FANTASTIC FEST 2016: WESTWORLD is Your New TV Obsession

There’s no doubting Westworld has a pedigree. A new jewel in HBO’s crown, based on the book (and 1973 movie) by Michael Crichton (Looker, Sphere, Congo), brought to life by the collaborative efforts of JJ Abrams (Alias, Fringe, Star Trek ’09), Jonathan Nolan (The Dark Knight Trilogy, Memento, Person of Interest) and Lisa Joy Nolan (Burn Notice, Pushing Daisies). The tale of a futuristic theme park, where wealthy patrons are entertained by lifelike characters and environments running scenarios to mimic the Wild West. With such quality behind it, it was always likely to impress, the only real question is whether it’s good enough to capture the viewers attention in the same way Game of Thrones has.

Westworld, a theme park exploiting technological advances for purposes of entertainment. Wealthy guests paying top dollar to experience the wild west with androids known as “hosts”. Lifelike in appearance with a programmable artificial intelligence. Visitors portray characters, good or bad, indulging their desires within a scripted system that will adapt to the path they choose. The hosts inhabit their own roles and routines, responding to but unable to harm the guests. Despite safeguards and careful control of the system, aberrant behavior creeps in and affects a number of hosts after a software update by park founder Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins). As the units are recalled and storylines adjusted to compensate, the park management is unaware of another disruptive presence in the system, a mysterious Man in Black (Ed Harris) who is determined to understand a deeper mystery he perceives to exist within Westworld.

Westworld is a familiar tale of man’s technological reach exceeding it’s grasp. Like the fallout in Crichton’s most famous tale Jurassic Park, we’re allowed time to marvel in man’s achievement before the shit hits the fan. What’s different in Westworld is that the creations serve as a mirror, held up to question the moral choices and primal urges opened up to the guests. At times it’s grim, showing the worst aspects of mankind, allowing them to indulge those more primal instincts while also castigating them, makings for entertaining and engaging viewing. Either wallow in the menace and violence or take the more cerebral route by questioning the motives of the designers, and empathize with the creations populating the park. The viewer is offered a similar choice to the guests of Westworld.

The spark for the upheaval the park experiences comes from host creator Dr. Robert Ford (i.e John Hammond). seeking to make his creations more authentic he allows them to draw from old experience/memories to give them more unique tics and greater emotional depth. There is a delicious ambiguity as to whether the growing awareness brought about by these “reveries” is an accident or not. It’s the more interesting aspect of the “real world” portion of the show, where the administrators of the complex discuss alternate use of the AI beyond entertainment and look to shift the balance of power in the board room.

The show is densely packed with opportunity. It’s a web of characters and stories that can play out in dramatically different ways depending on the human component, in one scenario, a host dies protecting a girl in a shoot out, in another he can lead a group of men out into the wilderness for some rollicking fun at a whore house. The introduction of the human element (the guests) is what pushes the stories and characters in one direction or another. After the abuse, the hosts are repaired, memories wiped (apparently), and the process repeats.

Beyond Hopkins, the show is stuffed with talent, including Sidse Babett, Jeffrey Wright, Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, Ed Harris and Thandie Newton. Each bringing the right amount of scheming, innocence, intelligence or malevolence as required to their parts. Where they are now is clearly not where they’ll end up, particularly for the “host” characters. Even in the space of once episode we see them reprogrammed, with new personnas used to fill the shell. Layered into this is an awakening, the awareness of their existence, and the horror to which they are being subjected. These are characters bubbling with potential and Westworld could prove to be an actor’s dream.

Westworld is a truly handsome production. While lacking the gritty quality of Deadwood, the sets look authentic, no overuse of CGI giving the show a tangible quality. An enthralling title sequence gives viewers their first appreciation for a score by composer Ramin Djawadi (Game of Thrones), a authentic piece of work that is enriched by period fitting reworkings of more modern pieces. You’ll cock your head and grin when you recognize the tinkling ivories of a piano producing a Soundgarden hit or most notably, the use of the The Rolling Stone’s Paint it Black gleefully deployed during a shootout. Many viewers may be tired of dark shows, steeped in violence (notably sexual) and moral ambiguity. Westworld is unlikely to change your mind. It relies on the very idea of power plays and darker impulses to entertain. It hints it will show female characters asserting themselves over time but some may be unwilling to take a journey to get to that point. But it’s an aspect of the show inherent to it’s main themes as it questions the morality of technology and our own primal nature. Westworld will undoubtedly prove to be a smart and sprawling affair, but one any Game of Thrones fan is very much prepared for.

Westworld is a rich and intriguingly constructed show that inside of one episode is already one of the most interesting things on TV. Handsome production values provide a home to themes and characters ripe for exploration. Saddle up partner, because HBO has stolen your Sunday evenings from you again.

Westworld premieres October 2nd on HBO.

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the author

Originally harkening from the British Isles, Jon was exiled to Texas back in 2007 to help conceal his identity as a love child of the Queen. Jon has both embraced and been embraced by the wonderful city of Austin, a place which has only further enhanced his interest in film. A regular at SXSW and Fantastic Fest, Jon is also a member of the Austin Film Critics Association and Online Film Critics Society. By day he is a researcher at UT Austin but he also has an involvement with (and deep appreciation for) the local brewing industry. In short, his passions are cinema, science, craft beer and writing about himself in the third person. Twitter: @Texas_Jon