‘Westworld’ Premiere Review: HBO’s New Sci-Fi Series Was Worth the Wait
Michael Crichton’s 1973 sci-fi film is something of a cult classic, offering an early blueprint for Jurassic Park with its tale of scientists playing God at an ill-advised theme park run amok. (Seriously, what on earth happened during Crichton’s family vacations?) Crichton’s campy romp through a futuristic resort similarly serves as a blueprint for HBO’s Westworld, which takes a more thoughtful and unsettling approach in its inversion of the ’73 film, presenting the A.I. (or “hosts”) as the protagonists of the series.
Created by Jonathan Nolan (who also directs the premiere) and Lisa Joy and executive produced by J.J. Abrams, Westworld is an engrossing expansion on Crichton’s original premise, a clever and disquieting exploration of human nature as layered as the brain itself. In the series premiere, “The Original,” the viewer is introduced first to the “hosts” — the artificially intelligent designs of Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), the park’s pensive creative director with a mischievous twinkle in his eye; a more refined and intellectual version of Richard Attenborough’s John Hammond.
It’s an inherently satirical notion that people would choose to use this technology to literally go backward instead of forward. And instead of using that experience to enrich their own lives, people travel to Westworld to liberate themselves from the constraints of morality. Here they can be their basest selves, living out fantasies of murder and sexual exploitation with no consequence.
Led by Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores, the hosts are seemingly unaware of their artificiality, able to converse with their creators via the use of key programming phrases that appear to keep them teetering precariously on the edge of self-awareness. Unlike Crichton’s film, which used park guests as a means to introduce us to this entertainment concept of the not-so-distant future, Westworld begins from the point-of-view of the hosts, who spend their days trapped in interconnected narrative loops, the sole purpose of their existence to satisfy the primitive whims of guests — which the hosts view merely as “newcomers” to their town.
“The Original” intriguingly sets the stage for what is, I presume, a season-long arc involving Ed Harris’ mysterious Gunslinger. Unlike Yul Brenner’s sinister A.I. in Crichton’s film, Harris’ version is far more enigmatic. Though what he is exactly is never made explicit, he does have a sense of self-awareness, and Harris’ Gunslinger mostly serves as an agent of chaos — a devious pot-stirrer who knows how to avoid detection, lest he be taken out of commission by the powers-that-be.
The premiere is deftly split between the theme park (with special attention paid to Dolores’ father and Thandie Newton’s shrewd saloon prostitute) and the employees of the corporation that runs Westworld: In addition to Hopkins’ Dr. Ford, the corporate end includes the fantastic Sidse Babett Knudsen (Borgen) as Theresa Cullen, the astute operations leader who could best be described as someone who is not here for any of your s—. Jeffrey Wright is perfectly cast as the scholarly Bernard Lowe, Westworld’s empathetic and analytical head of programming.
Westworld’s first episode could very well serve as a tantalizing standalone film, one that features a compelling conflict and a climax that’s absolutely haunting — and would be even more so if left unresolved. That plot revolves around Dolores, her would-be cowboy hero, Teddy (James Marsden), and her father, Peter Abernathy (Louis Herthum doing an incredible William Hurt impression), whose chance discovery of a peculiar object triggers the A.I. version of a stroke. Abernathy is decommissioned, though not before it’s heavily implied that this is no simple coincidence or random defect.
The hosts’ unwitting captivity in a manufactured narrative loop serves as a transparent metaphor — or wry commentary, perhaps — for the ways that human beings willfully repeat the same mistakes. That fairly obvious connection is used as an entry-level allegory, gently priming viewers for the more cerebral meditations to follow. Just as the repetitive lives of the hosts are part of a larger, interconnected narrative, so are the show’s thematic elements, which are woven together to create a complex and cerebral web. There’s much ado about “aberrant behavior” among the A.I. population, and, like most of the show’s concepts — both spoken and implied — that could easily describe the behavior of their human counterparts. These are basic philosophical concepts, sure, but that doesn’t make them any less fascinating.
Like last year’s brilliant Ex Machina, Westworld concerns itself with the creation and manipulation of artificial intelligence for human satisfaction, and though Alex Garland’s film was primarily preoccupied with the scientific application of misogyny, the HBO series does touch on that concept via characters like Thandie Newton’s Maeve and Angela Sarafyan’s Clementine — local prostitutes whose entire function is to sexually satisfy the guests. And while HBO has come under fire for its depiction of sexual violence, Westworld approaches that element with some caution; the brutality of Dolores’ traumatic experience is viscerally insinuated but never fetishized or exploited. The thematic implications are expressed without feeling too exposed.
Suggesting that A.I. is or could be superior to human life isn’t particularly novel, but Nolan & Co.’s approach to the subject matter — and its thematic heft, specifically — is undeniably compelling. As the creative team behind the theme park seeks answers to how and why these aberrations are occurring, the executive branch looks to willfully ignore them, happy enough to decommission the defective creations — not unlike the way some people choose to blissfully ignore life’s more challenging and unpleasant truths.
Mostly, though, Westworld presents a familiar and deeply unsettling line of inquiry with regards to our obsession with creating artificial intelligence and the catharsis of man as deity. It seems cruel to give these creations all aspects of life except the one that might prevent us from exploiting and traumatizing them.
That notion is at the heart of the episode’s most chilling moment, as Dolores reveals what her father whispered just before he was brought in for interrogation: “These violent delights have violent ends.” Another transparent meditation, but no less unnerving in its suggestion of the havoc to come. Meanwhile, in the next room, Abernathy delivers a poetic threat by way of Shakespeare and Gertrude Stein — something that Dr. Ford is all-too-eager to dismiss as a simple glitch, despite how perfectly terrifying it was. In a world where everything happens by design, can coincidence ever be a valid explanation?
It remains to be seen how Westworld will handle the many questions it proffers. For now, Westworld appears to have its mind in the right place: It’s a sci-fi version of Deadwood where the dangers are entirely existential — and thus more insidious. And it doesn’t seem overtly concerned with providing definitive answers; to do so would be to play God. As Michael Crichton taught us, that’s never a good idea.
Westworld premieres Sunday, October 2 at 9PM on HBO.