Are you ready for ‘Westworld’?

❉ We review the first episode of HBO’s ‘Westworld’, the series inspired by the 1973 film of the same title written by Michael Crichton.

The idea of a theme park filled with robots that go wrong and turn on the guests is so good it’s already spawned a sequel and a TV series.  It also spun-off its own unofficial remake – from its original creator – in which the robots were replaced by dinosaurs.  A little-known movie called ‘Jurassic Park’ – tell your friends.

Why not?  It’s a great concept.  And that’s the biggest problem – it’s a single concept.  That’s why the sequel and TV series flopped – once you’ve got your rampaging robots there’s nowhere else you can really go.  (The unofficial remake itself spawned three sequels in which the exact same thing happened every time.)  So how can a new TV re-telling last for ten episodes with this single concept?  Going in to Westworld, I wasn’t sure.

Thankfully, Jonathan Nolan’s script is full of surprises.  For one thing, he knows what the viewers are expecting and is able to subvert those expectations throughout.  The first episode opens with a new day in the artificial park and we see the park through the eyes of one of the hosts, a robot named Dolores, and newcomer Teddy.  It’s a fairly standard way to open any new series (although there is a voiceover in which Dolores is questioned which the viewer assumes takes place prior to the events) and it’s quite predictably ‘Westworld’ – this is much the same way the film opened. Guest James Marsden is a fairly well known star and is clearly the lead, so when he meets the Man in Black only a few minutes in we’re surprised that events are moving so quickly.  (Ed Harris may lack the smooth features of Yul Brynner but he more than readily conveys the same sense of menace.) All of this is turned on its head in seconds – Marsden’s not a guest, he’s a robot, and the Man in Black isn’t a robot, he’s a guest.  The beats of the film have already been thrown out of the window.

It’s a startling move and shows that there’s far more happening in Nolan’s story than one would expect.  True, much of the rest of the episode plays out as expected (there are flaws in the programming and things are starting to go wrong), but it’s different enough to maintain interest and there’s a depth to this that the original lacked – maniac robots may have been enough for 1973, but nearly 35 years on audiences are more familiar with the concept.  What would seem to be happening here is the beginning of sentience in the artificial life-forms.  This isn’t something the first episode addressed in a big way, although I suspect later episodes will see more made of this, but this depth is one of three things the series so far has in its favour.

The first we’ve covered – it’s doing unexpected things.  The second is pretty much what you get when you cast Anthony Hopkins, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright and Thandie Newton – raw talent.  These are thespians one would normally expect to be in their own series, not headlining a large cast, so the talent on display shows the seriousness with which HBO are treating the (admittedly silly) concept. I have no doubt that at some point in the series the robots will turn against their oppressors, but for the meantime we have high quality actors giving high quality performances in a story which remains interesting throughout. It’s also telling that Thandie Newton so far hasn’t been given much to do – I imagine we’ll be seeing far more of her character as this develops.  (I think she may have only had around five lines in the episode – then again, Marsden didn’t say much more, so I imagine he’ll be developing as a character too.)


The third thing that the series is doing right is working on several levels. We’re only in the first episode but we’ve already had hints at the moral complications behind the operation – the guests are coming to treat the “hosts” (it’s what they call the robots, probably because robots is far too limiting a term for what they are – seeing one constructed is both beautiful and awe-inspiring.  These are barely robots – they’re almost people) as little more than slaves – people to be screwed or shot.  It’s a fairly nasty idea which the original ignored completely but I suspect will be important here in later episodes.  No one has questioned the right for Hopkins to keep tinkering with his creations, but that too will come when the Delos Management Team realise just how far things have gone – my guess will be toward the end of episode two.  There’s also been hints at what the management are really interested in (I’m guessing artificial people to sell to various armies will crop up, or at least the moral ramifications of it.)

The narrative is working on several strands too – on the one hand there’s the story of the theme park about to go horribly wrong, and then there’s whatever the hell it is that Ed Harris is doing.  He’s clearly on a mission of his own, although what that mission could be hasn’t been so much as hinted at, leading it wide open to go anywhere.  (My first guess would be that it is he who is going to be the one to lead the robots to sentience, but I freely admit that I already think I’m wrong with that one.  I think the robots themselves are going to lead themselves to sentience so I’m still not sure how Harris fits in to it.)

So there we have it, a first episode which has already done more than the film managed in terms of giving depth to the concept, with enough raw talent behind it to maintain the interest of the viewer, and with enough happening behind the scenes to suggest that far more interesting things are going to be happening.

Going in to ‘Westworld’ I wasn’t sure ten episodes could sustain a fairly simple concept.  I’m now reassured that the concept has been expanded hugely, that there’s far more going on than we’ve been told yet and that I’ll most definitely be watching next week to see where things go next.

❉ ‘Westworld’ airs in the US on HBO, and in the UK on Sky Atlantic.

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