Up until its last half-hour when Yul Brynner’s fearsome robot gunslinger engages relentless pursuit mode, Michael Crichton’s 1973 film Westworld is a romp. Its premise—the android attractions in a high-tech theme park malfunction with deadly consequences—may be nightmarish, but the film is rollicking. There’s a lively bar brawl set to old-timey piano, a cartoonish prison-break, a comedy underdog who appoints himself sheriff… Any blood we see is poster paint red and the brothel scenes now feel as chaste as Sunday school.
HBO’s TV adaptation goes a different route. Devoid of high-jinks, it starts serious and stays that way. This is cerebral sci-fi that asks more complex questions than “what if the humanoid attractions in a high-tech theme park malfunctioned with deadly consequences?”
The new Westworld picks up all the philosophical and ethical threads of modern AI fiction and reality—notions of freedom, identity, morality and power—and adds to them. Grief and memory are also themes, while the competing priorities of the theme park’s various behind-the-scenes departments (narrative vs finance vs auteur directorial vision) make for a neat allegory about movie-making.
Or more properly, TV-making. Even if creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy are guilty of describing it as one, this is no movie. That’s the point. It takes and expands Crichton’s feature-film into something that couldn’t fit into even 2016’s flabby cinematic run-times. The first season is ten episodes and judging by the first four previewed to press, you wouldn’t want it any shorter.
At any rate, when a TV producer says they’ve made a ten-hour film they really mean that they’ve made ten hours of TV they want you to pay attention to.
Westworld deserves and requires that privilege. Its first four scripts are finely wrought and intellectually ambitious. The extended length season opener establishes the repetitious mechanics of the theme park, a giant sandbox in which AI “hosts” indistinguishable from humans circulate on narrative loops for the benefit of visitors who come to play out their fantasies, without becoming repetitive itself.
The dialogue is satisfyingly layered with irony and allusion. An early conversation uses the image of a “Judas Steer,” the bull who the rest of a migrating herd will follow all the way to the slaughterhouse, to draw comparisons between the hosts and cattle. (Even the name “host” brings simultaneously to mind images of heavenly creatures and an archaic army.)
The park characters speak in hackneyed Western movie cliche about varmints and there being bandits in them there hills, relying on our familiarity with the genre first to recognise their speech, and then to spot any slight, uncanny shifts in it.
Subtext has been layered in, too. One conversation sees a host reminisce about his misspent youth to his “daughter” who fondly asks him “Whatever happened to that fearsome neer-do-well?”
“He disappeared the day I became your father,” comes his answer, both trite sentimentality and, as it turns out, the truth in a world where hosts are rotated around the park playing various characters over the years in different stories.
That means when Evan Rachel Wood’s Delores Abernathy, the wholesome girl next-door built to offer guests a different flavor from the town’s willing prostitutes or Thandie Newton’s worldly brothel madam Maeve, speaks like a brainwashed cult member it’s not bad writing but exactly the opposite. Delores’ speeches on the true paths in life and finding the goodness in the world are deliberately banal to emphasise her programming. Her golden-hearted persona is an artificial construct. Does it really reflect her true self?
That question brings us to Westworld’s drop of genius, the angle that makes this much more than an extended remake of Crichton’s dystopian feature: the hosts and not the guests are the real protagonists.
We follow Delores and Maeve’s perspective on what happens in the park in much more detail than the perspective of the wealthy holidaymakers who come to use and, depressingly often, abuse them. The result is less “high-tech theme park robots malfunction” than “people begin to notice inconsistencies about their world that cause them to question their sanity and identity.”
It’s a reversal of the original concept, and quite a brilliant one. Whether it does or not, it very much feels as though a debt is owed to Ron D. Moore’s Battlestar Galactica.
It especially works because the host performances, and by extension the directing, are so strong. There’s no manic, robotic ticking or exaggerated powering down, yet the actors convey a real sense of otherness in their host states. Thandie Newton is good, but Evan Rachel Wood in particular gives a subtle, complex performance, revealing Delores’ radiant programmed self and its emerging fractures at the same time.
Wood is fantastic both in the park and out of it, where the second half of the story takes place. Our lead there is Jeffrey Wright’s Bernard Lowe, head of Programming and the chief conduit to Sir Anthony Hopkins’ Robert Ford, the park’s original creator and Creative Director. They’re capably joined by Borgen’s Sidse Babett Knudson as head of Security Theresa (originally Homeland and Lord Of The Rings’ Miranda Otto, before she left the project), who keeps up the series’ tonal chill with a cool, assured performance.
Lowe is contained and engaging in a part that recalls his recent role as tech genius Beetee in The Hunger Games franchise. (The 3D map used by the ‘game-makers’ to control events in the park is also reminiscent of that series). His scenes with Wood are careful and captivating, but its his interactions with Hopkins that you find yourself waiting for.
Hopkins lends a certain nobility to Westworld. His Robert Ford is a contemplative genius, a mysterious man with a touch of melancholy and an edge that could be sinister or heroic depending on who, or what, you are. “Don’t get in my way” he smiles at one point, a warning you feel you’d be a fool not to heed.
The final main character is played by Ed Harris, another stand-out who dominates every scene he’s in, regardless of what he does in it. HBO’s reported $54 million for this season has been well spent when it comes to casting.
And to setting and effects, it almost goes without saying. There’s no poster-paint red blood here. The gore looks as uncomfortably real as the deserts and mountain ridges, which seem to extend endlessly in the many landscape shots. The sci-fi interiors are stark and minimal like expensive car showrooms with glass-walled offices and sleek decor that plays well against the park’s dusty town saloons and cowpoke camps.
Gore is plentiful. Blood bubbles from gunshot wounds and sliced throats spray fans of the stuff. A head is staved almost completely in, a drill disappears nauseatingly up a nostril. Game Of Thrones fans tuning in hoping for violence will get splashes of what they’re after in between the discussions on moral philosophy, but this isn’t pulp TV. It’s poised, brainy and dignified, or as dignified as a show can be with the inevitable HBO array of arses and tits.
If Westworld lacks anything, it’s leavening humor. There’s no mordant Tyrion Lannister and Varys pairing to blast fresh air into its hermetically sealed sci-fi chamber. So far, only the “rich assholes” paying $40k a day to vacation in the park are having any fun, and as mentioned, they’re not our guides to this world. That’s no real criticism at this point. It’s simply serious stuff, treated seriously.
If Nolan, Joy and executive producer JJ Abrams keep up this early quality, there’s scope for a continuing series here, a rare beast that can promise action, sex, philosophy, intrigue and be many things to many people. For its fifty-odd million, HBO has bought itself a two-for-one bargain in the form of a fine-looking period drama and a smart, high-end sci-fi.
A rarer achievement than that, if it stays this good, Westworld is set to join M*A*S*H, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Parenthood, Fargo and select others in the annals of film-to-TV adaptations that don’t just earn their keep on the small screen, but excel.
Westworld premieres on HBO on Sunday, October 2nd at 9pm.