This Monday, HBO will present its newest show Westworld, billed as “a dark odyssey about the dawn of artificial consciousness and the evolution of sin, exploring a world in which every human appetite, no matter how noble or depraved, can be indulged.” Inspired by the original 1973 Michael Crichton movie of the same title, HBO will kick off the ten-episode series of this Monday, Oct 3, 9am, exclusively on HBO Ch54 / 168 on SkyCable and Ch 22 on SKYDirect, with same day primetime encore at 9PM. HBO Asia and SKYCable afforded a special preview of the uncut version of the pilot Westworld episode by Executive Producers Jonathan Nolan and J.J. Abrams.
Having never seen the original cult classic, the premise of Westworld showed a lot of promise. In the future, technology reached the point where mankind developed life-like androids, or Hosts. Out of the multitude of possibilities afforded by this scientific revolution, humanity used this gift in the most predictably mundane way possible – a theme park. Possibly reflecting wealth in its excess, paying patrons can experience life in the American West, distilling the wild historical period in a meticulously controlled environment. Some came for the novelty while others delved into their hedonism, free from harm and responsibility. Everything is artificial from the horse on the plains to the Sheriff of the town. Alas, Murphy’s Law guaranteed that nothing perfect lasts, especially in science fiction.
The story revolves around three groups of characters – the Host denizens of Westworld; their visitors, known as “Newcomers;” and the people who run the entire operation. The Hosts of Westworld run the gamut of every typical Western archetype, except for the Native American Savage (for now). There are cowboys, farmers, and bandits, and more. The central Host seems to be Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood), a naïve young farmer’s daughter that has more to her to than meets the eye. She is being set up to be a catalyst for Westworld’s change. There’s a young cowboy with a chivalrous streak whose path may veer far from his original programming.
Several side characters are introduced with colorful personalities and hints of future secrets, from the “seen-it-all” prostitute to the most wanted outlaw in the land. Lastly, the mystery of the Man-in-Black (Ed Harris) piques the greatest interest. He knows more than he lets on and holds more than a few aces up his sleeves. Whether it’s for villainous or noble purposes, only future episodes can tell.
On the other side of the looking glass lie the secret “gods” that run Westworld. Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) is the taciturn and complicated creator of Westworld whose motivations may be beyond mere profit. Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) shares his passion for the development , pushing the boundaries of what Hosts could be. Other are far less altruistic in their intentions.
For Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen), efficiency is the name of the game, making sure the proverbial shit doesn’t hit the fan. She knows that what the guests want, what the shareholders want, and what the company wants are totally different. Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman) balances his creative desires for elaborate branching narratives for the Hosts and solidifying the clear line between reality and fantasy. Elsie Hughes (Shannon Woodward) & Ashley Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth) top priorities are maintenance and security, and both are more than willing to decommission rogue or faulty Hosts. As the show goes on, the glitches and errors creep in the hosts, signalling the future snowball that’s destined to come. The constant tug-of-war for influence between these characters is fascinating.
Interestingly, the presence of Newcomers is kept at a minimum, perhaps because the show is investing more on world building in this pilot episode. The Newcomers who are present seem to be little more than window dressing, displaying how innocent or disgusting the people of the future are. The diversity of the Newcomers (and of the Hosts in fact) is a minor detail that is to be commended for the showrunners. Focus on the newcomers could also shine a greater light on the general morals and attitudes of this futuristic world.
Westworld chugs along in a very slow-burn build up of its story. Since we were presented an uncut version, certain elements won’t come up on TV. Scenes that won’t make the cut would most probably be the nudity or swearing, but there are certain scenes that go longer than needed. As a pilot episode, it only scratches the surface of Westworld. It’s very deliberate with its story development, filled with blink and you’ll miss it moments. The trailer depicts how important all the characters potentially could be, despite how small a role they play in the episode. The minute and gradual breakdown of the world is fascinating, with a great misdirect and clever callbacks to earlier in the episode. Lacking a central villain at the moment, it’s interesting the moral grey area many of the characters reside in, wrapped in their hubris. Many questions remain unanswered, but, like any good thriller, all will be answered in time. Dolores, Ford, and the Man in Black are sure to be the highlights of the series.
To the keen eye, Westworld wears many of its sci-fi influences on its sleeve. The artificial world harkens back to the Matrix Trilogy and, more recently, the Hunger Games. The Man-in-Black is being built up to be a deliciously complicated character like Agent Smith from the Matrix. Some key visual cues are also very reminiscent of other movies. Although it’s always different for the newcomers and the operators of Westworld, it’s inhabitants are very much stuck in a Groundhog Day-esque loop, with slight variations to their programming, unless mandated otherwise by management. One visual reference takes a page out of the Aeon Flux opening. The world building itself is equally great, contrasting the vivid colors of the outdoor vistas with the stark darkness and sterile brightness of labs and conference rooms, not unlike the offices of Cabin in the Woods. The steady and unsettling rise of the A.I. rides on the coattails of Ghost in the Shell.
Although it sounds like an admonition, Westworld elevates itself through its top tier acting through heavyweights like Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris and promising actors like Evan Rachel Wood. The creativity of Jonathan Nolan and J.J. Abrams are on full display (and no lens flare!). The cinematography balances sweeping landscapes with intimate shots between characters. The musical scores combine traditional western & sci-fi themes with more anachronistic music like an orchestral version of Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black.” The show is an intriguing mystery, highlighting the juxtaposition of modernity and history as well as the ever-shrinking line between humanity and artificial intelligence.
“If a simulation is immersive enough, would you start discovering things about yourself that you didn’t want to know…?”
Don’t forget to catch Westworld‘s primetime premiere tonight at 9PM, exclusively on HBO Ch54 / 168 on SkyCable and Ch 22 on SKYDirect!