In 1973, Michael Crichton made a film called Westworld. It was a simple, sci-fi thriller dealing with the idea of a theme park’s living attraction (androids) running rampant. Today it’s considered a classic, and it’s basic themes are credited with laying the groundwork for his later bestseller, Jurassic Park. Now, over 40 years later, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy are telling a different kind of story. This one is an exploration into the extremes of deviancy and morality, and the absolutely basic, but crucial question: what makes us human? And, in classic HBO fashion, it exceeds most expectations.
Westworld is a theme park for the super rich. At $40,000 a day, it’s no cheap thrill for a week in this living, breathing homage to the Old West. The park’s founder, Ford (Anthony Hopkins), and his colleague, Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) are hard at work trying to fix a seemingly simple glitch in a number of their robotic attractions, called Hosts. Meanwhile, several Hosts, notably Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and Maeve (Thandie Newton), seem to be undergoing an awakening of some kind, unlocking memories and potential that Hosts are not meant to have. And a mysterious guest (Ed Harris), is cutting a bloody swath across the park, in search of some deeper meaning to it all.
“These violent delights have violent ends.”
With the original’s cult following, and the prospect of bringing both Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris to TV, Westworld had a lot of hype surrounding it. I’m happy to say it certainly lives up to, and exceeds its predecessor. What was once such a simple tale of man vs machine, has become an intense, twisted journey into the human psyche, the concept of consciousness, and the implications of society’s indulgence. Nolan and Joy have put together an incredibly well-crafted drama, wrapped in a mystery, and under the guise of an action-thriller. The only thing that brings you down from the action is the occasional reminded that in this park “no one actually gets hurt.” Of course, as we learn, that can change quick.
With acting powerhouses like Hopkins and Harris at the forefront, it was hard to picture Westworld as an ensemble show, but the entire cast is terrific. Every character is as beautifully crafted and portrayed as one of the park’s Hosts. Wood is a shoe-in come awards season, and Clifton Collins and Jeffrey Wright steal every scene they’re in. I’ve long been a fan of Wright, and so it’s nice to finally see him in a leading role of a major series. The Host actors are given some extra potential to shine. They often have to jump from different emotions, robotic states, and even different characters in the span of a single scene. The direction is just marvelous.
“I’ve been coming here for thirty years. In a way, I was born here.”
The setting, undisclosed and unapparent, is contrasted between the dusty wild of the Old West park, and the sterile, futuristic sheen of the underground control area. It’s jarring at times, getting invested in a gunfight between Union soldiers and gunslingers, only to suddenly be reminded of the artificiality of it all when we see the park’s staff piecing the Hosts together again. This contrast keeps the audience on their toes throughout the season. It leaves you constantly pondering what’s real, and who’s human.
Where Westworld does falter, and it is only slightly, is in the delivery of its mysteries. In the first two episodes we’re introduced to multiple questions that the show spends the season exploring: What is the Maze? Who is Arnold, and what happened to him? Hints, clues, and easter eggs are scattered throughout every episode, but after a while, it gets a bit stale. Particularly because the answers to these questions become quite obvious halfway through the season if you’re remotely paying attention. This is the main difference between effective foreshadowing, and arrogant storytelling. If the writers try too hard to display their own intelligence, it comes back and bites them in the ass when their viewers figure out the mystery weeks before it’s revealed. Audiences want to feel smart for figuring something out; not like they’re being spoon-fed. Effective clues should be looking us right in the face, only for us to say, “doesn’t look like anything to me.”
“Do you know what happened to the Neanderthals? We ate them.”
Could Westworld very well be the next Game Of Thrones? A long-running genre epic, with an engrossing story, terrific ensemble cast, and a wondrous score from Ramin Djawadi? Perhaps. It’s on the right track. It’s already crushed Game Of Thrones‘ record for most-watched premiere season. But while GoT continues to shock audiences around the globe, Westworld‘s twists are a bit too telegraphed as of yet. Nolan and Joy will have to step up their game to keep viewers guessing. The quality Is there, but we need to remember that crucial lesson that Ford teaches his staff. “They come back for the little things. The subtleties.” Regardless, the second season season is sure to kick off with a well-deserved bang, and I’ll be there.