Television Review – Westworld Season 1 (2016)

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It has become something of a recent trend for TV bosses, perhaps struggling to find new ideas for shows, to look into the films of the past for inspiration. This dive into the past has resulted in a wave of mostly less than stellar TV shows that attempt to use viewer’s nostalgia as a cheap ploy for ratings.

When American network HBO announced that it would be creating a TV adaptation of 1973 cult classic Westworld I was somewhat hesitant, that was until I heard who was spearheading the project. Acclaimed screenwriter Jonathan Nolan (co-writer of Interstellar, Memento and two of the three Dark Knight films, all directed by his brother Christopher) and pop culture wunderkind J.J. Abrams, take the reins of this ambitious retelling Michael Crichton’s film, that manages to expand upon the basic premise of the original story to create something truly incredible.

The series takes place in the titular Westworld, an elaborate theme park populated by robots or “hosts” who aid the parks wealthy guests indulge their deepest and darkest desires of gun-slinging and debauchery without fear of reprisal or punishment. However, several “hosts” begin to become increasingly aware that their world is not what it appears and are some are becoming frustrated with their repetitive existence. As the robots become more sentient, the scientists and managers of the park grow increasingly concerned about the mysterious plans of Robert Ford, the brilliant mind who created the park, and what his upcoming “storyline” holds for the future of the park.

This show is possibly one of the most difficult I’ve had to review due to the sheer number of potential spoilers that could spill out. If you are going to watch this show I recommend this to you, watch it now and avoid everything about it on the internet, and while I will refrain from spoilers in this review, I still maintain that this is a show that you should watch knowing as little as possible going in.

Even the performances of the cast are somewhat difficult to discuss and examine, with the best acting of the series taking place in deep spoiler territory. Needless to say, though, the performances from the cast (and what a large cast it is) are nothing short of phenomenal.

The most familiar face is that of Anthony Hopkins as Dr Robert Ford the creator of Westworld. As Ford, Hopkins dominates the screen with his commanding and mysterious presence, with nearly every word and every expression feeling loaded with hundreds of hidden and complex meanings.

Hopkins’s best moments are when shows off the extent of his power over the park, able to make things move or stop with the wave of a hand or a point of his finger or by simply walking through it, like Ford is God and Westworld is his Eden, a place where his power is absolute.

Hopkins plays the character to near perfection, although he does veer into his old Hannibal Lecter persona a little bit in his more sinister moments, but regardless of this, he gives a brilliant performance that is probably my favourite of the series.

Also on fine form is the always great Ed Harris as The Man in Black, a sadistic and ruthless killer whose actions are made more horrifying by the fact that he is very much human. Harris is a fearsome presence and is perhaps the perfect example what kind of evil desires the park allows otherwise “decent” people to indulge in. I wish I could divulge more about his character, but his is one that provides one of the series greatest reveals, so I won’t spoil it here.

The breakout stars of the series are without a doubt Evan Rachel Wood and Thandie Newton as Delores and Maeve respectively, both long-time “hosts” who begin to realise what the artificiality of the world they live in and of what the real meaning of their existence entails.

Wood is a likeable and sympathetic protagonist as Delores, initially appearing as your standard “country girl” and feeling very sweet and polite, but her kind exterior hides a mysterious past that I dare won’t spoil, with the moments in which she switches from panicked and crying to robotic coldness in an instant are truly brilliant.

Newton probably gives the best performance of the series after Hopkins, with her leading the charge of robots becoming more sentient and frustrated with the tedious nature of their existence, with her character increasingly becoming a dominating and fearsome figure, yet not to the point where she becomes unsympathetic with her tragic past making for one of the series finest moments.

I could write pages about the various brilliant performances especially those of Jeffery Wright and Jimmi Simpson, but I honestly can’t divulge too much because of spoilers, needless to say, watch the series and really pay attention to all the small details of the characters, because this is a show packed to the rafters with twists and mystery.

This series is probably one of the most ambitious currently airing on TV perhaps even more so than long-running HBO behemoth Game of Thrones, with everything in Westworld feeling truly grand and cinematic in scope.

The visual style is outstanding full of sweeping beautiful shots of deserts and mountains; with carefully chosen lighting making for an excellent visual contrast between the bright and colourful world of the Old West environment and the cold dark nature of the futuristic labs and offices that run maintain it, all of this aided by some truly outstanding production design which make the Old West sets really feel like a real breathing, albeit artificial, world.

Even the music is something to really praise, with Ramin Djawadi (who also does the music for Thrones) who brilliantly alternates the musical styles between the settings, with the western moments being scored with the traditional guitars, strings and honky-tonk pianos, while the futuristic labs are scored with more electronic elements that often feel more dark and ominous.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the music though is the clever manner in which the series remakes music from more recent decades like “Paint it Black” by The Rolling Stones or “Black Hole Sun” by Soundgarden into a 19th century style as they would sound in the Old-West, which each new song being a nice little challenge for yourself to try and figure out who they’re covering in each episode.

Easily the most impressive thing about the series is that it is far more than a simple retelling of Michael Crichton’s original 1973 film which it so easily could have been. One should remember that the original film is, in the end, a fairly standard “robots go crazy and kill the guests” sci-fi film. The series, instead of retelling this simplistic story, brilliantly uses it as a jumping-off point to take a deeper look at more complex themes such as identity, humanity, artificial intelligence and free will among many others themes to create something far more original than a simple TV redo of a cult film.

Westworld is a true epic of the small screen, telling complex stories with complex characters that had me hooked from the opening minutes. Some might find the fairly slow start of things and the numerous, seemingly unconnected, plots to be frustrating, but trust me, stick with it and you’ll be enjoying what is possibly one of the finest television shows currently on the box and a worthy successor to Game of Thrones as HBO’s best and most epic show.

With this first season offering a mere sliver the nearly limitless possibilities that this series could offer and with season 2 due in 2018 I can’t wait to saddle up for another trip to Westworld.

[rating=5] | Graeme Robertson

Sci-fi, Drama, Mystery | USA, 2016 | Sky Atlantic | Season One (10 Episodes) | Dir. Various | Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright, Ed Harris, James Marsden, Thandie Newton, Anthony Hopkins,