Warning, this review features minor spoilers.
Never have I ever seen a television series as ambitious as Westworld.
This ten part series by HBO isn’t shoddy TV fodder made for binge-watching. It’s a high-concept show that raises powerful intellectual and philosophical questions about the nature of humanity. This sci-fi drama is based on Michael Crichton’s novel, and the 1973 feature film adaption. ‘Westworld’ is an adult amusement park of sorts. Wealthy guests pay to live as cowboys in the Wild Wild West accompanied by thousands of lifelike robots, known as hosts.
Producer Lisa Joy describes Westworld as “an examination of human nature. The best parts of human nature — paternal love, romantic love, finding oneself — but also the basis for parts of human nature — violence and sexual violence.”
Much like the compelling 2015 film Ex Machina, the show provokes reflection upon the potential harm associated with the advancement of Artificial Intelligence. One of the show’s central themes involve the disastrous consequences when the hosts ‘wake up’. This is described using the metaphorical ‘maze’ of consciousness.
The scientists program the ‘hosts’ to live out various narrative arcs while satisfying the guests’ desires for adventure, sex and danger. The hosts can die in a variety of gruesome ways, but the hosts can not harm the guests. Or at least that’s the plan.
Within the world the story focuses primarily on Dolores, a wholesome drover’s daughter played by Evan Rachel Wood. She’s the damsel-in-distress stock character whose exists to be seduced and/or conquered. That is, until she begins to wake up and write her own destiny.
Dolores is a role which requires a lot of ‘emotion’ and, with a worst actor, her monologues could have become angsty soap opera melodrama about identity and finding herself. Thankfully, that’s not the case. Thandie Newton gives a stand out performance as the wickedly clever ‘host’ who outsmarts the humans and starts an uprising. Jimmie Simpson brings complexity to the morally ambiguous hero, Ed Harris is a chilling villain as the ‘Man in Black’ and Anthony Hopkins is magnetic as the power-hungry leader.
Some shows (and in turn, movies with sequels) have an ad-hoc feel.
However, Westworld has clearly been planned, scripted and storyboarded with precision. The writers have specifically chosen every line of dialogue, costume, set and plot point in a way that fits in with this grand narrative. What that grand narrative is is a different question. The many pieces of this overwhelming puzzle only completely come together in a mind-numbing final episode, entitled The Bicameral Mind.
The show’s premise is about a park that tries to emulate reality by distorting it. Such a concept is in the very DNA of Westworld, as what you think is going on is often not what is actually going on. As the scientists re-write and transform the hosts, the audience revise their perception of the ‘reality’ of the park.
The show has decadent, elaborate production design, intelligent writing, complex, interesting characters and compelling performances. Westworld is one of the best things to happen to television in recent years.
Season 2 will be coming out in early 2018. Season 1 is available on Foxtel.
This review was originally published at Blitz UNSW