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Westworld (HBO) - Pilot episode reviewed

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

IN AN age where the term reboot seems to be the modus operandi of the blockbuster movie scene it was only inevitable that TV would follow suit.

The surprise is that HBO, hitherto known as the place to go for fiercely original programming, was one of the first out of the blocks with a big-budget makeover of cult ’70s movie Westworld.

Perhaps less of a surprise, and a gratifying relief, is that the elements that make HBO the go-to destination for intelligent, adult drama have been retained.

Westworld is already an absorbing study into the dark side of humanity. It boasts plenty of big ideas, a big starry cast and makes sure that its big budget doesn’t feel squandered. It looks great.

The story revolves around a group of robots who inhabit Westworld, a violent theme park with a Wild West theme that invites guests to come and indulge their wildest fantasies: whether that’s experiencing life on the frontier or blowing away Indians and outlaws.

The ‘residents’ of Westworld are robots. They cannot harm humans. But they look hyper-real, capable of expressing a wide range of emotions. They cannot even harm a fly, even when one lands on their face.

Primary among them is the wholesome Delores (Evan Rachel Wood) and her chivalrous boyfriend Teddy (James Marsden). When we first meet them, they have been reunited and spend an idyllic day together on the beautiful range (aka Monument Valley).

But this is HBO, after all, home of Game of Thrones. Happiness is fleeting. As darkness sets, Delores has seen her mother and father killed and Teddy humiliated. She is also dragged into a barn and raped by ‘The Man in Black’ (Ed Harris), a park visitor. It then becomes clear that this nightmare is her daily scenario.

Overseeing this twisted scenario are the robots’ creators: Anthony Hopkins’ robot builder, whose constant updates slowly give the machines more memory recall than his bosses would like; Jeffrey Wright’s sympathetic robot doctor/psychiatrist, who must decide on the stability of his charges; corporate big-wig Sidse Babett Knudsen, who boasts of a bigger game-plan at play, and Simon Quarterman’s foul-mouthed script-writer, who revels in his ability to create ever more perverse scenarios for his robots to suffer.

Given that Westworld is based on the book of the same name by Jurassic Park creator Michael Crichton, it’s inevitable that the robots will turn against their guests and oppressors. The signs are there already.

Certain robots, such as Delores’ dad, are troubled by memories they can’t understand, or photos of the real world left teasingly placed in the sand. Others have developed glitches. Delores ends the episode by killing the latest fly to land on her face. It’s as chilling a moment as it is kind of thrilling.

But it’s a measure of Westworld‘s ability to toy with familiar scenarios that mankind appears to be the enemy here. The guests, thus far, are bit part players; not victims in waiting, or anyone to like or root for. The bosses, meanwhile, act like the Greek Gods on Mount Olympus, arbitrarily creating nightmare scenarios, whether driven by profit of lust. They have their reckoning coming.

Hopkins and Wright may just be the exceptions. The former clearly respects the things he has created but is waging a war against his corporate bosses over how far he is allowed to be humane. Likewise, Wright. There is an empathy here between man and robot – but it is similarly fragile. How much do the robots understand about the questions they’re being asked? Are they lying?

Westworld

And then there are characters such as The Man in Black, who seem to indulge in acts of evil for evil’s sake. For the man in black, especially, there seems to be another driving force. He wants answers and mercilessly tortures and kills robots to get them. But what exactly is his agenda? And what of the wider game hinted at by Knudsen? Is The Man In Black already playing it?

Westworld boasts a script by Jonathan Nolan (who also directed the pilot) and assistance from JJ Abrams. It already has us hooked. The questions are endless and fascinating and relate to the very meaning of what it is to be human. On the one hand, to feel (whether it’s love or loss), to create (for good means and bad), or to destroy and indulge dark desires.

Why does man like to play God? What is his endgame and what happens if and when he achieves it? And what is it about violence – be it physical or sexual – that titillates us so? Certainly, the women in Westworld have a tough existence. The rape, albeit off-screen, has already caused a stir, perhaps deservedly so. Does such an act always have to be the tipping off point for women to react in films or on TV? There are other motivating factors in rebellion.

Admittedly, Westworld does have its unsavoury elements. There is a sense of dread, heightened by the already explicit violence. Just as Game of Thrones continues to astound and enthral in terms of what it does with violence, so now Westworld appears to be following suit.

And yet there’s also a sense of wonder at where things might be heading. There are classic, even timeless questions at play here… questions that have been at the forefront of many classic science fiction greats, from Blade Runner to Ex-Machina. Yet here they also feel fresh.

We, the viewers, stand on the verge of an exciting new journey. It’ll be nightmarish, for sure. But hopefully dazzling too. There are questions we want answered, moral conundrums to solve and characters to really establish themselves in our psyche. The elements are in place. Now, let the mayhem begin.

Westworld airs on Sky Atlantic on Tuesdays, from 9pm.