HBO Westworld

Michael Crichton‘s Westworld is a movie packed with ideas, but it doesn’t add up to much more than robots going berserk. While it’s an enjoyable film with some terrific sequences, there’s a goldmine of untapped ideas in it. The creators of HBO’s Westworld, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, take real time to explore some of those ideas — and plenty more they bring to the table — in the thrilling, unsettling, and thoughtful first four episodes of season one.

Below, read our Westworld review.

For the low, low price of $40,000 a day you can become the hero or outlaw you’ve always dreamed of becoming. Westworld, in the eyes of its creator Dr. Robert Ford (Sir Anthony Hopkins), is far more than a high-tech theme park; it’s a place for visitors to understand their potential. These visitors — the main two of whom are played by Jimmi Simpson and Ben Barnes — are called “newcomers” by the hosts (i.e., the artificial intelligence). The hosts provide the newcomers with whatever they desire, no matter how revolting. They’re completely unaware of the roles they’re playing in the narratives written for them and the new arrivals.

The sweet and wholesome lady of Westworld, Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood), for example, is programmed to have no memory of her previous loops and all the horrors her synthetic eyes have seen. She begins to ask questions, though. A glitch in Ford’s most recent update has caused some bugs in the hosts, but are Dolores or Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton) experiencing glitches or are they, in some way, evolving? Dr. Robert Ford and Westworld’s head of programming, Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), are interested in finding out, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear at first.

In the pilot, “The Original,” Joy and director Jonathan Nolan spend more time introducing Westworld through action than talking heads. Rather than primarily sticking to the point-of-view of a pair of humans, like the original film, Nolan and Joy spend most of the pilot with the characters most familiar with the park. With the help of Dolores, Nolan and Joy show us a bit of Westworld through her tragic routine. She’s experienced the worst of Westworld, almost on a daily basis. We see a day in the life of Dolores in the pilot, and it’s genuinely unsettling and made all the more horrific by Dolores’ endearing, wide-eyed innocence. Whether Dolores’ pain is programmed doesn’t really matter. Evan Rachel Wood always makes her host’s heartbreak or fear feel real, and the same goes for Thandie Newton and other actors playing the hosts.

Plenty of hosts, including Dolores, have suffered at the hands of The Man in Black (Ed Harris), a mystery guest who’s been coming to the park for 30 years. What makes these instances of horror, when the newcomers have their sadistic fun, truly upsetting isn’t so much the realistic depiction of violence but how the newcomers often revel in it. Whenever The Man in Black or another human hurts a host in delight, their cold distance or joy, contrasted with the very human horror expressed by the hosts, is something straight out of a nightmare.

All the people see the hosts in a different light. Westworld is a large ensemble story — I haven’t even mentioned James Marsden or Sidse Babett Knudsen‘s pivotal roles yet — with so many different perspectives presented. Anybody watching the show will likely find common ground with someone working at Westworld or visiting Westworld, in regards to how they view the role of the hosts. Some folks look at them as expensive toys, while others recognize the humanity in them. Every perspective or opinion you can imagine someone having about Westworld is included.

Nolan, Joy, and all involved leave no stones unturned when it comes to Westworld. The ins and outs of this seemingly endless environment are laid out with absolute clarity — and often with humor thanks to Shannon Woodward, who plays a charming, foul-mouthed employee of Westworld. Already the scope of the show is big, partially because of how many different roles and moving pieces there are involved in bringing Dr. Robert Ford’s vision to life. We see the exhaustive work it actually takes to keep this place running. Nolan and Joy establish the world and characters without any trouble, while also raising a few alluring questions. There are already a handful of mysteries are at play in Westworld. We’ll have to wait and see how they’re paid off, but already from the start, the show has you asking questions about motivations and the bigger picture.

What’s most exciting about Westworld isn’t the questions, the surprising amount of laughs, or all the violence and sex expected from HBO. In one scene, Dr. Robert Ford explains the appeal of Westworld: people come back for the fine details, not the shock and horror. Westworld‘s shock and horror are top-notch, but the subtleties are what make the first handful of episodes addictive. I’m in the midst of watching the episodes again, and on the second watch, new details flourish, especially in the pilot. The J.J. Abrams-executive-produced show has scenes, performances, and lines to be studied under a microscope. Westworld, at least at the start, is as rewarding as it is entertaining.

Westworld premieres on HBO on October 2nd at 9 p.m.

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