Based on the 1973 film of the same name, HBO has finally released the first few episodes of its TV adaptation of Michael Crichton’s cult sci-fi story and who better to bring us an edgy new Western show than the network that once gave us Deadwood?
The original film was like a precursor to The Terminator with Yul Brynner taking on the role of an unstoppable, dead-eyed killing machine. The underrated film’s overall concept was an ingenious one so a re-imagining would have plenty to work with and a lot of potential to expand. In the movie, two friends enter the futuristic, adult-friendly theme park Westworld: a detailed re-creation of the Old West peopled with very convincing androids you can shoot and kill but who can’t hurt you. When the robots suddenly and inexplicably change the rules and start fighting back, however, Westworld soon becomes about as good of an idea as Jurassic Park and the whole thing inevitably self-destructs.
Created by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy with the likes of J.J. Abrams and Bryan Burk on-board as Executive Producers, this new Westworld is a far slicker and more emotional journey as we not only see clueless tourists interact with the creepy automatons but we also get more insight into the androids’ point of view as we follow some of those characters going about their daily lives. Lives that are, unbeknownst to them, completely artificial. Anthony Hopkins is Dr. Robert Ford, the co-creator of Westworld who treats the “Hosts” as lifeless toys even when they display obvious signs of sentience.
The Pilot episode introduces us to the repetitive lives of the Hosts with Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores Abernathy waking up every morning with a rebooted memory, going about her day as if she really was living in the Old West. Her life may be scripted but, emotionally, Dolores feels every single horrible thing that happens to her and it’s those memories that give her humanity and eventually make her suspicious of her own reality. James Marsden is Teddy, the gunslinger who falls in love with Dolores day after day and Thandie Newton is the alluring madam in the local brothel, they are both great in their respective roles but this is Evan Rachel Wood’s show. The latter brings a level of emotion to the Hosts you never felt in the original and seeing how she deals with her sad reality is one of the most fascinating aspects of the show.
The main human characters include Jeffrey Wright’s Bernard Lowe, one of the main guys working behind the scenes at Westworld and Ed Harris is the Man in Black, a wealthy sadistic guest who goes around murdering and raping Hosts mercilessly. We’re not 100% sure that Harris’ character isn’t a Host himself, however, as this is the role originally played by Yul Brynner, who was indeed portraying an android. This role reversal works so far and Ed Harris is appropriately chilling but whether he manages to be as intimidating of a presence as Brynner was remains to be seen. One wonders whether the character will be killed and finally revived as a Host at some point in the series.
The second episode is more akin to the film in that it follows a seasoned Westworld guest as he introduces his mild-mannered friend to the no-holds-barred nature of the theme park. The main focus of that episode is Maeve Millay (Newton) who starts to remember past horrors her Host experienced before she was assigned the madam character. She is brought into the lab for testing and takes a distressing peek behind the curtain as bleeding dead Hosts are being hosed down and dumped into glass cells. Dr Ford (Hopkins) hints at a new storyline he’s been working on and the third episode is mostly about how changing a character’s backstory can modify the Hosts’ motivations. Once again, Dolores (Rachel Wood) and Teddy (Marsden) are the main focus and, while both characters are interesting, this brings up some questions.
Why would Dr Ford bother to create Hosts who can go off-road and interact with each other when there are no guests around? Especially when he is explicitly against treating them like humans. One possibility is that he himself is a Host and his real plan is to have his kind develop emotions and fight back. Otherwise, Westworld already feels extremely flawed since, if the theme park isn’t for the guests’ benefit, what’s the point of such an expansive (and expensive) operation? It’s hard to truly care about Dolores and her storyline when there are no real people around to react to it and, at any moment, her mind could be wiped out at the touch of a button. Plus, as powerful as the scientists and engineers behind Westworld are, they don’t seem to have much control over their creations and don’t even seem worried that there is a guy going around scalping and killing Hosts 24/7.
There are immersive experiences and then… there’s Westworld, a place where apparently anything goes. No matter how dark and twisted.
There’s a good chance all these points will be explored soon enough as this is still early days and, while the show can be frustrating at times, it is so far intriguing enough to keep you watching and thinking. The original film was a relatively straightforward man vs machine scenario but this show is far more intricate and philosophical (that Nolan touch, no doubt) so don’t expect the same vibe. This new Westworld is not so much like The Terminator, a tense robot-themed slasher, as it is similar to something like I, Robot crossed with Blade Runner… and an old Spaghetti Western of course.
This is a slow-burn which takes its time exploring its off-beat world and its characters, human or otherwise, as well as big, complex themes like humanity, memories, love and cruelty. Unlike Jurassic Park (also a Michael Crichton story), which was like a large-scale zoo with a twist, Westworld doesn’t yet feel like a legitimate theme park someone would invest in even if you can definitely see why people would flock to it. It’s honestly hard to imagine a company allowing people to rape and murder at will, even if the victims are androids, not to mention giving robots this much freedom, seemingly for no-one’s benefit.
Westworld boasts gorgeous visuals, slick special effects, a terrific cast and some great writing. Here’s hoping it just gets better and better by upping the action, filling in the gaps and keeping the twists coming.