“Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.”
The 1973 movie Westworld was written and directed by novelist Michael Crichton and showcased a Western themed amusement park where human visitors were able to interact with android inhabitants and live an Old West lifestyle without fear or consequence. It was a novel idea that nowadays is more famous for its similarities to Crichton’s most familiar work, Jurassic Park, but the idea of artificial intelligence gone rogue has stuck around cinema for decades and shaped science fiction into what it is today.
HBO’s new series of the same name takes the basic concept of Crichton’s original film, that of an amusement park inhabited by androids, and using Jonathan Nolan – coming fresh off his criminally ignored sci-fi series Person Of Interest – as a show-runner to inject a more thematic edge to the story. Where the original film just had the androids losing control for no apparent reason, this series seems to be providing an answer for the inevitable breakdown.
This pilot episode, titled The Original, does a great job at setting up this world and the way it work; the premise is that Westworld is an entire and painstakingly researched slice of life in the Old West which is inhabited by androids known as Hosts, the Hosts each have their own narrative to follow but can improvise should another member of their storyline be hurt of killed by one of the guests, called Newcomers. The Hosts can’t hurt the Newcomers but the Newcomers can hurt the Hosts and take great pleasure in doing so, be it murder, maiming or rape. And at the end of each day, the Hosts have their memories wiped, are rebooted and go through the same day again with a new batch of Newcomers to take on.
After a recent update to allows the Hosts more natural actions and reactions, the Park’s lead programmer Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) notices some irregularities in some of the hosts, what starts off as odd little twitches becomes violent and unpredictable, forcing the Park to look into what is causing the malfunction and how it ties into the enigmatic Dr Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), creative director of Westworld.
While this is going on, one of the hosts named Delores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood) is going through her storyline with returning lover Teddy (James Marsden) but life isn’t so kind to the young lovers with everything from a town shootout to a rapacious Man In Black (Ed Harris) who seems to know more about the Park then anyone should keeping the two of them apart. When her father Peter (Louis Herthum) finds an impossible item his programming struggles to understand it’s meaning and he becomes one of the malfunctioning Hosts, but not before telling Dolores a message that seems to be allowing her to open her mind to the world around her.
There’s set-up for an interesting storyline here, the malfunctioning update seems to be the main plot thread of this season and is sure to be an ongoing issue while the side stories of The Man In Black’s search for an secret and Dolores’ possible awakening will bleed into the main plot as the series goes on. Already the show is asking deep questions about what it means to be human and moral implications of treating androids as subservient non-people designed to allow the Newcomers to indulge in their most vile urges.
Out of all the character it’s Dolores who we spend the most time with in this first episode, as we come to find out, she is The Original of the title and sure to be our main protagonist going forward. Wood makes Dolores out to be a free-thinking young woman but one who has probably had several lifetimes of hurt inflicted upon her, at the end of nearly every day Dolores is hurt by one thing or another and it’s hinted that this is everyday life for her, it’s through Wood’s sympathetic portrayal that we find ourselves drawn to her but it’s how she handles the finale of this episode that sets up her character to be one of the most intriguing aspects of the series to come.
While other characters are still to be properly introduced, Thandie Newton’s brothel Madam Maeve and Rodrigo Santoro’s vicious bandit Hector Escaton being the two obvious ones, we do get a glimpse into the lives of the other character. Hopkins gives Ford a sense of melancholy that’s comes from decades of watching his creations grow and evolve and breakdown over and over again. Wright so far is providing exposition but his role by Ford’s side is sure to lead him into something interesting and the ongoing rivalry between operations leader Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen) who is trying to keep the Park floating no matter the cost and narrative director Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman) provides some behind the scenes arguing about the true nature of the Park and what it means to which people.
In the Park itself Marsden plays the romantic lead well but since we see time and time again that this isn’t a romance story his part is yet to be properly revealed. On the other side of the coin is Ed Harris, taking over the Yul Brynner role from the original, but where Brynner was essentially the Terminator, Harris has already given his character a much more sinister and threatening approach, primarily based on the change of character from android to human, opening more doors for some sick and depraved acts of violence to come.
As expected from HBO the show is filled with sex and violence but it never feels exploitative. Sex ranges from brothel nudity, commonplace at the time, to the androids themselves seen nude in the real world, understandable and more often than not leaves them looking more vulnerable and uncomfortable than sexualised. Likewise the violence feels natural to the feel of the Old West, with everything from scalping and pistols duels to the episodes main set-piece of a bandit shoot out set to an old-timey version of Paint It Black, one of several instances of the past and present blending together, keep your eyes open for a version of Black Hole Sun earlier in the episode.
What really sets the episode though is how it’s able to make the whole situation uneasy, right from the start we, the audience, are able to see that it’s all make believe, that none of Westworld is actually real, and yet at the same time we follow people like Dolores, we start to recognise her as a real person so when the Newcomers start hurting her, it’s unpleasant to watch. It ties back to the thematic concerns that have made this pilot so intriguing and why there’s an interest to dive deeper down the rabbit hole to see where Alice lands next.
People have been claiming this as the next Game of Thrones which is unfair assessment, Game Of Thrones is a multi-narrative fantasy epic with a rich history and complicated characters that frequently toe the line between hero and villain. A more apt description for Westworld would be to call it the next Battlestar Gallactica, a complex and cerebral sci-fi series that forces its audience to question the line between human and android and the violent nature that both sides inhabit. This could be the start of something very interesting that gives HBO its most thought provoking series since The Wire
4 out of 5 Hairpieces