Westworld – The Original | Review

Westworld –The Original (S01:E01)

This review is spoiler-lite. I’ll be discussing overall themes but avoiding major plot points and character revelations. If you want to approach the pilot knowing as little as possible then don’t read any further.

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In a morally-dubious near future, there exists a fully immersive Wild West theme park. Robot ‘Hosts’ guide the high paying ‘Guests’ around the park so that they can indulge in the story of their choice. Whether they’re mustering a head of cattle up river to pasture, hunting down a dangerous outlaw, or living out their debaucherous fantasies, nothing is off limits. And it’s all harmless fun as the Hosts are basically walking PlayStations and can’t harm the Guests…obviously this lot have never read “I, Robot”.

"Enlighten me. What do you think management’s real interests are?"
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The rumours around Westworld started a couple of years ago. About the time when HBO execs realised that the bloody Game of Thrones gravy train would come to an end at some point and they needed to find their next big drawcard. And after a number of delays, reshoots, and casting changes it’s finally here. 

It certainly ticks all the boxes that you’d expect from a big American cable watercooler show: A high-concept premise brought to you by people with recognisable pedigree (Jonathan Nolan directs a script he co-wrote with Lisa Joy based on the 1973 Michael Crichton film with the ubiquitous JJ Abrams there as Executive Producer) who stuff the screen with big stars (Sir Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris), a selection of respected character actors (Thandie Newton, Jeffrey Wright, Sidse Babett Knudsen), and a couple of good looking but talented younger players (Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden). Based on all this, my response as casting, images, and trailers leaked out was a simple, “PUT IT IN MY EYES!” 

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"That’s beautiful. Your brow, when you’re angry but trying to control it, the fine muscles pull into a little arc. It’s elegant. Would you mind if I recorded it? I’d love to show it to my team"

Like any theme park, you get hit as you step through the turnstile by just how pretty everything is. The titles alone demand multiple viewings. Made by the same people that created and scored the Game of Thrones credits, you know straight away that this is a quality product (the pilot alone allegedly cost $25m). Once it all kicks off, the overwhelming feeling that flows right from the opening creepy narration to Dolores’ final, unsettling final action is one of dread. It’s almost like a horror film at times. Every time someone smiles or there’s a gentle moment you can’t help but flinch, knowing it’s only a matter of time before it all comes crashing down.

At first I thought that we were just getting a rehash of Jurassic Park and after finishing first episode I still think we are. Self-aware robots in place of sentient raptors, one British knight picking up where another one left off, and a bunch of people walking around talking about how nothing can fail. But there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s a strong premise that can handle another reboot. What’s great is that because this is a long-form series rather than a movie, Nolan, Joy, Abrams et al. can take their time. Despite modern TV’s obsession with compressed storytelling the show has room to breathe. We have the central “something’s rotten in the state of Denmark” storyline doing most of the heavy lifting but the creators also tease a tapestry of dangling threads giving the viewers lots of reasons to come back.

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"Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?"

I am looking forward to returning to Westworld but there is a smugness about the show that leaves me feeling a little bit uneasy. We’re not in the late-90s premium television frontier of Oz and The Sopranos where we sat there not really sure whether TV was allowed to look and act like this. It’s 2016 and between Netflix, the BBC, Showtime, FX, and AMC there is a wealth of high quality viewing out there so HBO has really pushed the boat out to try and make Westworld stand out. The Bad Robot logo stamped in the credits tells you that the people involved have a lot of practise when it comes to making hit shows that stick and I think that’s the problem – it all feels a bit too calculated and smart by half. Some of the twists and revelations hang in the air slightly too long. I can almost hear the makers whispering from behind the curtain, “You didn’t see that coming did you?” while they twirl their mystery box moustaches.

A case in point is the wonderful use of Soundgarden’s Black Hole Sun. I got a huge smile when I recognised the plinky-plonky version that played in the background at about the half-way point. It was really subtle and a nice little touch but then, when they reuse the trick with towards the end it was way too aggressive and pulled me out of the story. I get that it’s nodding to the fact that Westworld is the ultimate MMO/video game and there would be a legacy effect whereby the soundtrack would get dialled-up when the action kicks in but it was too on the nose for me as a viewer in the real world. They are so keen for this to be “Must see TV!” that nothing has been left to chance. I really hope that as the show goes on they trust an audience a bit more and layer a little more subtlety into the narrative.

"I am what I am because of you"
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Jonathan Nolan wrote the short story his brother’s breakthrough film, Memento, was based on. Even without that link, the nature of memory and how important our experiences are in making us human are obvious themes to play with when telling a twist on the Frankenstein myth. They are interesting philosophical questions to throw around but I’m hoping we also venture into some of the older Nolan’s other territories that are hinted at. Using cosplay, artificial intelligence, and a show within a show there’s the opportunity to go further off the beaten path to look at things like the importance of fantasy in cementing our reality, the ongoing influence our parents have in our behaviours long after they’ve gone, and whether we should be doing something just because we can.

I suppose I just want the park to stay open long enough to experience all the rides because based on this first visit, there’s a lot to explore.

Random thoughts

  • Nice to see James Marsden back and without the visor.
  • First lens flare arrived at 7:36 for those wondering what influence JJ was going to have on proceedings. 
  • Ed Harris is awesome. Both embracing and subverting the Man in Black persona.
  • I know the angry British guy is supposed to be annoying and unlikable but I’m already looking forward to the day Mr. Sizemore takes a bath in one of those white goo hula-hoop pools.
  • Sir Tony has Brian Grazer hair.
  • I think “Who else is a Host?” is going to be Westworld’s version of the Game of Thrones “Who’s going to die next?” Monday morning conversations.
  • As I said at the top, I’ve tried to go easy with this first one but as the season progresses I expect I’ll get more and more spoilery with these reviews.
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Author: George Langlands

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