Posted on Monday, October 3rd, 2016 by Jacob Hall
HBO’s Westworld officially premiered last night and it was one hell of a first episode. Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy‘s series take the premise of Michael Crichton‘s 1973 film and sprint with it, carrying this tale of robot cowboys, debauched tourists, and theme park ops into bold new territory. It’s a smart science fiction powered by western imagery and lightly coated with horror. It’s weird. It’s dense. It’s one of the more promising pilots I’ve seen in some time.
If you haven’t seen the series premiere, titled “The Original,” our own Jack Giroux has got you covered with his spoiler-free thoughts. But it’s Monday, so it’s time for a deeper conversation. Each week, we’re going to ask ten spoiler-filled questions about the latest episode of Westworld. Some of these questions will be rhetorical and some literal. Others will have definitive answers and some will not. Let’s dive right in.
How Does This Park Actually Operate?
My favorite moments in Jurassic Park and Jurassic World don’t involve dinosaurs running amok and devouring the ambitious/foolish humans. I’ve always been far more interested in how such a theme park built around cutting edge science fiction technology would actually function on a day-to-day basis. I like watching park operations at work and I enjoy the casual conversations about corralling and maintaining the impossible. Maybe that would make me part of the problem if these places were real – I would be first in line to visit both Jurassic Park and Westworld.
While the first episode of Westworld does lay the groundwork for when things go completely and horribly wrong for everyone involved, I was on the edge of my seat just watching how this place works. “The Original” slowly releases more information about the park with every scene, offering looks at everything from the design and programming department to how park security functions. Other details lit a fire under my imagination, like guests discussing their multiple visits and deciding whether they wanted to enjoy a wholesome family adventure or go “black hat.”
Of course, there remain large holes in how Westworld functions. We know that the robots operating within the park act out the same narrative loop over and over again, but it is never specified how long each loop really is. After all, we see Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores Abernathy wake up and follow her routine several times but we also see the park’s head writer, Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman) adjust a storyline by moving events up a whole week, suggesting that each loop may be longer than initially suggested. The fact that I’m already so interested in how Westworld operates is a good sign – I want to explore every nook and cranny of this place.
Who Are These Robots, Anyway?
Unlike the 1973 original, the new Westworld chooses to introduce us to this world from the perspective of the robots populating the park and the results are horrifying. These aren’t the murderous audio-animatronics Michael Crichton originally envisioned. They’re artificial creations who are baby steps from self-awareness, programmed to overlook inconsistencies in their world and suffer all kinds of abuse from paying guests. While the movie was a tale of technology running amok, the show is already setting itself up to be a very different animal: a story of slaves revolting against their masters.
So far, the cast of characters on this front of the storyline is promising. Evan Rachel Wood is the closest thing the show’s entire ensemble has to a proper lead, as the episode uses her to introduce us to the basic concepts behind Westworld. Her performance is strong stuff, asking her to play the naive western gal and the machine who can be manipulated and reprogrammed behind the scenes. James Marsden also turns in strong work as Teddy Flood, her scripted love interest.
While those two stand in the spotlight, they’re surrounded by an impressive ensemble, including Rodrigo Santoro as a flashy and murderous gunslinger and Thandie Newton as the madam of the local brothel. As in Game of Thrones and Deadwood, each scene is so full of minor characters that it is hard to pinpoint who could ultimately step forward and who is there simply to provide some background color. I do hope that we get to see more of Michael Wincott‘s Old Bill, the defective and outdated robot currently “living” out the rest of his existence in cold storage. In an hour full of people eerily bringing life to artificial beings, his stop-start physicality (aided by killer sound editing) is nothing short of fascinating.
…And Who Are Their Human Overlords?
“The Original” also offers equal screen time to the folks running the park and the truth is that most of them are still enigmatic at best. Westworld is a show so full of weird details that it falls on these people to provide all of the necessary exposition and get us situated. In the first hour, the people ensuring that the park gets by day-to-day aren’t quite characters as much as they are grounders – they tell us what we need to know so later drama can commence.
At the forefront of them all is Jeffrey Wright as Bernard Lowe, the head of the park’s programming department and the man responsible for building, maintaining, and updating the robots. Wright is one of our most watchable actors and his gruff delivery and innate intelligence make him a perfect vehicle for delivering page after page of technobabble. His scenes with Anthony Hopkins, playing the park’s founder and creative director Robert Ford, are a delight. As performers, these two radiate professionalism by default, so asking them to play scientists in the distant future is genius casting. You can’t help but believe every word that comes out of their mouths.
Other human performances aren’t quite as successful on first glimpse, but that could easily change in the episodes ahead. Quarterman’s Lee Sizemore is very funny, albeit a little one-note. Luke Hemsworth plays Ashley Stubbs, the head of security, exactly like you’d imagine a guy with that surname to play the head of security in a science fiction movie. Sidse Babett Knudsen (who is nothing short of brilliant in The Duke of Burgundy) doesn’t have much to do as operations leader Theresa Cullen beyond scowl and issue orders, but she has a fine habit of commanding the screen nonetheless.