One of the world’s first programmable inventions was the self-playing piano. A fitting image to use throughout a show like Westworld; a surprisingly well-made HBO sci-fi series that just wrapped up its first season and told of an advanced Old West theme park with robotic hosts, all with their own unique memories, origin stories, and built-in mannerisms/daily habits. But the question that remains is that same old one that appears in tales of Artificial Intelligence; what does it mean to be human? And if these creations of Man do become more human, then what? (Also, here’s your first and final SPOILER WARNING).
Based on the 1976 film by Michael Chrichton (before he did dinosaurs instead of cowboys), Westworld is about the theme park of the same name as well as the androids, called “hosts”, that are exploited there and the people that maintain them. Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) is head of Programming and endlessly fascinated by the robots and their minds; Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman) is the obnoxious narrative director; Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen) makes sure nothing “unscripted” happens in the park, with questionable efficiency; Ashley Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth) is in charge of security; Elsie Hughes (Shannon Woodward) oversees odd behavior in the hosts, and Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson) is a higher-up from Delos Inc. with her own ideas for the park. The founder and leading creative director is Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), who has ambitions for his creations that go beyond simply telling stories and giving visitors the adventure of a lifetime.
Inside the park, there are multiple “narratives” occurring at the same time for guests to engage in to one extent or the other. We meet such hosts as Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), who is first to realize that there is something else outside the park and something in her past that she’s not remembering; Maeve (Thandie Newton), a prostitute who starts malfunctioning and learns too much; Teddy (James Marsden), Dolores’ sweetheart who often has his backstory altered; Clementine (Angela Sarafyan), Maeve’s best friend and a truly famous attraction; a collection of bandits led by Hector and Armistice; a smirking outlaw played by Clifton Collins Jr., and countless more. Some of the most important guests, or “newcomers” we see are the inconsiderate fun-seeker Logan (Ben Barnes) and his far more cautios businnes partner/future brother-in-law William (Jimmi Simpson), who develops something special for Dolores once he gets involved in her narrative.
Last but not least there’s the mysterious Man In Black (Ed Harris), a violent visitor who comes to the park in search of a “deeper level”, something he himself is not sure what it means. Raping and killing hosts left and right on his quest, he is the show’s answer to Yul Brynner‘s Gunslinger from the original film. The clever spin, of course, is that it’s not an indestructible android murdering humans, but a human being murdering androids, taking advantage of the fact that those who visit Westworld cannot be killed. Considering the show’s themes of oppression and liberation, complete with the faux “Civil War era” setting, it works stupendously well.
As many will agree, Westworld is quite the piece of work. Thematically, it may remind you of Alex Proyas‘ Dark City (and Shyamalan’s The Village if you’d like sadder memories programmed into you) or perhaps a really good Neal Stephenson novel. In terms of visuals, it mixes a Western look that purposely feels somewhat corny (which fits perfectly together with the fact that it’s all more or less fake) with marvelous science fiction imagery that looks like something out of a Stanley Kubrick film – as well in the way its shots are composed as the way it is designed. The camera following Jeffrey Wright through a metal corridor as he enters the great red room that contains a holographic projection of the park; the lifeless hosts resting on chairs in their bright glass chambers inside a vast, otherwise dark laboratory; an endless chasm of escalators filmed from above – these are all images that will be remembered.
It is, however, not as flawless as audiences would insist. A lot of the plot developments rely on the incompetence and dishonesty of the Westworld workers, always lying to each other and spouting cryptic threats back and forth, ignorant of events that should have been captured on some manner of surveillance footage, whether it’s in their working facility or in the park they’re monitoring. They also don’t seem to notice that one of the robots is a copy of the park’s presumably world-famous co-founder, which is a twist that appears late in the show and very likely wasn’t planned from the beginning.
And don’t get me started on trying to fathom how the place operates when it comes to days being reset (even when guests take hosts like Dolores on week-long adventures) or whether the hosts can kill the guests. Only the robots respond to gunfire, almost as if it was all simulated, but the guns inside the park don’t seem to be fake and once the bots go haywire they’re perfectly capable of strangling and hurling rocks at people, so I don’t know.
There’s also a big reveal involving the existence of two time periods shown to us simultaneously, and one of the younger characters being one and the same as an older character in a different plotline. The problem is that, in addition to the subtle hints at this, there are clues early on that the two plotlines are taking place in present day, since some of the Westworld staff acknowledge both events – without seeming to age 30 years in-between these instances, mind you. This, too, is a sign that Westworld isn’t quite as meticulously thought-out and clever as we’d like to believe.
Yes, it is still a visually stellar, encapsulating and mind-stirring programme. It just has some of executive producer J.J. Abrams‘ Lost-era finger prints on it. Although, whereas Lost was a much longer show that had writers making things up mostly on the fly for six seasons, you’d think that a 10-episode first season of a show that almost feels like its own mini-series would have been more neatly planned out beforehand. But no, apparently some of these episodes were filmed years apart from one other with at least one halt in production, explaining some of the zig-zagging motivations, jumpy storylines and plot inconsistencies (that aren’t the result of Ford or other Westworld employees deliberately tampering with the hosts and their backstories, that is). I admired how confusing and ambitious it is, but it does seem that it uses confusion as a cover for some of its not fully realized aspects.
But just the same, the show is pretty fantastic where it counts. The music by Ramin Djawadi is Djawadi at his finest, the plot constantly keeps you guessing as to who’s one step ahead of whom, and the performances are crowning achievements for almost all the actors involved. Particularly layered is the performance of Jeffrey Wright, in ways that I’d rather not elaborate on, and Ed Harris manages to be both despicable and understandable.
And now, at the very end, it has culminated in a season finale that’s got me more than hooked for its second season and what questions it will explore next, given what has happened. To quote a great film and a great speaker: “Do you think God stays in Heaven because he too lives in fear of what he has created?” I’m talking, of course, about Steve Buscemi in Spy Kids 2.