There will be time to murder and create.
Finding the time to actually watch TV shows is difficult these days, but most especially around the holiday season. I have been waiting to watch the last five episodes of HBO’s Westworld and, thanks to the handy DVR and a big snowstorm, I finally got to binge-watching the truly indelible first season. As to not ruin anything for those of you who may be in the midst of watching or have yet to get to it, this review will avoid spoilers.
Westworld is based on the film written and directed by Michael Crichton, which depicted a futuristic Old West tourist theme park where animated robotic characters interacted with human guests. James Brolin and Richard Benjamin play guests who are wannabee cowboys, and most memorably Yul Brynner is the robotic Man in Black (reprising in some ways his iconic character from The Magnificent Seven) who malfunctions and tries to gun them down.
In the TV series the haunting title sequence sets the tone from the very beginning – we get flashes of western and sci-fi motifs and even a glimpse of a half-robot/half-human looking like da Vinci’s Virtruvian Man – all set to the haunting piano first played by robotic hands and then morphing into a player piano straight from some dusty saloon. It is a fitting start to the proceedings to follow.
With J.J. Abrams and Christopher Nolan as executive producers, we are right to expect big (and unusual things). The first episode (directed by Nolan) establishes the scenario differently than the film by giving us a glimpse of the robotic characters called “hosts” (in a weird twist on Disney’s Cast Members at their parks) as having distinct feelings and personalities. We get a glimpse of the romantic pair Dolores (an outstanding Evan Rachel Wood) and Teddy (James Marsden) before they are attacked by the human Man in Black (Ed Harris) who is in search of a “maze” that will figure symbolically in the story line.
There are problems with the hosts behaving strangely and the guests behaving badly from the start, and the entire premise of the series revolves around these issues – should the hosts do anything but function as programmed and serve accordingly? Why is it not okay for guests (who have paid an exorbitant amount of money to be there) to do whatever they please? There are many other questions that the series poses, of course, most salient among them is what happens when you play God? The answer could be that you get to murder and create as you please, but since you are only playing a god and not really one there are consequences.
At the center of the story is the exquisite Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Robert Ford, the seeming lord and master of Westworld (though he has the Delos board of directors to whom he must answer) who has an agenda and then some. His programming of the hosts becomes a question for other humans working closely with him, including his partner Arnold (a terrific Jeffrey Wright) and Charlotte (Tessa Thompson), whose sympathies bend toward the board.
Ford has given the hosts backstories, but when there are behavioral issues their memories are erased, yet the procedure doesn’t seem to work very well. Why give the hosts such deep memories in the first place and how is that part of Ford’s greater but secret plan for the theme park? Hopkins plays Ford as benevolent dictator, his face a road map of the horrors he has conceived and allowed to flourish, a Dr. Frankenstein-type figure who has not only stolen fire from the gods but has mastered it for his own seemingly twisted needs.
When hosts are brought into the clinic for service and re-programming, they are usually sitting naked on a shelf. This objectifies them as just robotic chattel, and we even see a case of one lab technician abusing a host. The series is clearly pushing the boundaries of what it is to be human and to act humanely, as well as the concepts of artificial intelligence and the sentience associated with it and what rights such sentience would seem to grant an AI.
One host brought in for service is Maeve (a powerful performance by Thandie Newton), a madam in the saloon who continues to have memories of a lost daughter despite having her memory wiped. This is an ongoing extended metaphor that plagues Dolores as well, and the notion that the hosts believe that they have had these memories based on real experiences (as opposed to Ford implanting them to give them backstories) is haunting and effective.
Ethical questions abound as we see Dolores, Teddy, and Maeve have flashbacks – and what sometimes amounts to fast forwards – and we believe that they believe they have lived these lives even though we know they could not possibly have done so, unless when the timeline is altered (and multiple timelines give hints that these robots have assumed different identities over the course of 30 or more years). We wonder which hosts may have once been human (or at least harbor real human memories) and which humans may be unknowingly hosts, and the implications are that the difference may not matter all that much in the long run in terms of treating all beings with the respect they deserve.
When human William (Jimmi Simpson) comes to Westworld to have a blast with his friend Logan (Ben Barnes), he does not seem to be ready to fully embrace the bacchanalia at hand. Logan has no such issues, but after William encounters Dolores, he falls in love with her and accompanies her on a journey of discovery that Logan cannot condone or understand.
Is William meant to be sort of a witness to the human depravity and also perhaps a conduit to bring sanity into the equation? It seems that he is the only “good” human in the theme park – except perhaps for lab technician Felix (Leonardo Lam); however, others like The Man in Black and Ford make it clear that humans should hold no illusions and want the robots to serve their purpose – to be used and abused – and nothing more.
It is hard to go further without revealing too many things that would ruin the pleasures off what comes next, but there are moments of foreshadowing early on that get more obvious as we move forward that the bots are simmering with anger. Some humans like Arnold and Charlotte are raging against the machine as well, with Arnold wanting more autonomy for the hosts and Charlotte hoping to remove Ford from his position before the damage cannot be undone.
Then there is that maze – the one the Man in Black is trying to find – that could be symbolic of the trap set for everyone caught up in Westworld – it’s not just a theme park but an established society that turns out to be a labyrinth that perhaps no one (robot or human) can escape.
Let it suffice to say that by the time we get through the tenth episode that the season finale satisfies our desire to resolve some of our many questions but leaves enough of them tantalizingly unanswered. We also get a brief glimpse of Samurai World and wonder if there is going to be interaction with it in season two. And just how many more of these “worlds” are also out there?
As it stands the first season of Westworld gives us ten episodes that are like the opening chapters of a great novel that compels us to keep reading; the problem is we are left in a position to be unable to turn the page at this point and are kept waiting (until 2018 – yikes!). Leaving us wanting more certainly applies here, and HBO seems happy to have done that and also to have another big hit on its plate that fans are ready to devour.
The acting in the series is superb, and if Hopkins doesn’t get nominated for an Emmy (sadly no Golden Globe nomination) then there is something wrong indeed. Wright, Newton, Harris and others all give memorable and impressive performances. Wood (nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama) especially shines in her powerful turn as Dolores, and she is giving Melissa Benoist (Supergirl) a run for the money as TV’s most radiantly beautiful female star.
The series is glorious to behold with wide-open vistas that are apropos to the Wild West, yet also features the sterile and claustrophobic labs and Ford’s lair complete with player piano (and robotic piano player) and host faces on the wall that are stark and foreboding. The look of the characters is stunningly conceived as well in their elaborate western costumes or stiff rubber lab coats and business suits. This dichotomy is deliberate and sets for juxtaposition of the two opposing worlds – not just the modern facility and the fictitious western locales, but also the lives of the hosts and the human guests.
The cinematography, art direction, and set production are all stellar, and the haunting musical direction of Ramin Dwjadi sets the tone for the proceedings. Makeup and sets are all first caliber, and there is a general feeling that this TV series is bigger than its britches, a story told on such a grand scale that it is just busting at the seams and waiting to explode onto a movie screen, yet what is being done here cannot be done in films because the novelization of a story works best on the small screen.
As the narrative unfolds we continually find ourselves rooting for the hosts to be free of suppression and abuse and to ultimately find their true selves, even if that means coming to the realization they are not who they have always believed themselves to be. The problem is freedom always comes with a price tag, and there is a distinct possibility that the hosts will discover that even their desire to be free has been scripted for them.
As for the humans, we are left wondering who among them is actually free since the narratives seem to have been written for them as well. Rising above all the detritus of human versus host controversies, Ford embraces the dark side with fervor and yet gives some reasonable enough explanations for why he has done everything; however, like Dr. Frankenstein before him, Ford should know that when you play with fire eventually you are going to get burned.
Season one of Westworld is worth your time to watch, enjoy, and ponder. Going back over each episode gives one a chance to not only savor its many delights, but to contemplate all the possibilities of what the second season will bring. Move over Game of Thrones, there’s a new sheriff in HBO town.