WESTWORLD (2016) SEASON 1 – TV REVIEW by PAUL LAIGHT
HBO’s Westworld was presented, previewed and marketed, like the fantastical flagbearer Game of Thrones before it, as the premium, high-end, star-studded television event of the year. Indeed, in my honest opinion it lived up to the hype and certainly turned out to be one of the shows of the year!
Everything about Westworld screamed cinematic quality! Of course it’s origins spring from Michael Crichton’s classic sci-fi film Westworld (1973) where the robot hosts started killing the rich guests on holiday at an ‘A:I’ driven amusement park. The formula would then be amped up in Jurassic Park (1993) and its sequels, where instead of sentient androids, we had dinosaur clones attacking the staff and guests. This televisual delight developed – by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy – twists and turns that simple, yet ingenious premise, into a whole new machine; utilising the influences of Crichton, Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, Rod Serling, Harlan Ellison etc. as well as incorporating a number of their own concepts too.
HBO have pumped $100 million dollars into ten sumptuous looking episodes and the filmmakers took the brilliant decision to shoot on 35mm film. This creative choice gives us exquisite cinematographic vistas of the West while at the same time enhancing the inner sheen of the hi-spec-steam-punk engineering on show underneath the actual “amusement” park itself. Allied to this we get a whole host of A-grade movie and character actors who bring a depth and gravitas to the proceedings.
Leading the stellar cast is Anthony Hopkins as the established overlord Dr Robert Ford. His presence is felt throughout the park and initially staff and hosts seem to answer to him. Hopkins is terrifically understated in his performance but underneath the iceberg surface is an incredibly complex character who, while a technical genius, responds to human beings coldly. He sees them as obstacles to his grand narrative which seems to be written and re-written from episode to episode. While oddly unsympathetic his enigma drives the show, with his character attempting to control the hosts, staff and his environment while writing and rewriting the past and present.
Working for Ford are an army of techs and security personnel responsible for guests and hosts alike. The most honest, it would appear, and one we root for is Bernard portrayed with subtle distinction by Geoffrey Wright. His velvety voice alone is enough to project emotion and meaning within every syllable uttered. Representing the corporate personnel are a fine supporting cast, notably, Sidse Babett Knudsen and Luke Hemsworth.
Similarly, the simulacrum hosts are expertly cast with: Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, James Marsden, Rodrigo Santoro and Clifton Collins Jnr etc. bringing a glamour, edge and depth of performance to the paranoid androids. Obviously there are visitors to the park and these roles are dominated by the magisterial Ed Harris and younger bucks Jimmi Simpson and Ben Barnes.
Overall, I found the show an incredible science fiction experience. The opening theme is a haunting gift to the ears, while the incredible imagery of the opening credits are a feast for the eyes. Visually and aurally the series was crammed with wondrous sounds and vistas and the soundtrack was fabulous too including dark naked tunes by the likes of: The Cure, Radiohead and Soundgarden. Violence, action, nudity and sexuality are freely on show but this is just skin for the rich narrative and themes which power the twisting story. Indeed, the themes ask us to question everything, like: who is human and who is a host? Should we, the audience, care about a character when they’re a robot? And most importantly: when are the robots going to start killing the guests?
Halfway through though I must admit I was close to discontinuing and shutting down as I was struggling to connect emotionally with the characters. However, I realised this was a cerebral challenge; a puzzle or maze, which – much like Jonathan Nolan and his brother Christopher’s other work including: The Prestige (2006), Memento (2000) and Inception (2010) – I’ll try and solve. I’ll be honest not all of it hung together satisfactorily on first watch, however, on further views each episode’s timelines, narratives, flashbacks, flash-forwards, memories and dreams combined brilliantly, and I soon realised all the pieces were there to successfully put the puzzle together.
With its state-of-the-art effects, incredible design, brilliant actors, brutal violence, complex plots and classic Western genre setting, this postmodern masterpiece transcends genre and the storytelling process itself. Because at its core processing Westworld is about: the nature of narrative and controlling your story: past, present and future. Oh, that and lots of killer robots. So, overall, Westworld is a place I will certainly be coming back to time and time and time again. Some might say the whole Westworld experience was a-MAZE-ing!