***Spoilers: Spoilers for Westworld through S1E1, “The Original”. Spoilers***
Why are we here? It’s a question humans ponder on a daily basis, so it seems only natural any thinking being would eventually wonder the same. Like Elizabeth Shaw in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, no matter how close to the fire we’re drawn, we can’t help but follow that inescapable desire to meet our maker; the results can run the gamut from disappointing to deadly.
Jumping off from Michael Crichton’s 1973 science fiction movie, Jonathan Nolan and (spouse) Lisa Joy’s grand, sweeping, world-expanding vision, with its lavish themes and sets, big-name actors, and primetime slot clearly wants to slide right into our soon-to-be-dispossessed Game of Thrones hearts. Westworld itself — the interactive story area — no longer looks like a movie set, with fairly easily identifiable bad guys: its experience is fully immersive, and sorting AI from human isn’t merely a spectator sport. It’s another level. This is where the Nolans invite the audience to play along, for the hidden game within a game is clearly: Who is real? Surprise, he’s a host (AI/android); she’s human! Starting with one of the first characters we meet, who at first seems a guest on his way to the adventure of a lifetime, but is quickly revealed to be just another player in one of the park’s myriad simultaneously running storylines. Not unlike our own constantly and rapidly mutating real world, the creative and technologically advanced Westworld experience is continually going through upgrades and experimental evolution, which — as we’ve learned from series like Battlestar Galactica and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles — will only be to our own detriment. At the head of this particular braintrust is the brilliant (and expertly cast) Dr. Robert Ford, played to chilling perfection by Anthony Hopkins.
One of the opening episode’s finest moments is a scene featuring Ford interacting Gepetto-like with the (decommissioned) second host ever built, “Old Bill” (well played by Michael Wincott): a grizzled, handlebar-mustachioed old-timer whose subtly robotic movements mirror Yul Brynner’s original Gunslinger. Ford seems to have a certain fascination with his creations’ earlier versions, an issue that later rears its head in several updated hosts’ odd malfunctions. One of the intriguing questions raised in a conversation between Westworld’s operational leader (and resident grammarian) Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and narrative director Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman) is about motives. After Sizemore ostensibly throws his support behind Cullen for a “long overdue” ousting of Ford — “The guy’s going to chase his demons right over the deep end” — Cullen playfully queries Sizemore: “This place is one thing to the guests, another thing to the shareholders, and something completely different to management … what do you think management’s real interests are?” Indeed. Would we eventually be led to downloading subconsciousnesses — immortality of a sort — or would these hosts harboring secrets find a way to replace their Westworld overlords? For the audience, again, we must realize we’re on this same dark precipice, ignoring our own leery questions even while asking them.
The cast is excellent, especially Evan Rachel Wood as the alternately cloying and cagey host Dolores, Louis Herthum as her “father” Peter, and, of course, Ed Harris’ purportedly reversed Gunslinger, whom we’re meant to believe is human (I don’t, especially since he wears gloves — perhaps a nod to the original movie; the robot hands were the only thing that couldn’t be perfected). The Man in Black is on a quest to find Westworld’s deeper level, gruesomely hunting clues underneath scalps in between gleefully maiming, killing, and raping hosts (does human/host even matter to him?). Jeffrey Wright’s Bernard Lowe is the calm behind Westworld’s raging and problematic programming storm, and particularly enjoyable were latecomers Hector (Rodrigo Santoro) and Armistice (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), bandits sent in to wipe out their fellow hosts, rounded up in a showy storm of bullets for rechecking recent malfunction-causing updates.
There are, as with most first steps, a few minor stumbles, including the cheese factor (especially with Dolores’ repeated lines). Akin to its movie and thematic cousin Jurassic Park we have to wonder: just how long can a dangerously malfunctioning resort be kept operational? Sustaining these ideas through a couple of hours in a film is one thing — even sequels and reboots can only bear out so long — how will the Nolans keep us believing Westworld could remain in operation? I may be in the minority here, but throwing in The Rolling Stones’ Paint It Black didn’t work; it totally pulled me out of the scene and felt like it was specifically thrown in for the cool factor, rather than to connect us to modernity. Was Dolores’ repeating scenario merely an introductory ploy (because that sort of thing will quickly become a snore)? Why are the host issues so thoroughly revealed in the first episode; where do we go from here? Unless Westworld is about to become the first resort actually run entirely by AI … well, now, perhaps we’re onto something here. Anthony Hopkins’ manner does lend itself to wondering — which I’ve been doing since the moment I first spied him — did he lose a wife, a child, a family he’s trying to replace? Has Ford already been assimilated? Because there is so much storyline possibility, and the impressive cast is large enough to afford splitting off episodes for different characters (Thandie Newton’s Mistress Maeve is particularly intriguing, and I’d love to see Hector and Armistice go rogue), there’s enough here to keep us coming back to Westworld for more.
***Gross warning: Scalp ahead! Don’t worry, it’s not real. But what’s up with the underside of that scalp — the Gunslinger found himself a clue. Who put it there? I’m voting Peter or Old Bill … or Dr. Robert Ford.
Was Dolores swatting a fly indicative that she’s been hiding her self-awareness for a while? Did she know how to answer Ashley Stubbs’ (Luke Hemsworth — yes, he’s brother to Chris and Liam) line of questioning the “right” way? Why was the head of security questioning her in this instance, instead of Lowe, Dr. Ford, or one of the other programming specialists? (Are all movie/TV world heads of security doomed to be arseholes?) Did Dolores tell the truth about what her father whispered? (I don’t think so.)
Have the hosts been questioning their reality long before this recent update?
Were you uncomfortable with the series’ violence? In particular, I was very bothered by the guest couple at the end, especially the wife who wanted a picture of a dying Hector wriggling. The Gunslinger pulling a screaming Dolores by the hair. Would you ever go to a Westworld-type resort?
How many hosts has Shannon Woodward’s Elsie Hughes kissed?