Westworld Review: HBO Series Offers More Than Androids Gone Wild
It feels like HBO is already lining up their next Game of Thrones with Westworld, and I mean that in the best way possible. It’s not just the nudity and violence that make Westworld GoT’s natural successor. It is epic in scope, richly-layered, and treads a delicate line between reality and fantasy.
Based on the 1973 sci-fi film written and directed by Michael Crichton, Westworld takes place in two realities: Westworld, the western-themed “amusement park” that lets guests explore any fantasy they can imagine, and the high-tech, sci-fi world that exists just outside of Westworld, keeping the place running. In the two episodes provided to critics, there is nothing outside of Westworld and the lab. I mean, there probably is, but we don’t see it. It is inconsequential. We see guests coming into the park, but even the scientists seem to live in the compound.
Westworld is populated by “hosts,” incredibly realistic androids that have long since crossed the uncanny valley. Some of these hosts include Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), the beautiful “girl next door;” Maeve (Thandie Newton), the bordello madam; and her number one girl, Clementine (Angela Serafyan). These hosts have been programmed to be completely realistic: they can react to the guests, hold conversations with one another, even bleed when shot or stabbed. They are programmed to never, ever hurt anything living, from a human guest to a fly.
On the technical side of things, the father of Westworld is Dr. Robert Ford (Sir Anthony Hopkins). His lead programmer, Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), is his second-in-command. Also on the staff are Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen), the head of Quality Assurance; behavioral engineer Elsie Hughes (Shannon Woodward); and story programmer Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman).
Like all sci-fi tales of amusement parks, something goes wrong. Cracks are starting to show in the perfect facade of some of the hosts. Some are more obvious: they stutter and loop and appear to be having a stroke. Others are more subtle: pained expressions, twitches, a “look” in the eye. One host swats a fly. Do these flaws have to do with upgrades? A virus? Or something more sinister? There are more mysteries to discover, of course. Who is the mysterious Man in Black? What kind of “deeper game” is he looking for? What are the true interests of the as-yet-unseen management? You get the sense that all these storylines will connect at some point, which makes it far more interesting than just “androids gone wild.”
The production values on Westworld are top notch – exactly what you would expect from HBO. Gorgeous, saturated landscapes are almost preternaturally beautiful – exactly what you would expect from a lab-created Wild West, yet clearly all real. The acting is restrained and focused – exactly what you would expect from such a decorated cast. The “hosts” go from human to android in an instant. The concept could very easily fall into the land of trashy throw-aways, but Jonathan Nolan and J.J. Abrams keep the show classy and sincere.
The show isn’t perfect. I thought the voice-over was over-used. There were some cartoony lab moments: the hosts are created in something similar to Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, and in the lab there was a lightning effect. I wasn’t sure if it was an electrical issue or a storm outside, but it had a tinge of cheesy 1950s monster movie, just in case you didn’t pick up on the Frankenstein motif. And quite frankly, androids gaining sentience isn’t exactly new or exciting. But there are enough mysteries, enough parallel storylines, to keep me interested. Like in Game of Thrones, if there is a storyline you don’t like, wait five minutes and another storyline will present itself.
I feel obligated to address the concerns some critics have raised about the violence in the show, particularly violence against women. As a woman myself, I was not offended. In the first two episodes, there was only one scene that stood out, a male character violently dragging a woman into the barn, presumably to rape her. Like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, that scene – and many other murders – took place off-screen. The brain is left to fill in the details, and it often fills in more violence than is there. That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of on-screen violence, and literally buckets of blood, but it’s no more violent than Deadwood or any other western. It is appropriate for the setting, and it is appropriate for the story.
Westworld isn’t just about the rise of the machines, or whether or not it is a good idea to play god. It is about what makes someone human. It is about the next stages in human evolution. It is about the depths of depravity and the heights of humanity.
Westworld premieres on Sunday, October 2 at 9 PM ET.