A Look at HBO’s New Series, Westworld
Westworld (2016), a new HBO series and remake of the 1973 sci-fi thriller, tells the story of an American future in which an android theme park set in stunning Monument Valley draws wealthy visitors into a roleplay experience of pleasure devoid of consequence. But when the park’s attractions begin to accrue more human characteristics and go off script, discrepancies become apparent. Revolution is in the air.
Westworld simultaneously invests in the spectacle of a nostalgic and violent past while questioning, very poetically, the moral responsibility between human creator and (soon to be monster?) creation. Or is the creator the monster? Here the wild west is no longer a frontier in which settlers struggle to survive, but a robotic imitation of frontier life promised to repeat each day like that of a game in which people are players and the settlers operate as robotic components. We are given access to both the facade of the theme park and the control center atop one of the desert plateaus, observing interactions between androids (hosts) played by Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, and James Marsden; visitors of the park (guests); and the operators of the park played by Jeffrey Wright and Sidse Babett Knudsen, including the inventor, Dr. Robert Ford—no doubt an homage to the Western film director John Ford and industrialist Henry Ford—played by Anthony Hopkins.
In the first two episodes, establishing the normality of control and its subtle but soon to be unraveling, the series successfully questions accountability and the morality surrounding pleasure when interacting with increasingly human-like machines. The special effects, representations of an advanced technology, and scenery create an eerie juxtaposition between real and artificial. While rich in reference to artistic history, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” (the primary symbol of the show) and Shakespeare, the accumulation of themes—consumerism, western, science fiction, horror, imitation—feel refreshing and new. It thrillingly borders the line between Body Worlds (reminiscent in the intro credits), Brave New World, and Jurassic Park.
On first viewing, I can’t help but envision what lies outside the park, beyond the control center. At this point in the dystopian future, we glimpse only the wealthy inhabitants, their products, and their desire for roleplay in an imitation of life. In advertisements and sneak peaks, we see the Westworld park begin to unravel as the androids preserve memory and gain self-awareness. Will the series allow us outside the sphere of the park? Confining us here provides an intense focus and sense of insider and outsider, allowing us to side most often with the android victims, specifically Dolores, an innocent see-the-good-in-all farm maiden, played by Evan Rachel Wood.
Overall the series is very promising, displaying a handle on its writing, special effects, and purpose. The gruesomeness of some of the scenes is earned by heightening the stakes for our potential robotic heroes and demonizing the more villain-like visitors, such as the Man in Black played by Ed Harris, for their insatiable drive. But through introductions of characters like William played by Jimmi Simpson in Episode 2, a first-time visitor and sympathetic character less interested in the violent and erotic, the show promises complex character development and interaction on both sides. If you are at all interested in any one of the significant themes that Westworld sandwiches together, then the first episode is well worth your while.