Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, Jeffrey Wright, Thandie Newton
Series created by: Jonathan Nolan & Lisa Joy
Written by: Jonathan Nolan / Episode directed by: Jonathan Nolan
What’s it about?
The futuristic theme park ‘Westworld’, populated by artificial beings called ‘hosts’, allows its visitors to live out their greatest fantasies against the backdrop of the Old West. When an update to the hosts’ programming triggers strange and unruly behaviour, the park’s creators find their efforts to improve realism may have produced dangerous results…
Based on the cult classic 1973 film written and directed by Michael Crichton (mastermind author of noted SF works Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain), HBO’s television adaptation of Westworld has been developed for the smaller screen by Jonathan Nolan (Person of Interest) and Lisa Joy (Burn Notice) together with co-producer J.J. Abrams.
The concept of Artificial Intelligence and how it relates to human nature is something that has been explored endlessly in science fiction and in various forms of media. HBO’s Westworld necessarily expands on what could only be touched upon in Crichton’s 88-minute film and like Ronald D. Moore’s reimagined Battlestar Galactica, what’s presented here is much more complex and cerebral. On a particular level it’s unnerving as the robot (or more precisely, android) ‘attractions’ of the Westworld theme park – known as ‘hosts’ – are becoming more realistic and virtually indistinguishable from genuine human beings as their creators strive for that perfection of realism and efficiency – something that is firmly entrenched in the zeitgeist of the technologically driven age we live in.
Written and directed by Nolan, “The Original” assembles a strong cast which includes Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, Thandie Newton, Jeffrey Wright and most impressively Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris. Much of the episode’s focus centres on Wood’s Dolores and it’s via her ‘character’ and newcomer Teddy (Marsden) that we learn of the Groundhog Day like existence of Westworld’s A.I. lifeforms as they are programmed to reset and repeat the same patterns day after day, with little variation, to service the stories implemented by the park’s engineers. It seems here that Wood is being positioned as the series’ main protagonist and the True Blood actress proves effective in being naturally emotive, switching her performance as she becomes subtly more machine like when events lead to questions of the hosts’ existence and ultimate purpose.
Yet it’s the critically lauded and awards worthy Hopkins and Harris that provide the biggest draw. As Westworld’s founder, Dr. Robert Ford, Hopkins conveys the intellectual qualities and complexities of the character with absolute aplomb as we meet a man at the leading edge of technology, constantly pushing the boundaries of perfection to deliver a more efficient and more capable ‘product’. Ed Harris (sharing some truly chilling scenes with Wood and Marsden) is equally compelling as the mysterious ‘Man in Black’, providing a presence that’s as foreboding as it is unsettling.
The visual scope of Westworld is astounding, the grand, sweeping outback landscapes beautifully captured and arguably rivals the cinematography of some of cinema’s most beloved Westerns. As a director, it’s to Nolan’s credit that he is skilful in presenting the more intimate character moments, especially in the cold, sterile lab settings where the hosts are examined and ‘questioned’ about their abnormal behaviour. It’s here that Nolan utilises, to great effect, numerous close-ups that capture every nuance of the actors’ facial expressions.
Nolan’s script is packed with quality dialogue that delivers intrigue, character drama and thought provoking, existential SF ideas which combined with those sumptuous visuals and a stellar cast demonstrates strong potential for the series ahead. HBO have been looking for their next big hit to follow Game of Thrones and Westworld could certainly be it.
You can read the GBUK review of Michael Crichton’s Westworld here.
The bottom line: Westworld opens promisingly as a superb cast helps introduce a world filled with thought provoking ideas and great dramatic potential.
Westworld airs in the UK Tuesday at 9pm on Sky Atlantic. U.S. viewers can catch it 9pm Sunday on HBO.