This review contains spoilers.
It has been a while since a proper science fiction show with a considerable budget has been commissioned for TV, HBO’s Westworld helmed by Jonathon Nolan and Lisa Joy might just have broken this trend.
There are shows with sci-fi elements, to name but a few, Stranger Things was a massive hit this summer but felt more like an 80s style supernatural horror, Braindead has a great sci-fi vibe but heavily relies on political elements, perhaps the closest has been The Expanse, even though that show has its own fair share of problems.
Westworld feels like the answer to the shortage of great science fiction, it boasts great production values with a phenomenal cast all held together with the tone of an Asimov novel.
The show tells the story of a western style amusement park populated with artificial beings, where for a price visitors can indulge in any way they please, be it a family holiday, to play as a western hero or as seems very popular – for sex.
Despite being a remake of the 1973 Micheal Crichton film of the same name, the TV show feels incredibly fresh, in its first hour it arguably delves much deeper into themes of power and greed than the original film ever did.
This mostly comes from the decision to have a great deal of focus on the native inhabitants, or artificial beings of the park. This means that the show becomes more than simply Jurassic Park with robots, it’s closer to Jurassic Park if it was told from the perspective of the dinosaurs, which makes it much more interesting.
The pilot begins with a cyclical narrative telling a love story between Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood) and Teddy Flood (James Marsden), it’s set in a classic shanty western town, but the trick Nolan plays on us is to never let it feel like a Western. There’s always something going on underneath the surface, and this means that at times when it borders on repetitiveness it never becomes boring.
The love story between Dolores and Teddy is suddenly shattered by the introduction of an unknown human visitor chilling played by Ed Harris. He first taunts Teddy with his omnipotence, (artificial beings cannot harm human visitors) before killing him. The violence seems real here, Nolan hasn’t shied away and made artificial beings feel completely robotic, in their mannerisms they don’t look completely human but the blood looks genuine and the violence definitely hits home.
Nolan pushes this a step further when Ed Harris proceeds to rape Dolores, the character claims he paid extra for her struggle. This is heavy stuff. It invites questions not just about the broken morality of Harris’ character but about the corporation that allows him to pay for this.
We then move to the other side of reality and the meet the corporate team, a mix of creatives and programmers working over a 3D model of the park that might just remind you of the Hunger Games.
There’s definitely a conflict of interest with the creative minds and the corporate, Hector Escaton (Rodrigo Santoro) argues that the visitors at the park doesn’t want the artificial beings to feel too real, he advocates suppressing future updates and reverting to an earlier model while Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) and Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) seem to want the artificial to advance even further, and maybe not just for the purpose of the park.
The episode has them deal with a malfunction in part of a new update, there’s a creeping sense of dread as things seem as if they could go wrong quickly but in the end it appears as if the corporation has recalled all the faulty subjects and everything is back to normal.
Finally Ed Harris tortures an artificial being for information, taking the being within an inch of life by draining him of blood, Harris’ character seems to have become so accustomed with the rules of the park he’s like a God amongst men. Eventually he scalps the being revealing strange markings on the inside of its skin, hinting at a deeper conspiracy surrounding the park.
If there is one area Westworld may have fallen flat, it was with the characters. At the moment the show has hinted at depth to the artificial beings but we’re yet to really see it and most of the corporate team haven’t made much of an impression yet. If there’s one thing Westworld’s missing at this stage it’s certainly heart.
However it still manages to ask interesting questions. The question Westworld poses isn’t if the artificial beings are aware, we see clearly that Dolores is aware after she kills a fly immediately after proclaiming that she would never harm a living thing to her programmers. The question then becomes how aware is she? And that is both incredibly interesting and absolutely terrifying.
It’s early days and there are a lot of questions left unanswered, but Westworld is an enchanting viewing experience, it effortlessly plays with ideas of identity, power and morality. Making it one of the most original and interesting pilots in recent years.