Reviews: Westworld

A labyrinthine delight

Westworld is a remarkable expansion of Michael Crichton's original story about the theme park of the future gone wrong. As opposed to the film, HBO's series focuses more on the robots (or "hosts") and their creators/owners than it does the guests who come to the park. And the story it tells is basically a slow-build toward that original premise: a robot uprising against human oppressors.

So we are given a lot of time to get to know how the park, the robots, and the corporate world profiting off all of it works. More importantly, we are allowed to explore the nuances that the film only briefly touches on: corporations don't care about people; humans have great potential for violence and depravity; there are vast complexities to AI who achieve self-awareness; and True Art Is Angsty, just to name a few.

The season avoids feeling too episodic by employing a novelistic quality to the plot. There are things addressed in the very first episode that don't come full-circle until the season finale. This may be one of the best uses of mystery in a TV series that I've seen, and I was a fan of Lost. Some people may not like that aspect.

Another thing they might not like is that, as I've already mentioned, Westworld is jam-packed with themes and messages. I was amazed at the number of different ideas contained within these ten episodes. It'll make you think deeply about life, death, evolution, science-fiction, fantasy, reality, virtual realities, human nature, man's inhumanity to man, psychology, sociology, identity, self-discovery/self-actualization, acting, storytelling, etc.

The production quality on the show is also top notch; the beautiful American Southwest is practically its own character. And it is graced by a talented, star-studded cast. Playing lifelike robots on the verge of sentience allows for some creative acting moments, especially with Evan Rachel Wood as Dolores. Anthony Hopkins and Jeffrey Wright turn in brilliant performances as cold and calculating minds behind the park's technology. And Ed Harris is on fire as a truly chilling yet captivating villain.

Of course, the show isn't perfect. You're forced to really suspend disbelief and ignore plot holes near the season's latter half. And the characters all lie within the Black and Grey Morality spectrum: the robots are horribly abused by monstrous humans, but any revenge they take is usually just as cruel and proves they are ultimately Not So Different.

This isn't a show that provides easy answers, and it doesn't feature characters that can be clearly defined as either white hats or black hats. If a story goes for moral and intellectual complexities, I'd rather it be done well. It is done very well here.

I don't know how they'll be able to pull off this kind of plotting beyond this season, but I look forward to seeing more. Props to Jonathan Nolan, Lisa Joy and everyone else involved for delivering such a breathtaking experience.

Midway Murmuring

In my review of the first few episodes of Westworld, I talked a lot about how great it was, waiting for the shit to hit the fan. Iíve just finished episode seven, and the shit still has quite a way to go yet. In fact it feels like the person holding it is very slowly walking towards the fan, and the tv show keeps cutting away to other people who are nowhere near the fan, and so the metaphor is getting very strained.

As a show, Westworld is still captivating as ever. There are a number of plot threads going on between the cowboy world, the park staff, and those in-between, and some are really exciting. Some, less so. The main ones include Ford, park founder and cheery megalomaniac, who is gradually building a big surprise for everyone. Maeve the madam is rapidly figuring out there is a whole world hidden behind the walls of her cosy saloon. Delores the damsel is doing her best to avoid being a disposable love interest, but is accidentally doing it all the same by hanging out with the ineffably boring character, William the white hat. There is also a man in black wonít clearly tell anyone what he is after, but heís going to kill a lot of people to get to it.

This show is playing coy. Episodes have a habit of following a particular character closely up until they make some kind of big revelation, only for the show to then avoid showing them again for a few more episodes, making us wait to see the weight and consequence of their discovery. By the end of episode seven, we have run out of plot threads to avoid showing, and something finally gives. The next part of this review will be ****SPOILER FILLED****.

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The big reveal of episode 7 is that Bernard is one of Fordís robots. Itís a big revelation for a lot of viewers, who may or may not have been suspecting this all along. For me though, it is actually a concern. In any story about lifelike robots, there is inevitably going to be the whoís really a human? question. In the case of Westworld though, it feels like a painfully obvious a plot point to raise. Also, by introducing the prospect of robot staff members, a lot of tension is lost. Before, the actual robots have stakes because though they donít die, they can lose all the precious memories they have accumulated. The humans have stakes because they are always precariously close to being murdered. But now, potentially any human character could end up being murdered, only for the story to reveal they are a robot who can be fixed or a human who can be replaced. This show really doesn't need any more mysteries about its characters.

Early Impressions

It's been a while since I've watched something thatís being released to a schedule, rather than dumped wholesale onto Netflix or amazon for a 48 hour binge session. I actually prefer these things to be rationed out, but it does make reviewing it a pain. For this reason, I can give some early impressions of the first three episodes to anyone who hasnít decided to watch it yet.

Westworld has always been a natural counter-part to the Jurassic Park movies, what with the arrogant scientists making a high-tec theme park that goes horribly wrong and ends up killing all the guests. Now as a tv series, Westworld neatly mirrors the premise of Jurassic World. There are subtle implications that this is a sort of sequel, sort of soft-reboot, taking place decades after the park had been successfully relaunched and any catastrophe covered up. In order to keep the guests interested, Westworld park directors have to build in ever more sophisticated ďhostsĒ, super-lifelike androids that masquerade as cowboys. Something is going to give.

It is a perfect set up. Iím used to lazy prequels and counterparts to popular shows; gritty, 'mature', Christmas boxset visions of classic characters, as seen before they did what made them interesting. Westworld feels like they took a long hard look at the original movie, which used its hedonistic, free-for-all, hollywoodified Wild West setting to tell a slasher story, and they decided to expand on the ethical implications of every last bit. You have guests acting like complete psychopaths, androids who are dangerously close to realising they exist only for target practise/sex, and cynical park staff who are uncertain how much life they can breath into machines. Your sympathies naturally lie with the hosts, who are made to suffer agonising horror on a daily basis, but whenever they start to glitch out, they do so in the most inhumane, sinister ways imaginable. The acting is top notch, with characters being asked to switch from shrieking pain to catatonia, or from copacetic to spastic rage monster in a split second.

A huge part of the show so far is simply exploring this precarious set up. At any moment, the place feels like it is going to go into full meltdown, and it is only the hubris of the human guests and guys running the show that keeps them from realising how horribly in danger they are. It's going to be a blast when it goes down.
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