Imagine a world where you could live out all your fantasies, no matter how vile they are, without consequences. That’s sort of the unintended premise of HBO’s latest mega series – Westworld. Many will applaud the show’s excellent production values while ignoring the glamorization and furtherance of an alarming rape culture. I guess depicting Rape is fine as long as it’s stylized and “has a point.” The saving grace is so far it hasn’t been graphically depicted, at least in the first two episodes.
The 1973 film Westworld was originally written by Michael Crichton and later became a cult classic. This time Jonathan Nolan (Person of Interest) and his wife Lisa Joy Nolan (Burn Notice) teamed up with wunderkind producer JJ Abrams to bring this reimagined bleak world back to life. Grim tidings are cool.
If you could visit an imaginary world and do whatever you want, I’m not sure I understand why people would choose to play out their vilest fantasies in the old west. The narrative push blends the real world science with customers’ individual fantasies and the slow awakening of the Revvies (robots) in the western world. The blending of styles and subject matter at times seems jarring. The structure reminds me a bit of the Assassin’s Creed video game series.
From a pure craft point of view, it’s hard to argue with the world building shown in the first two episodes. The western scenes all look what any old west town would be with nothing that pushes the envelope in style nor cinematography and the “modern” world scenes all take place in a bland, dark warehouse setting that makes the production look more low budget then one would expect from an HBO project. The 2nd episode opens up the modern world a bit, but it’s still post-modern bleakness draped in dark colors offset with over expose bright industrial lights and whites.
There is one inspired scene in the first episode where there’s Wild West shootout done to an orchestral, wild west version of The Rolling Stones’ Paint It Black. I wasn’t entirely sure what the point of the scene was. This is definitely a show that requires commitment if you choose to go down this rabbit hole.
Evan Rachel Wood is the wide-eyed, sweet, beautiful blonde Revvie, Dolores Abernathy and of course the only black woman in the cast, Thandie Newton has to play Maeve Millay a prostitute (don’t even get me started on how sick I am of this cliché). Of course both women are treated as sex robots that visitors like Ed Harris (The Man In Black) can do whatever they want with.
James Marsden is a Revvie that seems to be designed to die in everyone’s fantasy story. Jeffrey Wright ( Bernard Lowe) plays a conflicted scientist who works with his mentor Anthony Hopkins (Dr. Robert Ford) who is showing regret for designing the world and the way humans are losing their humanity in his playpen. One of the central mysteries of this season seems to be is someone responsible for corrupting the Revvies programming, or is it a natural progression.
I don’t understand what the appeal of a world like this would be. But then again, I’m not a psychopath. You are literally bullet proof, so why bother having duels or shootouts if there’s no danger? Some guests just stand in the street and shoot and stab the Revvies. As Robots are want to do, at some point they are going to realize what’s going on and they are going to become sentient and rebel against the “visitors” and their creators.
I understand what the producers probably want to do with these early scenes of Robot degradation. They want the audience to sympathize with the Robots so that viewers will cheer their inevitable uprising on. Can’t the writers come up with a better way to make us care than objectifying and raping females? I know it’s HBO and they do for purely shock value, titillation and because they can, but it’s tired at this point.
I’m not convinced I’m going to be down for this ride, I’ll give it a few more episodes before I jump ship. The previews for the season showcase the full Revvies rebellion and that gives me hope that the series may turn out to be more exciting and better than the first few eps initially appear to be.
All the scenarios in the world are created by an arrogant, cock sure Simon Quarterman (Lee Sizemore). At one point he boasts that his knew scenario includes lots of death, cannibalism, females that guests can do whatever they want and be able to live out their most vilest fantasies. Ford throws cold water on the presentation saying that “this story is a reflection on the writers and not the guests participating.” Kind of sums up how I feel about the show.
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Parents need to know that Westworld is a grim sci-fi drama that revolves around a theme park staffed with realistically human robots. Most guests are primarily interested in killing or having sex with these robots, both of which is encouraged by the park. Violence is often present in gory scenes in which robots are stabbed, shot point-blank, have their faces shot off in a blast of blood, have their throats slit, and so on. Other disturbing scenes involve an implied offscreen rape that a female robot is dragged to by her hair, screaming, and a sex scene with a prostitute (no private parts are seen). Female and male robots are shown fully nude; backsides and breasts are shown at length. Cursing is infrequent but unbleeped and includes “f–k,” “s–t,” “hell,” “ass,” and “damn.” A female robot is called a “little bitch.” Characters drink liquor and smoke at a saloon.
Have you ever dreamed of a world where the definition of good and evil is irrelevant, a world where a high paying guest can indulge their every want without worry of retribution, where right and wrong are merely lines blurred beyond recognition? You have? Then welcome to Westworld.
Based on the 1973 Michael Crichton film of the same name – although the development of this series has erased the majority of any recognisable connections – Westworld is set in a fictional theme park where guests can dress as cowboys and live out fantasies they’ve harboured since being small children. Head out with the sheriff to track down a fugitive or simply while away your time drinking rye whisky and cavorting with whores; the choice is yours. All tastes are catered for in Westworld. And it’s all perfectly safe, as the park is populated by robots; highly developed android ‘hosts’ whose programming has been designed purely to enhance the experience of what they affectionately refer to as the ‘newcomers’.
From the opening scenes, Westworld has you at a disadvantage. Instead of establishing a central theme and introducing several key ‘newcomers’ you would have expected the series to have been built around, Westworld mixes things up a little. Initially following Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood), a young farmer’s daughter still enjoying the simple joys of life while she awaits the return of her beau, you have no idea she is actually one of the hosts. Dolores simply goes about her normal routine, interacting with other hosts and guests, that is until the arrival of the Gunslinger, a character made famous by Yul Brynner and here portrayed with barely concealed relish by Ed Harris.
And this is the key to Westworld’s intrigue. Instead of the narrative playing out entirely from the point of view of the guests, the series puts the android characters’ front and centre, exploring their sense of existence as they slowly come to question they’re surroundings. ‘Memories’ begin to return like glimpses of past lives – in essence, exactly what they are – and the repetition of day-to-day normality becomes a little more abnormal. When the human characters are introduced it is they who are predictable, they who act in routines, and this unsettling confusion is what makes Westworld utterly enthralling. Yes, the balance between what is or isn’t consciousness has been explored many times, and recently in films such as Ex_Machina and The Machine, but here the robots weren’t designed to push the boundaries of their own creation. These are robots for robots’ sake, created purely to service the needs of rowdy, murderous or horny guests.
Creation does need a beginning, however, and has one with Anthony Hopkins’ brooding inventor. Occasionally rueful, often impulsive, Hopkins dominates every scene he is in and shows how he can still captivate when given a character he clearly believes in. While the remainder of the performances are strong, a slight criticism comes in the formulaic nature of some of the characters. Jeffrey Wright’s Head Of Programing is both naïvely idealistic, Luke Hemsworth is all no-nonsense as head of security and Simon Quaterman is simply irritating as the temperamental writer. It is therefore with the hosts that the best characters are to be found. Thandie Newton is bewitching as ‘ageing’ madam Maeve and Wood shines as her innocence is rebooted with every daily start up. Most interesting, though, is Harris’ Gunslinger whose true nature will not be revealed here.
If one more reason was needed to convince that Westworld truly is appointment television, it is that the series is aesthetically stunning. Whether in the epic western vistas, all craggy and stark, or the polished interiors of the laboratories, this is a series that challenges Hannibal in the award for most beautiful design. You will simply never tire of the sweeping panoramic shots of the plains or the claustrophobic, onyx-like corridors of the control rooms.
Take our word for it: Westworld is one of the best television shows of 2016. It is superbly balanced, with steady, at times slow story development perfectly complimented by barely contained insanity. Westworld is drama of the highest calibre filled with, as one guest puts it, “guns, tits and mindless shit.”
The chiseled cowboy drops to his knees, astonished at the hole that has opened up in his gut. “Seems you’re not the man you thought you were,” a black-clad gunslinger taunts, holstering his gun and turning his attention to the cowboy’s wholesome love, screaming in the high desert night.
In what appears to the be not-too-distant future, Westworld is an elaborate theme park populated by incredibly lifelike androids, where nothing — and no one — is off limits to its wealthy guests. In this libertopia, guests can search for lost treasure, hunt bandits and patronize the bordello — or massacre a bar full of cowpokes and rape a frontier sweetheart without consequences.
As a mysterious man in black tells the dying cowboy, “Winning doesn’t mean anything unless someone else loses.”
There’s not an ounce of vicarious gratification in this or any of the many scenes steeped in blood and terror; unlike many of prestige cable’s most celebrated shows, breaking bad is the point of Westworld, but not the HBO series by the same name.
A hoped-for tentpole in the vein of “Game of Thrones,” “Westworld,” in its focus on the android victims, is, ironically, a fascinating but sometimes too-sterile study of hubris, whether morality (and by the same token, depravity) is inborn or learned, and what it means to be human (and whether the actual humans are making a spectacular hash of it).
The park is such a fully realized experience that the androids, called “hosts,” seem to have their own lives outside the guests’ narratives — they admire the sunrise together, they commiserate over whiskey, they fall in love — but they do it on a loop, each day the same until a new guest and his or her fantasies (usually his) intervene. Then their memories are wiped, their blood hosed off, their wardrobe repiars, and their ravaged bodies restored. Another day dawns.
But something is amiss. The sweetheart Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and a tart madam Maeve (Thandie Newton) begin to experience flashes of the horrors they’ve experienced, the different “characters” they’ve inhabited. Malfunctions or memories?
The 1973 Michael Crichton film “Westworld,” from which the series is adapted, was told from the perspective of the guests as a rogue gunslinger programmed to die each day circumvents his code and takes his revenge. It’s a chilling Frankenstein thriller, though obviously dated by today’s production standards. HBO’s “Westworld” has thriller elements, but it’s a much more philosophical tale, stunningly realized and beautifully acted, but it occasionally gets bogged down by its deliberative pacing and overly-freighted dialogue.
Like the park, “Westworld” operates on many levels, and the ones that take place below the park are less successful than the vibrant but violent world the programmers have built above. The tragic loops of its hosts could get repetitive, but Wood and Newton are mesmerizing; though they play their “scenes” again and again, tiny tells reveal their growing horror. Another narrative thread — the man in black (Ed Harris, in a twist on the original film’s gunslinger) to find the elusive heart of the park — is initially engaging but becomes convoluted and, dare I say, “Lost”-ian as the episodes go by. (J.J. Abrams is one of the executive producers.)
It’s in the sterile high-tech labs beneath the park that “Westworld” sometimes stalls. There are too many conflicting motives and one-dimensional characters, from the park’s “writers” are always pushing more twisted narratives to the muscle that keeps the trains running to the shadowy corporation that owns “Westworld” (embodied by its quality assurance chief Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen) may have different ambitions for the technology.
The saving grace is the interplay between Ford’s sensitive second-in-command Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), obsessed with tweaking the code to imbue the hosts with ever more humanity, and the hosts, particularly Wood’s Dolores, who can shift from sunny self-denial to clinical self analysis at a word from Lowe.
Hopkins’ shadowy Ford seems to be a distant, dismissive God, repeatedly telling underlings that the “hosts” are not real. But there are moments when you wonder whether these troublesome recovered memories are not malfunctions at all, but the next step in Ford’s plans for Westworld. Is he trying to ignite the divine spark himself?
“Everything in this world is magic,” Ford says at one point. “Except to its magicians.”