Westworld debuted this Sunday and if anyone is not familiar this is HBO’s newest big budget extravaganza that they are hoping is going to dovetail into the spot left by Game of Thrones when it concludes in two years. I’ve done episode by episode reviews of the sixth season of that show, which was exhausting but a lot of fun and I wanted to keep that magic going with this new hotness. I even resurrected my GoT ritual of snacking on some fresh baked bread, olive oil and balsamic and a dash of salt and pepper and a glass or four of wine while I watched the premiere episode The Original. I only had one thought at its conclusion. I usually watch these kinds of shows at least twice, once for the ride, a second time for the craft, for the little nuances and thematic…thingies that lurk right below the surface in these types of adult dramas but I haven’t done that yet because of how unsettling the whole experience was.
Undeterred, I jumped on the old QWERTY and tried to put together a generic review with some wacky gifs added along for humorous effect but the whole first effort ground to a halt because, to be completely honest, there is no levity whatsoever in Westworld. It was light years easier to joke around with the subject matter of Game of Thrones which should indicate how much more intense this new show is. “Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?” What a fucked up thing to say to someone, even an android. Just the fact that you’d ask implies that I should and that’s a perfect way to ruin an already crappy Monday morning. If you’re not familiar with the basic premise, Westworld is an amusement park/role playing game populated by nearly perfect humanoid android characters that visitors pay a huge entrance fee to hang out with. There is a narrative to the experience and also, like Fallout or GTA, an open world for you to explore and destroy as you please. You can kill the android ‘hosts’ but you can’t kill other ‘guests’. There is no morality or police or rules. And most disturbingly, the androids don’t know they aren’t real people, which is where the underlying conflict or theme of the show presents itself: if you program a machine to think it’s a real person, at what point does it matter whether or not it was a machine to begin with? At what point does it become something more?
Further, at what point does that machine that believes it’s human get tired of being shot, stabbed, sexually whatevered ad nauseum? And what does that say about the guests who perpetrate said abuse? Is being inhuman to something that is designed to look human a reflection of some dark desires or just innocent fun? I’m dropping more Q-marks than The Riddler over here and that’s why this episode and ultimately, I believe, this show is so very good. It’s intelligent and thought provoking, there is no denying that, but I have a concern that it might be too smart for it’s own good and will not connect with a large enough audience to sustain itself. I am also sincerely curious as to how the show can be extended through an entire season. Somehow I am the only person I currently know who has seen the original film and The Original covers about a third of that story already. I don’t want to spoil anything here but lets just say Michael Crichton is most famous for his other little yarn about an amusement park called The Jurassic Park. Which we know ended with a laugh and a milkshake for all.
One of the most unsettling aspects of the show is the portrayal of the hosts as animatronic robots. The already impressive acting is augmented with subtle digital effects to make them seem just this side of the Uncanny Valley, both believably fake and heartbreakingly real all at once. Because of how effective the performances are it immediately begs the same question of the audience that Bernard Lowe asks of Dolores Abernathy. Are you sure what’s real and what isn’t? And I held my dog a little closer. I almost linked the dog scene from I Am Legend to that sentence but I don’t want to accidentally see it and also I am not a monster. Will Smith is. Speaking of monsters, Ed Harris is a terrifying man. I don’t have anything else, just that that is a true fact and his portrayal of the man in black is going to be legendary. There’s one more character that also deserves acknowledgement and that is Westworld itself. Filmed in the famous and iconic Monument Valley, the cinematography is absolutely breathtaking, and I say that without fear of hyperbole. As a fan of the Western genre in general, this first episode was like landscape pornography. The town as well feels like it would be perfectly at home in another more grounded series, Deadwood a show that was critically lauded but never brought the audience it needed to sustain its budget. But where Deadwood was bleak and filthy and real, Westworld is more…I guess the word is lush, it’s more of a fictional take on what the Old West looked like.
There is a lot of nudity in Westworld and I’m expecting the same observations to surface about HBO and it’s rampant sexposition. But presenting the hosts as nude during their interrogation sequences is not sexual. More than that, it’s degrading and dehumanizing, I think it serves to keep a distance between the engineers and employees of the park to prevent them from viewing the androids as anything other than objects. There is definitely sexuality in the park itself but that’s just human nature. I mentioned once about a similarly themed film Ex Machina that answers the age old question, how long after we invent convincing Artificial Intelligence will we try and have sex with it? According to Alex Garland and, if that AI looks like Alicia Vikander, me, it’s not very long at all in case you were wondering. Westworld is the extension of that question: how long will it take us to create Artificial Intelligence in order to have sex with it. I have a feeling that the sexuality and violence is only going to get worse, and by worse I mean less about titillation and more about the dark corners of the human heart. Supposedly there are four or five seasons already planned out ahead of time, which leaves a lot of room for debauchery.
That’s a start, hopefully next weeks episode will shed a little more light on the recurring cast of characters and that mysterious glitch Dolores has at the end of this week but for now there are too many unanswered questions to keep track of. What exactly did her father whisper into her ear? Who is the man in black and what is he even doing? All I know is if someone actually said to me, “Hell is empty and all the devils are here” I don’t care if we are sitting at an IHOP, this is my next move.