'Westworld': TV Review

Courtesy of John P. Johnson/HBO
A mind-expanding theme park of ideas.
10/2/2016

This ambitious, intriguing reimagining is packed with more ideas than initially meet the eye.

In January, production on Westworld, HBO's ambitious reimagining of Michael Crichton's 1973 film, was shut down. Usually that's a sign of real trouble. But when creators (and married couple) Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy met with critics at the TCA summer press tour in July, they were able to explain the delay in a way that, having now watched the first four episodes, makes complete sense: The mythology driving the series is complicated — probably more complicated than Nolan or Joy initially imagined — so production was halted to make sure that the "bible" governing the show considered all the far-reaching questions and possibilities of the world.

Many shows have started over, essentially — Game of Thrones, for one — and did just fine when the curtains finally opened. Westworld manages to make a compelling case that the vast world it's building and the moral and ethical dilemmas it explores were worth the extra attention.

The early dramatic conceit of the show (based on, but diverging greatly from, the 1973 film), centers on what humans will do once they've plunked down $40,000 a day to play in a futuristic dream park that reinvents the Wild West as a jumping-off point for illicit behavior up to and including murder, rape and other atrocities.

Some "guests" just want to experience the thrill of hunting down criminals whose faces appear on "Wanted" posters, or getting in gunfights to defend a lady's honor, but others are more intent on getting their money's worth.

As if the guests didn't make Westworld a volatile enough place, the incredibly life-like androids, called "hosts," who populate the park have recently started glitching out. With some, it's like their batteries die or their code gets corrupted and they simply stop working. Others seem to be malfunctioning in more ominous ways. It could be that they are — not a shocker — developing their own intelligence, gaining consciousness. Countless movies and books have explored this theme, but give Westworld credit for throwing in enough as-yet-unexplained hints and red herrings that might suggest either better options or more dire, nefarious doings.

Meaning? Well, maybe they're not gaining consciousness. At least not all of them. Or maybe they're not having their memories recollected all by themselves. There could be espionage at play. There could be well-intentioned (and secretive) interventions that are not going as well as planned (or perhaps better than planned). And there might even be a bigger bad than all of that — some long forgotten entity seeking revenge, from within or without.

It's important that Westworld have all of those options — even at the risk of confusion. It's also important to know that confusion isn't always messy — it's a necessity when telling a complicated tale. And if you're at all interested in watching Westworld for the long haul, depth and complexity are key factors. Westworld has those in ways that build confidence in its potential.

The show deftly makes the decision to take the person who is arguably at the center of everything, Westworld park creator Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) and move him at least temporarily to the fringes. Instead, we get a lot of his right-hand man, Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), a behavioral specialist who runs the Programming Division. At the same time, we get a lot of Shannon Woodward as Elsie Hughes, who also works in the Programming Division and is discovering some peculiar and dangerous anomalies.

Hopkins is typically great, and what makes his Ford character most intriguing is that while he's fiddling away where we don't see him that much, we know that he can't possibly be as clueless as all the longtime operations people seem to think. Bernard and Elsie know about the glitches and are trying to keep the extent of them from Theresa (Sidse Babett Knudsen). Theresa is the no-nonsense operation director of the company that owns Westworld, and she's been sent by the board to protect the interest of the shareholders. But given that Dr. Ford is the man who dreamt up how to play God, you have to imagine he's aware of subterfuge on every level. Besides, Ford is played by Anthony Hopkins. He's not there for window dressing.

Nolan and Joy and the Westworld writing team have done a solid job keeping murky the exact roles and loyalties of Dr. Ford and Bernard. As the "hosts" begin to show signs of deviating from their programming, viewers will begin to wonder if Ford or Bernard or both have anything to do with it.

There's also the presence of the Gunslinger (Ed Harris), a role that departs the most from the original movie (where he was an android and played by Yul Brynner). The Gunslinger in HBO's series is human and one of the longest repeat visitors. Calling Westworld "a game" he's played almost to its end, he appears to have a keen sense of what the final act is — an Easter egg secret somewhere no one has ever found (and a secret maybe no one was supposed to find).

But if god is in the details, maybe Ford planned an endgame after all?

Where Westworld is at its best is in the deeper issues that will unspool slowly, like a good mystery. Early episodes are adept at getting at the base attractions of the park and why people would come, but also in setting up a sense of confusion about motives — between Dr. Ford, Bernard and Theresa, the company numbers-cruncher, and the ways they all intersect. And it would be silly to assume the government doesn't have a keen interest in Ford's technology.

Beyond that, there's much to delight the senses and fuel weekly episodic interest in Westworld — sometimes it's the smaller details like coming upon older host models and to see the limits of the technology back then and how far the park has come. Sometimes there's a hint, whether real or not, that something evil is out there that's not a rogue android.

There series benefits from a number of standout performances, including those from Evan Rachel Wood as Dolores, a Western host whose life seems to be endless torment; James Marsden as Teddy, who comes to the park to play gunslinger but clearly loves Dolores; Thandie Newton as Maeve, the madame who runs the brothel in the bar; and a host of other, emerging characters that pop up in episodes three and four in particular, adding new wrinkles to what's real and what's not, what's gone astray and exactly how far astray.

The cinematography and sweep of Westworld is, strangely, kept mostly in check. Yes, the expanse of the park is impressive and aerial shots depict that nicely, but the androids and small tech tricks are really the extent of the visual tricks — so much is achieved in good old simple acting.

Westworld as a series is a big idea with more mythology than a handful of episodes truly uncover — which is a positive sign. It's better to be difficult than to be flimsy and disappointingly easy to figure out. The challenges in Westworld make it worth the investment.

Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Jeffrey Wright, Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, Thandie Newton, Shannon Woodward
Creators: Jonathan Nolan, Lisa Joy
Based on the movie by: Michael Crichton
Directed by: Jonathan Nolan

Airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO

In the earliest iterations of Westworld , HBO's ambitious reimagining as a TV series, it got the kind of notice no series wants — production was shut down. Mostly — but not always — that's a sign of real trouble and a stigma that whatever episodes come after will have to fight against. But when creators (and married couple) Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy met with critics in July, the duo and HBO were able to explain the delay in a way that, after watching the first four episodes, makes complete sense: the mythology driving the series is complicated and was probably more complicated than Nolan or Joy imagined, so production was halted to make sure that "the bible" governing the show took in all the far-reaching questions and possibilities of the world as imaginable and the couple had truly considered all the ramifications.

Many shows have started over, essentially — Game of Thrones for one — and did just fine when the gates finally opened. Westworld itself manages, in the four preview episodes for critics, to make a compelling case that the vast world it's building and the moral and ethical dilemmas inside of it were worth the extra attention, since exploring human nature and the wrinkles that appear in it (okay, full on tears of its fabric, to be precise) when there are no rules is just one of several ideas on Westworld's plate.

The early dramatic conceit of the show (based on but diverging greatly from the 1973 Michael Creighton film of the same name), centers around what humans will do when they've plunked down $40,000 a day to play in a futuristic dream park that reinvents the wild west as a jumping off point for illicit behavior that can, unchecked, run quickly toward murder, rape and other atrocities.

Nolan and Joy seem to know all-too-well that successfully following a moral code as a human being has less to do with ethics and personality than things that are imposed upon said humans — from laws to religion. It's easy to be good when there are consequences.

A theme park built to temporarily allow you to explore your baser self will lead to base results — that's pretty obvious. And that wouldn't make a very good series if that was the only idea in play.

True there might be "guests" who just want to live vicariously through hunting down criminals, getting in gunfights over impolite words to a lady or the adventure that comes from hunting down people whose faces appear on "Wanted" posters, but everybody else is probably going to go rogue and do awful things to the "hosts" almost immediately. So there had to be other concepts to dabble with.

A central one is that the "robots" or androids who populate Westworld are starting to glitch out. It's 2016, so what futuristic television series wouldn't focus on a virus? But Nolan and Joy have added more layers and imbedded some mysteries that even the first four episodes are not yet fully addressing, which hint at going well beyond the virus concept.

In the early going the fly in the ointment appears to be just that — flies. The incredibly life-like androids, called "hosts," are sometimes just going on the fritz and need to be pulled in for repairs. It's like their batteries died or their code got corrupted and they simply stop. Others seem to be glitching in more ominous ways. It could be that they are — not a shocker — developing their own intelligence. They are gaining consciousness. Countless movies and books have explored this theme but give Westworld credit for throwing in enough as-yet-unexplained hints and red herrings that might suggest either better options or more dire, nefarious doings.

Meaning? Well, maybe they're not gaining consciousness. At least not all of them. Or maybe they're not having their memories recollected all by themselves. There could be espionage at play. There could be well-intentioned (and secretive) interventions that are not going as well as planned (or perhaps better than planned). And there might even be a bigger bad than all of that — some long forgotten entity seeking revenge, from within or without.

It's important that Westworld have all of those options — even at the risk of confusion. It's also important to know that confusion isn't always messy — it's a necessity when telling a complicated tale. And if you're at all interested in watching Westworld for the long haul as you do something like Game of Thrones, depth and complexity are key factors. Westworld has those in ways that build confidence in its potential.

The show deftly makes the decision to take the person who is arguably at the center of everything, Westworld park creator Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) and move him at least temporarily to the fringes. Instead, we get a lot of his right hand man, Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), a behavioral specialist who runs the Programming Division. At the same time, we get a lot of Shannon Woodward as Elsie Hughes, who also works in the Programming Division and is discovering some peculiar and dangerous anomalies.

Hopkins is typically great and what makes his Ford character most intriguing is that while he's fiddling away where we don't see him that much, we know that he can't possibly be as clueless as all the longtime operations people seem to think. Bernard and Elsie know about the glitches and are trying to keep the extent of them from Theresa (Sidse Babett Knudsen). Theresa is the no-nonsense operation director of the company that owns Westworld, and she's been sent by the board to protect the interest of the shareholders. But given that Dr. Ford is the man who dreamt up how to play God, you have to imagine he's aware of subterfuge on every level. Besides, Ford is played by Anthony Hopkins. He's not there for window dressing.

Nolan and Joy and the Westworld writing team have done a solid job keeping murky the exact roles and loyalties of Dr. Ford and Bernard. As the "hosts" begin to show signs of deviating from the pattern, viewers will begin to wonder if Ford or Bernard or both have anything to do with it.

There's also the presence of The Gunslinger (Ed Harris), a role that departs the most from the original movie (where he was an android and played by Yul Brynner). The Gunslinger in HBO's series is human and one of the longest repeat visitors. Calling Westworld "a game" he's played almost to its end, he appears to have a keen sense of what the final act is — an Easter egg secret somewhere no one has ever found (and a secret maybe no one was supposed to find).

But if god is in the details, maybe Ford planned an end game after all?

Where Westworld is at its best is in the deeper issues that will unspool slowly, like a good mystery. Early episodes are adept at getting at the base attractions of the park and why people would come, but also in setting up a sense of confusion about motives — between Dr. Ford, Bernard and Theresa, the company numbers-cruncher and the ways they all intersect. And it would be silly to assume the government doesn't have a keen interest in Ford's technology.

Beyond that, there's much to delight the senses and fuel weekly episodic interest in Westworld — sometimes its the smaller details like coming upon older host models and to see the limits of the technology back then and how far the park has come. Sometimes there's a hint, whether real or not, that something evil is out there that's not a rogue android.

There series benefits from a number of standout performances, including those from Evan Rachel Wood as Dolores, a Western host whose life seems to be endless torment; James Marsden as Teddy, who comes to the park to play gunslinger but clearly loves Dolores; Thandie Newton as Maeve, the madame who runs the brothel in the bar and a host of other, emerging characters that pop up in episodes three and four in particular, adding new wrinkles to what's real and what's not, what's gone astray and exactly how far astray.

The cinematography and sweep of Westworld is, strangely, kept mostly in check. Yes, the expanse of the park is impressive and aerial shots depict that nicely, but the androids and small tech tricks are really the extent of the visual tricks — so much is achieved in good old simple acting.

Westworld as a series is a big idea with more mythology than a handful of episodes truly uncover — which is a positive sign. It's better to be difficult in the dense construct than to be flimsy and disappointingly easy to figure out. The challenge in Westworld is worth the investment.

Email: Tim.Goodman

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