Westworld – The Original (S1:E1)
With Westeros winding down HBO is looking for their next big-budget event series (True Detective shit that bed with the dour season 2), and have found it in Westworld. A remake/reimagining of Michael Crichton’s (Jurassic Park) uneven 1973 thriller with Yul Brynner. In reality, that film fits the remake bill perfectly: good ideas, bad execution. HBO has reportedly spent $100 million on this first season and enlisted the help of Jonathon Nolan (Person of Interest, brother of Chris) and a cast of talented actors to make it come to life.
Crichton is in his wheelhouse with an amusement park that goes wrong, which meditates on the hubris of man being his own downfall. Instead of rampaging dinos we have the cowboy robots. Westworld is a virtual reality of sorts, an old West town populated with androids that nigh can’t be distinguished from their human counterparts (do you think that will become a plot point?). Within this town, a view guests (newcomers) get to act out a real life Role Playing Game. There are hundreds of interconnected stories that newcomers can jump into and alter. What it mostly turns into is a bunch of rich people paying money to have sex with and shoot robots for fun. The inhumanity of humans to what they perceive as nonhuman. After each two week experience, the robots are repaired, their memories wiped, and they live out the same story again… and again… until changes in story or upgrades are provided.
Like any iPhone user can tell you, sometimes these upgrades are problematic. Anthony Hopkins (speechifying a bunch) created Westworld many years ago, and continues to tinker. His latest update, and attempt to build a subconscious by accessing latent memories proves troublesome when some of the robots begin to malfunction. So, Westworld has a dichotomy of stories the actual Westworld stories where the robots and humans play, and the behind-the-curtain technicians.Our behind the curtains moves like a typical control room drama. The politics between high ranking administrators of the perfect nerd (Jeffrey Wright) who interrupts real conversations to remark on ways they can bring this realism to the hosts (robots), the hardass Hughes who is in charge of quality control, and the dramatic Sizemore who is the writer of the narrative. Each is playing at their own games, arguing over how real the robots should be (Hopkins speechifies about wanting them to be the next evolution of mankind) and what the guests want.
Interestingly, Nolan, whose brother is so big on exposition, leaves out a lot of the rules. We don’t get clear explanations of how many of the actual goings-on of Westworld work (how, why do bullets only kill robots, but don’t hurt humans) and leaves a fair amount of mystery on the table. There is a bit too much foreshadowing (“we haven’t had a problem in 30 years”) and Nolan is his brother’s filmmaker, and at times the whole thing loses energy under the dour seriousness of the entire enterprise. Luckily, the Ford-esque cinematography and a few lively performances keep things afloat.
In the original Westworld film, the humans were the main focus. Not here. We follow the robots. Evan Rachel Wood is tremendous as Dolores, the oldest robot in the park. She projects just enough distance to where we empathize, but see her as other than human. It’s a tricky role, and she nails it. We see her through various renditions of the same story, one even with a clever bait-and-switch regarding James Marsden’s character (Nolan’s love twists). Marsden is the do-gooder cowboy type. The hosts would never hurt a fly (literally) and have a series of code they must abide by (I, Robot-esque). With this new update, things are getting messy and it looks like the accessing of memories may lead to trouble. After all, would you stay loyal to your human masters if every memory you had was being brutally murdered, raped, and mistreated by them?
The wildcard here is Ed Harris as the man in black. He’s been coming to Westworld for over 30 year, and has the time of his life going full evil for two weeks. Beyond the sadism though, seems to be a plan. He looks to be driving at something. He is trying to cause as much chaos and destruction. Almost like a little boy who wants to break the toys to see how they work. He ends the episode by scalping one of the robots and riding into town. What is he planning? It’s also a clever riff on Yul Brynner’s character who was a robot.
The humans are mostly depicted as oafs. Lustful, murder-happy, doofuses who just want to get their rocks off playing pretend. MVP of the episode goes to Dolores’ father, who discovers a modern-day picture and is filled with existential dread trying to decipher its meaning. His malfunction is creepy, and his core analysis with Hopkins is edge-of-your-seat stuff. That performance does more to foreshadow what’s to come than any of the clunky stuff in the beginning of the episode.
Westworld is an extraordinary premiere in that it accomplishes a lot of world building (through exposition and suggestion), sets up the central conflict, presents strong characters, and leaves us with more questions without feeling obtuse. Big-minded questions of man’s inhumanity, the nature of consciousness, and man playing God don’t get in the way of a few fun gunfights and HBO’s CEO of Tits making sure he keeps his job (they are very asexually presented, in typical Nolan fashion). The direction is solid from Nolan in keeping all the balls in the air and never dropping into poo-faced grimdark seriousness. The only real flaw, and its purely extrapolation, is that there doesn’t seem to be a story that can be sustained for more than a season or two. That, though, is a problem for another time. For now, Westworld looks poised to take up where True Detective faltered, and hold down the fort until Game of Thrones returns. We may be in for a few twists and turns more before WW is done with us.