“These violent delights have violent ends…”
Sometimes a film just isn’t long enough to explore a concept fully. Michael Crichton’s Westworld (1973) is a fun action thriller, but its lean 90 minute run time means that it lacks depth beyond that. Enter writers/creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, alongside HBO, and all of a sudden, a great idea becomes fantastic intelligent television.
HBO has stood largely unrivalled as the pinnacle of critically acclaimed mainstream TV for years, with only AMC’s Breaking Bad to challenge its top spot. Known for its scope and character driven storytelling, HBO seemed like the ideal candidate to take Crichton’s idea to the next level. Naturally then, the hype for Westworld was astronomically high.
The core plot hasn’t changed between the big and small screen: Westworld is a theme park for adults populated by state of the art androids. For a large fee, customers visit this perfect recreation of classic Western lifestyle and live out their wildest fantasies in the wild, wild West. With no rules of the real world to stop them, visitors can have sex with or kill whomever they please without any ramifications.
The android “hosts” are trapped in a Groundhog Day like experience: They follow their narrative loop. They die. They are repaired and have their memory wiped behind the scenes. Then they are redeployed to follow the same but subtly different loop. Each one designed to serve the desires of the guests.
30 years after the park opened, and after countless updates to the hosts, it is almost impossible to distinguish between the visitor and the attraction. But when a few of the hosts begin to act strangely, is it simply one update too many or is someone pulling the strings from the shadows?
In short, this is one of the best first seasons of a show in recent memory. If HBO is lining up Westworld to be its new landmark show after Game of Thrones comes to a close, they are well on course. Even the most beloved of shows suffer from teething problems in their early stages. But not Westworld.
Westworld is confident in the story that it is telling and respects the audience enough not to give them all of the answers immediately. The various mysteries at play throughout the series unfold naturally before our eyes. While the eagle-eyed viewer and theorist may piece together the subtle clues of the major reveals, it in no way detracts from the emotional impact of the moments.
It is a true testament to the show’s craft that even twists you see coming still pay off in the end. An equally impressive feat, that not all shows stand up to, is how re-watchable Westworld is. In the light of these major twists entire scenes play out on an entirely new level. The rerun is almost as rewarding as the initial viewing.
Bringing this incredibly engaging story to life is a hugely talented ensemble. Westworld has an all-star cast who all put in powerhouse performances. It would take up too much time to pay due respects to each star but I would be remiss to not name a few standouts: Evan Rachel Wood is phenomenal as Dolores, one of the oldest hosts in the park who is compelled on a journey of self discovery. Jeffrey Wright’s quiet and compassionate Bernard is the perfect counterpart to Antony Hopkins’ Ford, the creator of the park who never gives straight answers. But the crowning jewel of the cast is Ed Harris; there aren’t enough superlatives in the dictionary to describe Harris as the enigmatic Man in Black as he sadistically tears his way through the park, proclaiming himself to be the villain that Westworld always needed.
The size of the cast is matched by the sheer scope of the scenery. Some say that the classic Western is dead. Even if it is, rarely has it been so beautifully captured on screen. From the sweeping landscape shots to the enclosed, rustic towns, each shot is framed like artwork. It’s not hard to see why so many people keep going back to Westworld for more, on a surface level, it is magnificent.
But it is the treatment of what is below the surface that makes Westworld so compelling. The audience not only questions the mysteries on screen, but themselves. We may condemn the actions of the so-called antagonists, but how would we react to the park? Would we take the “white hat” and be a law abiding citizen? Or would we don the “black hat” and reap havoc in a world without consequence?
The decision from to change from the film’s focus on the visitor’s perspective to viewing Westworld from the perspective of the hosts was an inspired move. Through this lens, the show tackles important philosophical questions such as what it means to be alive. It is this change that elevates Crichton’s original premise from interesting concept to a deeper inspection of life itself.
If it wasn’t abundantly clear, I cannot recommend this show enough. Westworld is one of the best new shows to come out in 2016. Spectacular storytelling combined with top class acting and a mesmerising backdrop make it a must watch show. If you haven’t already, binge watch it. If you have seen it, binge watch it; it’s just as good the second time around.
Just like the visitors to the park, audience’s will be seduced by Westworld and will just keep coming back for more.