Here’s our review of the first season of sci-fi/western Westworld – the latest TV show to marry the scope and talent of the movies with the strengths of TV…
With cinema becoming a bit cluttered with cookie cutter blockbusters and endless sequels and reboots, a lot of Hollywood’s finest – both behind and in front of the cameras – have flocked to TV in recent years, which has helped usher in an age where television is considered to be in ruder health than its silver screen cousin. HBO’s Westworld is the latest – and one of the finest – examples of this. Drawing inspiration from the classic 1970s movie of the same name, it is written by Jonathan Nolan (the brother of Christopher, who writes all his movies) and his wife Lisa Joy, it is produced by Star Wars and Star Trek supremo JJ Abrams and it features movie stars like James Bond’s Jeffrey Wright, X-Men‘s James Marsden and Sir Anthony Hopkins. With that sort of calibre behind it, is it any wonder that Westworld is probably the standout new show of 2016?
First of all, the series is deftly written in every area. While the original movie told the usual story of robots running amok, the show takes a more cerebral modern approach and deals with the complexities of artificial intelligence and how it compares and differs to human consciousness. Slowly over the ten episode season, the hosts grow and evolve as they begin to show signs of autonomy. Meanwhile, through the guests that attend the park – who are happy to rape and maim and kill the hosts – and the park’s staff – who treat the hosts like equipment – the show examines the darker side of humanity.
Yet that isn’t all the show has to offer. As is common for Nolan’s work (think The Prestige or Memento), the series plays with narrative form and intercuts between various different plot strands that will often leave your scratching your head as you wonder how they fit together. This kind of puzzlebox plotting is a tough balance to pull off – give away/withhold too much information and the audience loses interest – but the Nolans manage it expertly and keep us glued to the screen. The whole thing is a potent blend of various sources. From Groundhog Day to Grand Theft Auto to Blade Runner, with some classic western elements thrown in on top.
The show also looks gorgeous. Allegedly the first season came with a hefty $100 million price tag, and it really shows. The western plains and mountain ranges of Westworld are breath-taking and make for an atmospheric setting for “these violent delights.” The visual flair also comes in the incongruity of mixing that up with the ultra-modern workings going on behind the scenes – all chrome and glass and full of naked hosts being built and tested.
It must be a terrific challenge for an actor to play someone not quite human and all of the major cast rise to the occasion. Hopkins and Wright are unmissable as the park’s creator Ford and his loyal chief programmer Bernard but the real leads of the show are Evan Rachel Wood and Thandie Newton as the two hosts who break out of their conditioning. The joy of watching them is in seeing how these two very different women – Dolores is programmed as a sweet farmgirl while Maeve is a brothel madam – react to the existential crisis they face. The other big player is the villain of the piece, the Man in Black, who cuts a chilling, enigmatic figure thanks to Ed Harris.
There are hiccups and underdeveloped areas along the way, as every show has, but on the whole Westworld is a very impressive piece of work. The real test will be whether this same quality can be matched next time around. If it does, then Westworld should stay open for many years yet.