“Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?” This question is repeated a couple of times and serves as the foundation for the first episode of HBO’s newest show, Westworld. You’ve probably seen or heard about the premiere through it’s nearly-obnoxious advertising and hype build-up, but the premiere finally arrived this past Sunday and it definitely delivered. There are a lot of layers to Westworld, which is a remake of the 1973 film of the same name written and directed by Michael Crichton (author of Jurassic Park), so let’s tackle this step by step.
What is Westworld?
The quick answer: HBO’s attempt to create a new Game of Thrones for when GoT ends in a couple years. That’s an overly simplistic answer, but given the huge budget, ensemble cast, and timing it’s probably a fair answer. Network hopes notwithstanding, Westworld is a lot of things. The basic premise is that Westworld is a park. People pay a lot of money to go to the Old West town Sweetwater, which is inhabited by incredibly lifelike robots. Guests are able to purchase experiences which allow them to actually live out Old West fantasies. Imagine those saloon-style photos you take when you’re in Gatlinburg and it’s essentially that times 1000. The town is equipped with shootouts, saloons, bandits, and all the essential tropes of the Old West.
The show is centered around the robots, particularly Delores (Evan Rachel Wood) and Teddy (James Marsden), and the people who run Westworld. The robots (called “hosts”) are programmed to perform specific roles and ensure the guests get the experience they paid for. In this first episode certain hosts start deviating from the script and the programmers can’t quite figure out what is going on. Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen), a high ranking official for Westworld, accurately sums up the issue in this way: “The hosts are supposed to stay within their loops, stick to their scripts, with minor improvisations. These are not minor improvisations, this is a f—–g s–t storm.” Reality, for the robots, programmers, and even the guests, is now being questioned.
Deadwood meets Battlestar Galactica
With a hint of Jurassic Park. The obvious connections are mostly aesthetic. The fantasy town, Sweetwater, is like every fantasy town you’ve seen from Deadwood to any John Wayne movie. Then you throw in the robots and the question of robot sentience which is just like Battlestar Galactica. Top that off with an adventure park where the attractions start to go off script and the fact that Crichton wrote the original Westworld almost twenty years before he wrote Jurassic Park and you can see the parallels. Even though there’s only been one episode the seeds of familiar themes from those other titles started to sprout ever so slightly. There’s the question of order and chaos in the nature of controlling the robots versus them being autonomous. Robot sentience and at what point, if any, does a robot become human are other themes the show appears poised to tackle. There are a lot of philosophical tangents Westworld can take and I’m curious to see which ones they follow.
Of course it’s violent
It’s HBO, it’s a Sci-Fi/Western/Thriller mash-up, it’s the heir apparent to GoT, so yes there is a lot of gratuitous violence. There is also some sex, but not as much through one episode as you might expect. In other words, it has all the makings of a hit HBO show! The pacing of the show was done really well, especially for an episode spanning 68 minutes. The show jumps between Sweetwater and the real world, intermittently giving us a gun fight here and there. The mix between action and build up makes the episode move along smoothly. The climactic shootout between the townsfolk and the the head bandit’s gang (scored with a really cool instrumental of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black”) gives a glimpse at the action sequences this show is capable of.
Did I mention J.J. Abrams is an executive producer?
As far as I am concerned anything with Abrams (Lost, Star Trek, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) attached to it gets a shot from me. Abrams aside, this cast and crew for Westworld is great. Another executive producer, and director of the first two episodes, is Jonathan Nolan (writer: The Dark Knight, Interstellar). The music for the show is done by Ramin Djawadi (Game of Thrones, Iron Man), and his fingerprints were all over the first episode with some great musical moments. Joining this top notch crew is an ensemble cast which features Wood and Marsden alongside Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris (who needs to play psychopaths all the time), Jeffrey Wright, and Luke Hemsworth (because there are as many Hemsworths as Plumlees apparently). Though it’s only been one episode the casting seems spot on.
Should you watch it?
Absolutely. Will it become the next GoT? I doubt it, but that’s an awfully high bar to set. Westworld has all the makings of a great show and seems like it could easily put together a solid run. It combines intrigue and mystery with the fun aspects of the western and sci-fi genres. It has some pretty obvious parallels to other titles, but the unique way it draws these aspects together lends an air of originality. This is a pleasant surprise, especially for something which is a reboot. If the first episode is any indication, Westworld should be a fun ride.