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HBO gives Westworld’s robot cowboys a prestige upgrade

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The late Michael Crichton was as cunning as the fictional mad men he occasionally chronicled. In the early ’70s, the Andromeda Strain author accepted a paltry budget and a tight schedule to direct his screenplay about catastrophic breakdowns at a high-tech vacation spot. Westworld made back that meager investment and then some, becoming the biggest hit of 1973 for ailing MGM. A decade and a half later, Crichton took the bones of the film and re-assembled them into Jurassic Park, a bestseller that spawned a box-office-stomping film franchise and actual tourist-startling attractions.


Crichton couldn’t shake this pulpy subject matter and the high-minded themes that come with it, and neither can 21st-century pop culture. The original Jurassic Park is now considered a classic, while a 2015 reboot is generating its own franchise. Now, following a two-month shutdown, a damningly lewd consent form for extras, and other signs of chaos that would send Ian Malcolm into a sarcastic, stammering tizzy, the husband-and-wife duo of Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have resurrected Westworld.

But don’t heed those bad omens. Westworld will not be contained. Westworld breaks free, it expands to new territories. Westworld, uh… finds a way.

It does so by advancing the ideas and the execution of Jurassic World, Ex Machina, Game Of Thrones, and other post-modern Prometheuses. The new Westworld is an expansive techno-thriller with ongoing workplace storylines; it’s a revisionist western with keen interest in Nolan family pet themes like identity, memory, and entropy. Most crucially for the cable channel that airs it, Westworld is a stylish, expensive prestige drama with a hint of titillating trashiness and a sprawling cast of strong performers, a sign that HBO won’t soon be without an award- and viewer-baiting drama whose setting begins with “West.”


Starting from an immersive premiere co-written by Nolan and Joy (and directed by the former), Westworld’s near-future frontier unfurls in picturesque landscapes and captivating mysteries, its intertwining narratives anchored by the resort’s behind-the-scenes staff, artificially intelligent “hosts,” and high-rolling guests. The fundamentals are unchanged from Crichton’s original: Deep-pocketed tourists pay to fuck and fuck up Westworld’s sophisticated androids, who are distinguished from humans only by their inability to harm the guests. Those distinctions set up standard-issue sci-fi switcheroos and looking-glass commentary on big-ticket hedonism—are these people truly more civilized than the outlaws they’re pretending to be?—but they also lay out the host’s path to self-awareness. They are whoever the Westworld technicians tell them they are, yet rancher’s daughter Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and saloon madam Maeve (Thandie Newton) keep experiencing visions of events for which they have no recollection. Wood and Newton’s performances are finely calibrated for such internal material, which vitalizes characters who are otherwise living through infinite variations of the same preprogrammed patterns.

Westworld finds cinematic inspiration in this clockwork universe, repeating compositions and cues but still leaving room for new and different outcomes. The show loves a motif, be it the mechanism of a player piano, an overhead shot of Dolores waking up, or the premiere’s meddlesome houseflies. The train into town always runs on time, raids on the saloon are scheduled like stunt-spectacular stage shows, and the 3-D-printing-like process that generates and regenerates the hosts hums a hypnotic hymn to the staff. The show’s rhythms reveal themselves to the viewer and the characters simultaneously, giving repeat visitors a sense of what they can expect from the park and instilling an unnerving sense of déjà vu in the hosts.

The staff and guests, unfortunately, have less trouble articulating their thoughts, a move that plays up Crichton’s zest for jargon while replacing his terse dialogue stylings with a Nolanesque loquaciousness. Witness Shannon Woodward as behavior programmer Elsie Hughes, who spends most of her screentime spouting technobabble and getting viewers up to speed about the park and its inner-workings. (She’d be right at home at next to Jake Johnson and Lauren Lapkus at the controls of Jurassic World, though.) More prone to speechifying: Westworld founder Dr. Robert Ford, played by Anthony Hopkins in his first turn as a series regular on American television. Boasting a name that carries significance in the real Wild West and fake dystopian London, Ford is a role that fits Hopkins’ simmering malevolence like the good doctor’s bespoke western wear. Making poetic pronouncements and laying out tragic backstories is what mad scientists do, after all, and the cracks Hopkins gives to Ford’s carefully maintained façade contain the occasional whiff of Hannibal Lecter. (And, when it’s coming from Nolan’s pen, the pep talks of Alfred Pennyworth.) This tendency for overwriting burdens actors as talented as Jeffrey Wright (playing lead programmer Bernard Lowe) and Sidse Babett Knudsen (as quality assurance head Theresa Cullen) making their characters nearly as functional as the automatons that populate Westworld.

But that might be the exact point of Westworld. Between the lines of rollicking action sequences and puzzle-box plotting, there’s a rich creation metaphor that’s an elaborate stand-in for the act of making TV. The Good Place is playing similar notes over on NBC, but Westworld is more explicit: The park’s employees make a living by crafting character and narrative. They decommission and reprogram hosts when they’re not satisfying the guests’ desires, and stage pitch presentations that live or die on the fickle whims of the guy who created Westworld. An update is introduced to give one of the hosts a fuller backstory; a few scenes later, Ford fills Bernard in on the origins of the park itself. (As Walt Disney had Ub Iwerks, so Ford had a partner who’s been scrubbed from the history books.)


But at least one visitor has a different name for the staff’s narrative art: A game. It’s here that Westworld’s timeless themes tie themselves most tightly to our current cultural moment. When MGM released Westworld, Pong had been in arcades and bars for just under a year, and the home version was still two years off. The new Westworld arrives in a world where video-gaming is a medium on creative and popular par with TV and film, at a time when virtual reality is once more looking like the future of entertainment. Westworld is a virtual reality that far outstrips the Oculus Rift, a full-scale environment whose sprites can feel and be felt, and whose wounds ooze IRL fluids. And if that doesn’t erode the emotional detachment guests have with the violence they commit in the park, the awakening consciousness of the AI sure will.

Ford sees his guests finding the power in Westworld that eludes them in the real world. But when that power comes at the expense of something that’s more human than human, who have neither power nor identity, what does that say about the people who seek it—and those of us watching at home? Is the way a guest conducts themselves at the park indicative of their true selves, as libertine Logan (Ben Barnes) suggests to his scrupulous companion, William (Jimmi Simpson)? When William enters the park, he’s tasked with choosing between a white hat or a black hat. (Like its motifs, Westworld loves the conventions of its multiple genres.) But the implication is that anyone who enters or controls Westworld is wearing a black hat from the word go.


That notion powers Crichton’s playing-god narratives and helps them endure to this day. But to endure as a TV series, Westworld will need to bridge the gap between its fascinating ideas and the blank canvases they’re projected upon. Fortunately, it’s not so lost in its thoughts to forget that a robot-cowboy show ought to have the occasional shootout, heist, or daring escape. And while it’s never as plainly satirical as the original film, it still exhibits a sense of humor. Now it just needs to provide compelling reasons to care whether these characters live, die, or wake up to the truth of their reality. Otherwise, they’ll just be so many lawyers sitting on toilets, getting munched by one Tyrannosaurus rex after another.

Reviews by Zack Handlen will run weekly.