A Michael Crichton classic is reinvigorated in HBO’s stately sci-fi series. Richard gives the park his blessing.
With the second season of Westworld having just been released, it seemed fitting to look back and remember a show which pretty much nobody got the first time around. You know, the one with the robots and the cowboys and all the sex. Westworld was cool, nobody ever denied that, and it was smart, but how smart was it really? Well, having re-watched season one, I can honestly say it’s a hell of a lot smarter than me! On first viewing, I attributed any flaws in the story to the presentation on the show, and its attempts to keep so many narrative and philosophical balls in the air. But, watching it again, it all began to click and I realised this was really a case of me not you.
Westworld at its heart is a truly ridiculous concept. A futuristic theme park recreating the modern world’s imagined view of the American Old West. Where the ultra-rich can go and experience adventures and practices denied them in the real world by becoming either the villains or heroes of their own tales. All these stories are brought to life by the hosts, androids so close to human that by mere interaction they are indistinguishable. They are there for the guests to either take as guides in their search for adventure or to simply use to exercise hidden desires for sex and murder, without risk or repercussion. The hosts believe themselves to be humans living out their lives in that old west and each having a personality befitting their roles as they welcome the “newcomers” arriving by train.
As a commercial exercise, the concept is ludicrous; the amount of money needed to support this massive endeavor can’t possibly generate a profit. But that isn’t the point. Westworld as both a place and as a show is all about the questions it presents. Creators Jonathan Nolan (Christopher’s brother and writing partner) and Lisa Joy have taken the path less travelled in many ways. The cohesion of theme and narrative through every layer and aspect of the show is breathtaking, as each character’s journey and development reflects an aspect of the park’s workings which in turn reflect the true nature of the people both there and watching at home. Psychology, morality and existential crises as core driving forces in both the story and of the park itself.
This kind of high-concept sci-fi and internal exploration doesn’t really work without a lot of support. These things need to be the underpinnings of something more simplistic and entertaining to take full effect. In a world built quite literally on its lack of consequence, it would seem difficult to infuse the story with any real stakes, but credit is due to Nolan, Joy and the writers because every major narrative beat is constructed around the problem, and the multiple stories intercut to create a deep-seated momentum to the show. As the episodes progress, an almost palpable tension and speed can be felt with each character closing in on a mysterious but clearly present end game.
While the cast is fantastic, the four “main” story threads, led by Ed Harris as the Man in Black, Jeffrey Wright as Head of Behavior Bernard, Thandie Newton as the Brothel Madam Maeve, and Evan Rachel Wood as the unravelling rancher’s daughter Dolores, all show how a single rock-solid performance can act as the bedrock for even the most bizarre story beats. Each of these personalities and their evolution fuel the overall exploration the show is attempting, but it’s the man at the center of this maze which gives perhaps the greatest performance of all. Anthony Hopkins as the park’s director, Robert Ford, is the perhaps the actor’s greatest performance in twenty years. It is on this character’s shoulders the whole insane concept must rest, and Hopkins carries that weight effortlessly, validating the park and all that happens in it by the sheer force of calm yet unhinged will. This is a man ruling his own kingdom.
The appeal of Westworld is hard to describe because the whole enterprise is hard to describe. There are too many threads to the story with too many revelations, leaving any kind of explanation almost moot. It must be received as a full package or not at all. From personal experience, I would say that if you actually want to be able to follow every aspect of the unfolding story, then binge-watching may be the only way to go, but episodic viewing works just fine if you’re willing to take certain logical leaps on faith.
I rather doubt that Westworld will ever achieve that Game of Thrones level of success for HBO, but I think years from now it may be better remembered than its dragon money counterpart. There’s a certain degree of complexity and deviousness that most television programs will not allow themselves for fear of simply leaving its audience behind. If season 2 can maintain a similarly-cerebral quality, and if the show has the good graces not to run forever, this might be a true feather in HBO’s cap. At the start of this review, I made a claim that any issues I had boiled down to a “it’s me not you” type of situation. Well, now that season 2 is finally out, I’m standing outside that dusty saloon in a long leather trenchcoat, a small pianola raised defiantly above my head, asking this crazy robot cowboy of a show to take me back to Westworld.
- Showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy wanted to give the series a Blade Runner (1982) feel, and wanted to make the series much darker and more cerebral than the 1973 film.
- In the below-ground storage area for decommissioned androids, you can see a globe statue at the bottom of the dilapidated escalators. An identical one was on display in the arrival area in Futureworld (1976), the sequel to Westworld, hinting that older areas of the original park have been abandoned. In fact, if you look closely at the globe, you can see the word “Delos” spelled out along the circumference, the name of the company that owns the park.
- The original Westworld was Michael Crichton’s first story about a theme park that goes wrong. The better known one was, of course, Jurassic Park (1993). In that film, Sir Richard Attenborough played the inventor of the park. In this series, the park’s inventor is played by Sir Anthony Hopkins, who appeared in five films directed by Attenborough: Magic (1978), A Bridge Too Far (1977), Young Winston (1972), Chaplin (1992), and Shadowlands (1993).