First Impressions: HBO’s Westworld

On October 2, HBO’s new massive budget series Westworld premiered. I was looking forward to this from the day it was announced, but also a bit anxious. I have watched the first three episodes by now and the big question is (as with any high profile Sci Fi production): can it deliver? Can something that we can’t compare to real world examples be made into a convincing visual experience?

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In short, yes it can.

Absolutely.

So stop reading, run to your preferred watching gizmo, don’t delay and dive in!

 

 

What’s Westworld all about?

Still here? Okay, then let me tell you some more.

Westworld is the theme park in which the show takes place. A truly high end futuristic theme park where the wild west has been painstakingly recreated and populated with human-looking androids, or robots if you will. If you have ever played an MMORPG, like World of Warcraft, this is like that but real-world and in a wild west setting. The ‘hosts’ as the androids are called, live in their own narratives, in which you can partake. When guests (the real humans) arrive at Westworld, their first visit is to a small town where hosts continually try to lure them into a narrative (for the gamers among you: a quest or questline).

westworld-1973-movie-posterThe series is based on the 1973 movie Westworld which was written and directed by Michael Crichton. Crichton is best known as the author of the book that inspired that other theme park themed movie: Jurassic Park. In the original movie the androids turn on the guest (quite suddenly) attacking and killing them and the plot revolves around the main character, Peter Martin, trying to escape the park. In the 2016 Westworld things start of slower, a build up to that which is unavoidable: an android uprising. HBO’s Westworld wasn’t only preceded by the Crichtons movie, Westworld is a complete franchise.

futureworld-movie-posterThere is a sequel to the original movie, Futureworld (1976). Here, after the events from Westworld, the Delos Corporation, has revamped the theme park. Guests are now able to choose from multiple parks. Spaworld (where old age and pain have been eliminated), Ancient Romanworld, Medievalword and Futureworld. The last one is themed around a space station. After that there was a shortlived TV series, Beyond Westworld of which only five episodes were made and only three were aired before it got cancelled.

All of the predecessors to the current series are quite worthwhile, if you are into retro Sci Fi. Personally, I like to watch science fiction from the pre-CGI era. For me the original Westworld, Futureword and Beyond Westworld are now part of my classic pre-Star Wars Sci Fi library. Together with masterpieces like Metropolis (1927), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).

HBO’s take on Westworld

Back to 2016. HBO’s Westworld is created by Jonathan Nolan (younger brother of Christopher) and Lisa Joy. Jonathan is no stranger to futuristic applications of artificial intelligence and science fiction in general. He is the creator of the excellent but very much underappreciated Person of Interest and he co-wrote the screenplay to the even more awesome Interstellar with his brother.  Jonathan and Lisa also produce Westworld, together with J.J. Abrams, Jerry Weintraub and Bryan Burk. Wait, J.J. Abrams? Star Trek and Star Wars J.J. Abrams? Yes, the same. Behind the camera, Westworld is developed by and all-star team. And in front of the camera? No worries there too.

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The cast is stellar including none other than Anthony Hopkins as Robert Ford, the creator of Westwood; Jeffrey Wright as head programmer Bernard Lowe; Shannon Woodward as Elise Hughes, who works on Bernard’s team; Thandie Newton as Westworld’s madam, Maeve Millay; James Marsden as Dolores’ love interest Teddy Flood; and finally Ed Harris as a very blood thirsty dressed in black gunslinger with a hidden agenda. Honorable mention for the cast is the relatively unknown Sidse Babett Knudsen. She’s a Danish actor who pretty well known in Europe and the U.K. for her excellent portrayal of the Danish Prime Minister in the political drama series Borgen. She’s fresh and gives the show an slightly less ‘American’ feel. Not that an American feel is bad, it is just… well, fresh.

 

Inside Westworld the guests can do anything they want. And that also mean that the guest can do anything to the hosts they want. This premise brings out the worst in people. Abuse, rape, murder, mindless violence by the quests is abundant. But all the blood and gore has a function. The series explores the darkest side of humanity and I can’t help but wonder why I feel like the robots are the good guys (well up until episode three at least) while the human guests are mostly awful pieces of dried out monkey crap. At the same time, you know from the start that something is nog quite right with the androids. They seem to slowly develop into something more than just machine packed with lines of code. But let’s not spoil too much.

Perspective

Very interesting is the perspective. Much of the scenes are told from the perspective of the hosts. Especially in the first episode. We also meet the creators and technicians behind the scenes of the theme park, but the story is mostly told from the android’s point of view. In the second episode William is introduced, a guest who’s story probably will be explored more in depth. I am very curious what the balance will be like. I hope they stick with the focus on the androids perspective. It seems most interesting. Finally, I want to talk to you about ‘the man in black’. Excellently portrayed by Ed Harris, this dark brooding and extremely violent (toward the androids) character is absolutely intriguing. Most of the guest seem to use their time in the park to indulge into their fantasies. Fantasies ranging boring but understandable (men getting laid by extremely lifelike female robots) to just plain sick (i.e. going on a killing spree). Not the man in black.  He treats Westworld like a game, and tries to reach the deeper levels. Whatever that may mean. And considering his place in the story, it seems there is something to it. Also, up until now the park management has left him to rape and kill in peace. Then again, the park and it’s hosts are “built to gratify the desires of the people who come to visit”. I’m excited to see what comes next.

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There is only one thing I can say: definitely go and watch Westworld, you won’t be sorry.

Well, maybe there are two things I can say: if you like the premise of Westworld, or into good science fiction novel (and off course you are) also look into the guy who created it all. Michael Crichton sadly passed away in November 2008 at the age of 66. He has written many excellent books, mostly within the science fiction genre. I have written an overview of his work, which you can find here

About the Author Paul