Created by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy Nolan
Premieres Sun, Oct 02 at 9:00 PM on HBO
Four episodes watched for review
“Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?”
Michael Crichton’s 1973 film Westworld was a primer for the author’s Jurassic Park: the tale of an amusement park run amuck. Crichton’s take on the material didn’t go much deeper beyond his usual schtick: technology turning on the people who created it. Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy Nolan have taken Crichton’s idea and greatly expanded it with HBO’s new Westworld, creating an intelligent, brutal and risky bit of pop-entertainment that’s all but guaranteed to keep viewers coming back on a weekly basis.
The set-up is similar to Crichton’s film: problems arise at a sprawling Old West-themed amusement park populated with life-life androids. While Crichton’s film was told from the point of few of the hapless humans who get stuck in the park when the androids malfunction, HBO’s Westworld is told from the point of view of the robotic characters that populate the park. Referred to as “Hosts”, they’re clueless creations that think their lives are in their own hands. They’re also prone to suffering the brutal attacks of the “Visitors”, aka the wealthy humans who pay to visit the park and live out a live-action version of Red Dead Redemption. In Westworld, you can kill or screw anyone you want, provided they’re an oblivious robot. And when a robot gets “killed”, the park staff fix them up and wipe their memories, and send them back out into the world, as if they were stuck in a terrible loop like Groundhog Day or Edge of Tomorrow.
But what would happen if those robots suddenly started gaining awareness of their situation? What would happen if they started remembering all the times they’d been killed and resurrected again? This scenario gives the Nolans plenty of room to explore existential questions galore, and have a little fun doing it. Although your mileage may vary in regards to how “fun” you think Westworld is. Indeed, one of the flaws of the show is its insistence on being almost unrelentingly cruel. Sure, the show is trying to establish how hellish life is for the robotic residents, but there are times one gets the sense that HBO brass sent down memos insisting the show emulate Game of Thrones and go hard on the violence and cruelty. It gets to be exhausting after a while.
The premiere episode of Westworld is perhaps the clunkiest, and understandably so. The Nolans are setting up their entire world and the vast cast of characters that inhabit it. The action jumps frequently from Westworld to the behind-the-scenes control headquarters where scientists and engineers keep watch. Sandwiched in between all that is a lot of exposition; almost a numbing amount of it. But once Westworld sets the pieces up on its board it proceeds to find the right rhythm to let the game play out.
The show is stuffed with strong actors who are given plenty of room to breathe to create complex characters. Jeffrey Wright, calm and level-headed, is a weary engineer who suspects something is amiss in Westworld but is hesitant to let the cat out of the bag. Anthony Hopkins, icy cool and soft-spoken, is the eccentric owner of the park, who is up to something and may or may not be going insane. Thandie Newton is a robot prostitute in the park slowly becoming aware of her situation. Ed Harris is the mysterious, sadistic Man in Black who has his own secret agenda. There are more — a lot more — people and robots at play here. But the center of it all is the android Dolores, played to perfection by Evan Rachel Wood. Wood is so good here it’s almost scary; her Dolores is required to run through a gamut of emotions, from terrified hysteria to cold analytical explanation, and Wood nails them all and then some. Dolores is the character here who seems most alive — ironic, since technically she isn’t. But Wood brings such a compelling humanity to her inhumane character that it’s impossible to not get pulled into her orbit. She’s like the Final Girl in a slasher film; the one we most want to survive and get away.
It’s difficult to gauge how Westworld can sustain multiple seasons with its premise. There’s a lopsided balance at times, where the events in the park aren’t nearly as interesting as the events going on behind-the-scenes. Hiccups like this aside, the show is at times a wonder to behold. The world-building at play here is fascinating, as is the overall look of the show — a mix of cold, sterile laboratories and vast, sweeping vistas. Westworld may take some time to hit its stride, but the show is off to a strong, almost wonderful, start. The psychology at play here isn’t very deep when you get down to it, but at least this is a show willing to ask questions of its audience, and have them ask questions in return. Westworld probably won’t be the next Game of Thrones for audiences, but don’t be surprised if it builds up its own rabid following.