We are all too familiar with tales of machines rising up to exact bloody revenge against us humans. TV and cinematic history is littered with unheeded warnings against placing too much trust in those sleekly-encased bundles of wires and circuits we treat as servants. We’ve seen it in everything from Ex Machina, Terminator and Blade Runner, right the way back to the original Westworld in 1978, which inspired this latest techno-fear thriller. Of course, this being a ten-part series, the new Westworld has far more cerebral intentions than Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park-dry run, which saw a malfunctioning robot gunslinger run amok in a Wild West theme park. When things start to go wrong here – a boy do things go wrong – it’s human nature itself that’s under the microscope.
Dubbed “a place with unlimited possibilities,” the eponymous theme park, lavishly rendered to resemble the old west, is a fantasy playground where wealthy visitors can shoot and shag their way to happiness, safe in the knowledge that their synthetic automaton Hosts are programmed not to retaliate. They’re not even allowed to hurt a fly, no matter how many times one lands on their face in the service of a bludgeoning metaphor. It’s not such a far-fetched set-up as it might sound. After all, we live in a world where certain folk are perfectly happy to romp around Grand Theft Auto stealing cars and assaulting passers-by; it doesn’t feel like too much of a stretch to imagine those same listless individuals swapping control pads for fleshy avatars to live out their depraved fantasies.
It doesn’t take an intellect comparable to that of the scientists responsible for creating these passive androids to work out what co-writers Jonathan Nolan and Lucy Joy are getting at here. Westworld revels in meddling with our perceptions, forcing us to ask: who are the real monsters here? In one uncomfortable scene, for example, we’re led to believe the human is James Marsden’s chivalrous out-of-towner only to be sickened by the revelation that it is in fact the vile Man in Black (a viciously camp Ed Harris), who promptly drags an innocent young woman to a barn to be raped. It’s also important to remember that it’s the human Newcomers who are playing roles here; the robots remain true to who they are – or at least who their programming tells them they are.
The design of both the old west village and the dark, seedy control room where a troop of egg heads orchestrate these violent fantasies are exquisitely stunning (as they should be, given the first episode alone cost a reported $20 million) and the cast is uniformly superb, especially Evan Rachel Wood who is astonishing as sweet-natured Host Dolores, who begins to “question the nature of her reality”. Yet there’s something not quite right about the series – and I don’t just mean the clunky projections of doom like “They all rebel eventually.” The plot is generously layered with such warning’s about what’s to come, but there’s no suggestion things are heading to a place we haven’t been before.
The central conceit sees a bunch of Hosts updated to include memories of their pasts, called “reveries” by Anthony Hopkins’ obligatory mad-scientist-with-a-god-complex Robert Ford. It’s shouldn’t come as much of a shock to say this meddling with sentience eventually leads to the bots getting a bit killy as they start to recall the numerous horrors inflicted upon them by their human guests, a story we’ve heard umpteen times before. And for all it’s pontificating on the nature of humanity, Westworld struggles to find anything new to say about the subject. Apparently, deep down humans are just vicious, self-indulgent little shits, and playing god has violent consequences. Who knew?
To paraphrase Dolores’ opening soliloquy, there’s ugliness to be seen in this world – baseness and boobies are plentiful while women are almost entirely dismissed as sex objects or damsels (or both). But there’s also beauty to be found in the exquisite cinematography and tremendous acting performances. Whether you enjoy this new Westworld will largely depend on which of these you choose to see.