Westworld (2016)

HBO Westworld TV show 2016Country: USA
Created by: Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy

Starring: Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, Jeffrey Wright, James Marsden, Ed Harris, Anthony Hopkins

Even with all the reboots and remakes nowadays, it’s rare to see one of them actually expand and improve upon the original. Sci-fi western series Westworld is one of those rare exceptions.

Westworld was created by Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan who, together with his brother Christopher, made movies such as Inception and Memento. The cast of the show includes acting heavyweights such as Ed Harris and Anthony Hopkins. Audience expectations were high and, for the most part, Westworld delivers.

A brief historical side-note

Westworld is based on the 1973 sci-fi movie written and directed by Michael Crichton about a futuristic amusement park featuring tree worlds populated with androids: Westworld, Roman World and Medieval World. Due to the technological glitch, things go horribly wrong and robots start killing people. Two decades later, Crichton replaced cowboy robots with dinosaurs and wrote Jurassic Park.

Westworld proved out a surprising box office success. Futureworld, a far inferior sequel, followed in 1976. In it, creators of Westworld – who somehow survived the PR disaster after the events of the first film – attempt to replace important politicians with their android doubles. This entertaining premise is mostly wasted in Futureworld as well as in the short-lived 1980 CBS TV show Beyond Westworld that got canceled after only five episodes.

Nowadays, the original Westworld is mostly remembered for Yul Brynner’s performance as The Gunslinger – an unstoppable android pursuing the movie’s hapless protagonists. It’s a role that both parodies and pays homage to Brynner’s iconic performance in the 1960 western Magnificent Seven. In turn, The Gunslinger inspired horror filmmaker John Carpenter to create a merciless, indestructible killer of his own: Michael Myers in Halloween. Brynner’s Gunslinger is also one of the inspirations for James Cameron’s Terminator.

Yul Brynner in Michael Crichton's Westworld (1973)

Yul Brynner in Michael Crichton’s Westworld (1973)

Ok, but what about this Westworld?

Being a sci-fi western helps define the look and the feel of the show. However, this is also the least interesting part of it. It’s hard to care about gunfights and robberies when Westworld repeatedly reminds you these are all just narratives for the park’s rich and spoiled visitors. True, the joke is on us: after all, aren’t we watching an exciting story about fake people in a fake park? But the joke quickly grows old and all of this action ends up wasting everybody’s time since it’s mostly inconsequential for the real plot.

It’s when Westworld goes meta that it becomes truly entertaining. Show lovingly pokes fun at MMORPG and western clichés alike. There are damsels in distress, grizzled old prospectors and quest givers looking to hire ridiculously incompetent park visitors. Behind the scenes, artistic vision of the park’s founder Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) clashes with the demands of the jaded visitors for more crude and cruel entertainment. Meanwhile, the faceless board of directors tries to wrestle the control of Westworld away from Ford to turn its technology to military purposes.

And then there are the park’s androids. Known as the hosts, they’re so lifelike that even the park’s personnel starts developing feelings for them. Westworld follows the grand tradition of science fiction and uses its fantastical premise to ask the truly Big Questions. What makes human beings human? What are the limits of free will? Do people even have free will or are going through the motions, playing out their internal programming? If so, do people truly bear responsibility for all the awful things they do? Whole books could and have been written about questions like these.

Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden and Anthony Hopkins in Westworld (2016)

Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden and Anthony Hopkins in Westworld (2016)

It’s here that the show’s cast truly shines as hosts such as Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and Maeve (Thandie Newton) start breaking their programming. While Dolores is beset by visions and voices, Maeve experiences deeply unsettling paranoia that becomes all too real. Show deliberately avoids answering are they truly developing a free will or is their behavior part of some deeper, more advanced programming. Evan Rachel Wood’s performance is mesmerizing as her character turns on a dime from devastatingly human to utterly emotionless. It’s also worth mentioning Jeffrey Wright’s Bernard who is the soul of the show and Ed Harris’ Man in Black who is his exact opposite.

tl;dr

As a show, Westworld is well-crafted, even daring. Its dour message is that one’s humanity is primarily defined by one’s capacity for suffering. It offers us a disquieting look at humanity while – so far – mostly avoiding tits-and-gore of its trashy sister show Game of Thrones.

However, despite the wonderful performances and the amazing soundtrack by Ramin Djawadi, it’s hard to get emotionally invested in a show where seemingly half the characters are ciphers while the other half keeps forgetting everything that happens to them. Because of that, Westworld often feels less like a story and more like an object of art – something to be admired, not enjoyed. This may, of course, change in the show’s second season. That’s the peril of reviewing TV shows: it’s hard to properly judge them until you see them in their entirety.

After watching the show’s pilot episode for the second time – which says something about its quality, since this is something I do very rarely – one thing became obvious: there’s no way in hell Westworld ends well, neither for the hosts nor for the humans. This would be completely in the spirit of this fascinating show. I, for one, can’t wait for it to continue.

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