HBO’s highest debuting show in three years premiered last Sunday night, and its their reinterpretation of Michael Crichton’s seminal novel and 1973 film, Westworld! As it produced by J.J. Abrams and created by Jonathan Nolan, and stars Ed Harris, Anthony Hopkins, James Marsden, Evan Rachel Wood, and Thandie Newton, you can already tell there are some big names, big talent, big budget (the pilot alone is rumored to have cost a cool 25 million), and big buzz attached to this show!
The series takes place in the fictional theme park of Westworld (whose location in the real world unknown so far). It’s basically a Jurassic Park (because Michael Crichton) of Westerns. The high tech Western theme park populated completely by synthetic androids called “Hosts”, who entertain and please super rich visitors dubbed the “Newcomers”, who can do whatever they want to the Hosts, including sex, murder and torture, without fear of reprisal, as the Hosts go about their pre-programmed narratives.
The cinematography in this show is amazing. Wide, long shots of Monument Canyon National Park give it a truly epic and authentic Western feel, while, the tight close ups, especially on the Host’s face and eyes, give it a disturbing intimacy. The stark contrast between the panoramic natural world populated by androids and the sterile technical enclave inhabited by the humans who oversee Westworld is an interesting visual reverse and philosophically poignant.
In the premiere, Westworld’s lead programmer, Bernard (played sharply by Jeffery Wright) observes strange behavior in the Hosts after a new software upgrade is made by Robert, Westworld’s creative director (played by none other than Sir Anthony Hopkins!) While Bernard is a curious, very scientific character who appreciates the detail and minutiae of the craft of constructing androids, almost to an obsessive point, Robert is more a philosopher and an idealist (not unlike Attenborough’s John Hammond in Jurassic Park because again, Michael Crichton recycles plots) who pursues perfection in his creation while inside seeming to be weighed down by it’s implications. After another Host goes haywire and murders other hosts Hosts, Westworld head administrator Theresa decides to remove all the updated ones (because of course that will work).
One of the Newcomers, the chillingly cold and sadistic Gunslinger (acted brutally by Ed Harris), gets off on torturing Hosts. After scalping a Host, the Gunslinger sees mysterious marking under the scalp, perhaps signifying an evolution in the androids? Dolores, (Evan Rachel Wood playing a delightfully naive but subtly dimensioned Host), notices her father behaving enigmatically after he comes across a picture a Newcomer had left behind. Dolores goes to town to meet with her friend Teddy (James Marsden at his prettiest, smiley-est self to assist her in figuring out what the hell is going on.
In order to remove all the updated Hosts from Westworld, the touchy story director Lee (played by Simon Quarterman, and no I haven’t heard of him either) arranges for bandit leader Hector (played masterfully by Rodrigo Santoro of Rio fame), to come in and shoot up the town. Hector is eventually shot and killed by a random Newcomer, (to be resurrected later I’m sure). Teddy gets shot and Dolores is knocked out by a Westworld employee.
Back in the real world, Robert interrogates Dolores’s father after he tried warn her about the true nature of Westworld. His old personalities seem to be resurgent as he relives lives he has been programmed with before, but each time saying he will exact revenge on his makers. Dolores is questioned by Westworld personnel, but does not show any strange behavior. She returns to Westworld with a new father while all the updated Hosts, including her old father, are put into cold storage. At the end we see Dolores kill a fly that lands on her, a gesture significant only because throughout the show, the flies crawling on the conscious Hosts that we are shown are never swatted, thus breaking that crucial Asimov-ian rule Robert programmed into them: They cannot hurt living things.
This show has a lot of potential to be a compelling and character rich drama and action piece, fusing the best of sci-fi elements with the good ol’ fashion American west. The talent is all there. The material is all there, and if HBO’s previous and existing big budget drama’s are any indication, the production values are there. There are so many great places this show can go, expanding on the source material of the book and film, hunting for answers to those questions of what life is, what consciousness is, and what are the responsibilities of the creator to the created, and vice versa. Highly recommended! Check it out on HBO sunday nights at 9!