Article first published as WESTWORLD Review on Seat42F.
HBO’s latest big-budget, high-concept series, mentioned by many as intended to hang onto the Game of Thrones audience at the conclusion of that show, is WESTWORLD. Set in a future time, scientists have created an amusement park full of highly realistic robots that live out stories in an old American West setting, and guests can pay to visit and interact within it. The adventure is completely safe, as while the guests can “kill” the robots (which are back to work the next day), the visitors themselves cannot be harmed. But will something go wrong?
My first thought after watching this was that this is Jurassic Park in the Old West, sans the dinosaurs. That’s funny because, while I didn’t realize at it at the time, HBO’s WESTWORLD is based on the first film written and directed by Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton. And yes, they are essentially the same story, a fantastic theme park that is supposed to be very safe, but turns out not to be. I won’t say all hell breaks loose in the pilot, but the seeds are planted and it’s certain that’s exactly where this is going. Which I feel comfortable spoiling because not only is that the plot of the well-reviewed 1973 film of the same name, but that is the entire premise of the show.
Of course, this raises all sorts of questions. Does Chaos Theory mean that everything must go wrong? Or is there someone behind the problems? Is it right to keep robots as essentially unaware slaves, or once they reach a certain level of sophistication, should they be considered individuals with their own rights and freedoms? What kind of societal changes might you bring about if you allow people to murder and steal in a theme park? Have humans reached the end of their evolution?
Because this is HBO, and because this is a long-form television show, I expect many of those questions and more will be dealt with as we go forward. While the pilot is mainly focused on more immediate action, there is enough of that stuff present that one expects it to be a part of the foundation. That, and the first installment is just great storytelling, which a compelling, intense introduction to the world. Plus there’s nudity. If it’s on HBO, there will be lots of nudity, and WESTWORLD seems to have more than most programs on the network.
The cast is also terrific. It includes Anthony Hopkins (Hannibal) as the creator of, Ed Harris (Gravity) as a guest that seems to be testing the park’s limits, Sidse Babett Knudsen (Borgen) as the manager of the attraction, Jeffrey Wright (Boardwalk Empire) and Shannon Woodward (Raising Hope) as scientists, James Marsden (X-Men) as a classic hero-type, and Evan Rachel Wood (True Blood), Thandie Newton (Rogue), Rodrigo Santoro (Lost), and Angela Sarafyan (Paranoia), among others, as robots. This is not a complete listing, by any means, but gives you a taste of the talent present, and most of those above get really neat moments early on that prove they deserve to be here.
The production is terrific. The town feels real, and while it’s revealed very early on that it is a construct, extended scenes in the park can leave you immersed in that world-within-a-world almost completely. The design, both in and out of, is spectacular, which lots of cool detail and a fully-realized setting. It is also clear that the writing is smart, a metaphor with a player piano being used perhaps a bit too often, but certainly apt in the situation.
I think WESTWORLD is just terrific, and immediately want to keep watching. I don’t know if it will satisfy Game of Thrones fans, with its lack of deaths (I assume, since they can build new robots at any time) and sci-fi, rather than fantasy bend, but I can’t imagine it won’t have a passionate audience. Let’s hope it’s a sizeable one.
WESTWORLD premieres October 2nd at 9/8c.