories. People come to Westworld to live out their fantasies, which mostly involve killing and sex. (This blog post isn’t about Westworld’s commentary on the human condition, but it’s clear Crichton didn’t think much of our baser instincts.) Obviously, the creators, Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan, have extrapolated the premise in order to write several episodes covering several hours of stories.
The Westworld opening sequence seems very basic, very abstract, at first. But after watching it several times, I see some meaning in its imagery. Let’s examine the symbolism chronologically.
The first image we see is a white plain against a gray sky. Or is it? What appears to be hills now appears to be ribs. Hills and mountains are the structure of the west, of Westworld itself. Ribs are part of the structure of the human body, thus part of the structure of the hosts. Here, the backbone of this world are the hosts, not the mountains.
Then an orb of light rises on the “horizon.” What at first appears to be the sun or the moon turns out to be an electric light. Again, Westworld is the juxtaposition of the natural and the man made worlds.
Stringing the Instrument
Next we see a mechanical arm stringing a piano. However, it’s the same mechanism they use for creating a host. Are they comparing the creation of music to the creation of a host? Is it their masterpiece?
Now we see a pupil constricting. What is that eye seeing? That eye could belong to a host, seeing, perhaps, the horrible truth that they are not human. Or that eye could belong to a human, witnessing a revelatory act in Westworld. Dolores says, “Some people choose to see the ugliness in this world, the disarray. I choose to see the beauty.”
Later, the pupil dilates wide open, which seems to represent the black pit into which the entire theme park is in danger of falling. Or the black hole of information of which we’re not getting enough!
Then we see skeletal hands playing the piano. This image could represent two different things. First, it could represent the company at the controls of Westworld, creating something out of nothing (like music) with the narratives in the park. Or, it could represent the hosts playing their parts as they should.
But later, the hands pull away from the keys, as if in surprise. The piano continues to play on its own. This could represent the hosts becoming sentient and not needing their programmers, who are caught by surprise. It could also represent the host’s surprise that everything in the park is programmed, including them, and it all works whether they do their part or not.
Sigmund Freud Was Right
Now we see two figures, who are still being created, engaged in coitus. Yes, sex is a focus of the park and the show. That part of the Westworld opening is certainly titillating. But, notice that the mechanical arm is working inside the host’s brain. It’s no secret that the brain is the largest sex organ, and where orgasms originate. So, what does this little vignette say? That the park owners are even controlling the guests’ ability to climax? Or that sex is nothing more than mechanics? I lean toward thinking it’s just there because sex is an enormous part of the theme park’s appeal.
Here, we suddenly see a revolver. Until this point, the Westworld opening focused on human elements. The revolver is mechanical, however. In Westworld, both the human and mechanical must work in harmony. Plus, by showing us the revolver, we get the sense that violence is created, and encouraged, behind the scenes.
Then we see a pretty female face begin to come into view. As the camera continues to pan across her face, however, we’re shown its inner workings. The ugliness. Meaning, inside all of us are these same workings, the same ugliness.
Next comes my favorite part of the Westworld opening. I am fascinated by the woman riding a horse. Who is she? Is it Dolores? She’s dressed in black. Did she kill the Man in Black and take his place? Maybe she’s just a generic woman. My biggest question is, if the horse is running in place, how is her hair and the horse’s tail flying behind them? Again, the image seems to say that the park owners control even the physics of such a scene.
Toward the end of the Westworld opening, a host’s body is dipped into white liquid. I see it as mother’s milk, giving life to a host. The host is spread-eagled, like Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, which is a nod, perhaps, to the fact that the park owners create the hosts to be proportionately pleasing. It also brings to mind the evolution of man, which may be a nod to the fact that the hosts are becoming sentient.
Beauty is in the Eye
The last image of the opening sequence is an eye. I believe this is a statement about how our realities are informed by our perceptions. For instance, Logan and William witness many of the same events, but where William sees a damsel in distress, Logan sees a pointless narrative. Westworld thrives on figuring out what their customers perceive, and how to deliver their fantasies within those perceptions. Using Westworld as a metaphor for real life, our own realities are formed by our perceptions.
Everything in the opening credits is filmed in black and white. Another statement from the creators, I think, because nothing in Westworld is black and white. There are many shades of gray between right and wrong, depending on who’s living the narrative.
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