Series Review: Westworld (Season 1)
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|The Unreal Film Festival is owned and managed by Cellardoor Cinema. Copyright 2016
I do not believe in the immortality of the soul, but I am reassured by a plurality of genes.
Conditioning, genetics and environment inform choices we think we make, so much so that I feel
there's another me out there in the billions, someone roughly equivalent who might be around
when I'm gone. And if those traits are not concentrated in a single person but spread out, I'll take it.
Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy's remake of Michael Crichton's Westworld, about a theme park
where A.I. cowboys provide Wild West roleplay until they gain sentience and start killing people, is
not about robots but recognizing how heavy influences play on you. Your geography, your time
period, your culture, and the money you were born into or not plot your every move, and you
rationalize their thrusts. The series’ slowly building steam and open-ended questions make it an
easy access narrative for theory, philosophizing, and sci-fi fun such as my previous statements. At
times its plot lacks drama, as we watch robots enact scenarios which have no weight in the actual
story. At times it fails to give new character to the usual robots-are-people-too storyline. But at its
best it's like Phillip K. Dick or Nolan and his brother's Memento: the awakening of a consciousness
to subtle control of its choice.
Star android Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and sympathetic park visitor William (Jimmi
Simpson) are off on a quest to find a mythical maze in the desert. Ed Harris’ nameless Man in
Black is a fun spin on Yul Brynner’s original Terminator character, this time a human serially killing
robots in an attempt to either find an easter egg or awaken their memory of past lives. There is
smart commentary on video games, especially MMORPGs. Joy has said she was inspired by
playing Grand Theft Auto. (In homage she cast Steven Ogg, Trevor from the game, as a robot.)
My favorite sequences are of Maeve (Thandie Newton) remembering the countless shootouts
in her brothel, slowly figuring out Indian myths are about cleanup crews, and her stunned walk
through sterile scientific halls set to Radiohead. The mysteries that slowly blossomed over the
season finally fulfill the promise of producer J.J. Abrams’ previous Lost. Unlike it, they were careful
buildup that led to careful payoff.
I wanted more of the uncanny and weird: cowboys drinking milk that flows out of their bullet
holes, or sitting around a campfire for days because their woodcutter malfunctioned. (Having
recently fallen in love with Deadwood’s utterly fleshed-out cowboys it's hard to come to a similar
world so built on obvious artifice and repetition.)
I watched Episode 5's orgy scene with my parents. My mom left the room, saying it was
pornography. It's not, but it's hard to tell if its general lameness was due to HBO nudity quotas or
an attempt to recreate how unfulfilling an A.I. brothel might be. (The same is true of bad acting or
clichés elsewhere: I just assume everyone’s a robot.) Westworld is at least equal opportunity in
showing both male and female bodies, and sometimes departing from perfect physical examples.
There is a wonderful oddity in seeing an actor's tiny human imperfections of skin in HD and
considering them something that would not be planned in a generic western denizen: fuzzy hair on
a woman's lip, naked back girth in an older male. Or in looking into an extra’s eyes and imagining
not a backstory, but lifelessness.
Watching the original film recently again I was surprised at its worth. The movie ends on the
face of Richard Benjamin, the thinking man’s nebbish (who Simpson has gone out of his way to
praise). It frames Westworld as a place for his character to go “be a man,” then creates a horror
story for a shy nerd: the dangers of the responsibility you take on when you stand up for yourself.
There, being a man ends in mass murder.
Here, Westworld is explicitly feminist, putting Maeve and Dolores out front as heroes
subverting their oppression, with masculine codes damaging William’s empathy for them. This is
good but the show doesn’t go all the way. It kneecaps the oomph by taking too much of their will
and distributing it among their male programmers. On the other hand, one of Westworld’s chief
pleasures is watching Anthony Hopkins give evil scientist monologues about human
The show has told us even the most passive and brainwashed robots have complex interiors,
even if those interiors are not unique or out of whole cloth. In the future it needs to demonstrate
that by marrying its more generic elements, its violence and cheese, to its empathy.
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Program Creators: Jonathan Nolan, Lisa Joy
Starring: Evan Rachel Wood, Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Jeffrey Wright