This article contains information that could be considered too revealing according to our spoiler policy. Proceed with caution. You can't unsee it!Reason The show doesn't premiere until October 2; we got screeners.
This article has some content you might find disturbing!Reason A robot's barely visible genitals.
Will You Enjoy Yourself In Westworld's Hellish Amusement Park?
Can a semi-classic sci-fi movie become HBO's newest drama hit?
What Is This Thing?
In 1973 Michael Crichton wrote and directed a sci-fi movie called Westworld, about an amusement park that drops people into a fully immersive experience populated by lifelike robots. Guests are free to live their Wild West fantasies, killing and screwing androids with abandon, until -- oops! -- some of the robots gain consciousness. Then a bloodbath ensues.
That basic premise has been broadly adapted for HBO: the new Westworld is still set in a western-themed, fully immersive amusement park, and there's still an issue with robots attaining self-awareness. Now, however, the focus is less on them becoming mindless killers and more on them grasping that there's more to the world than they've been allowed to see. The humans and the robots are thus locked in a battle for control, and their struggle is girded by deeper questions about what it means to be free.
When Is It On?
Sunday nights at 9 PM ET on HBO starting October 2.
Why Was It Made Now?
With the Game Of Thrones end date officially on the books, HBO needs another prestigious, genre-skewing drama to anchor its Sunday programming block, scare up Emmy nominations, and make the network the focus of cultural chatter. In other words, it needs to steal the heat back from FX, and a show like this could help.
What's Its Pedigree?
Take a seat, because this is gonna take a while. First of all, the series is co-created by Jonathan "Brother of Christopher" Nolan, who co-wrote most of his brother's films. It's executive produced by J.J. Abrams and his frequent producing partner Bryan Burk. Plus, one of the episodes was directed by Jonny Campbell, who directed HBO's excellent miniseries adaptation of The Causal Vacancy. (Okay, that last one may only be exciting to me...but still!)
Then there's the cast, in which every damn role is played by somebody notable. The star is arguably Evan Rachel Wood as Dolores, a robot (or "host") who lives out a variety of tragic love stories every day, then gets reprogrammed to forget them. She spends much of the pilot looking elegantly forlorn, like so:
We also get Jeffrey Wright as a Westworld programmer who knows that the latest software upgrade has allowed some of the robots (including maybe Dolores) to start accessing their old memories. And then there's Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Ford, the guy who created that upgrade (and also founded the park). Apparently, he wants to make the hosts more human.
A little further down the roll call, we get Sidse Babett Knudsen (star of the amazing Danish series Borgen) as Theresa Cullen, whose job is keeping rogue robots in line. And let's not forget Thandie Newton as Maeve, a host who works in a saloon; or Shannon Woodward (late of Raising Hope) as a technician who seems to have sexual feelings for some of the android ladies.
Finally, Ed Harris and James Marsden play roles that shouldn't be discussed until after the pilot has aired. But they are really interesting characters, I promise!
As you may have read, I thought the original movie sucked, and because this show was plagued with delays and scandals, I wasn't expecting much. So imagine my delight when the pilot turned out to be fantastic! In just over an hour, it offers me everything I need to make me care. To wit:
It clearly lays out the rules of the park, letting us see that hosts can't hurt the guests, and that hosts who are hurt get refurbished (and memory-wiped) every night. We also get a sense of how large the park is (very large!) and how many people it takes to run things behind the scenes. Best of all, we meet the people who write the recurring storylines for the robots -- the tiny dramas they play out day after day, leaving room for guests to jump in and participate. Nothing is over-explained, but I get enough to feel grounded. And at the end of the episode, when a robot character kills a fly, I realize how much that implies. The hosts aren't supposed to hurt any living thing, so the death of this little insect is a very big deal, and I only know that because the rules have been made so clear.
I also get an immediate sense of the show's larger aims. The show opens with Dolores getting grilled about how much she knows, whether or not she loves the world she lives in, and how often she'd like to serve the newcomers to her town. (In other words: she's being interrogated to make sure she's still a servile droid.) The phrasing of these questions is really eerie, and so are the arguments among the staff about whether Dr. Ford has let the robots get too human. Maybe it's time to walk back their sophistication, they say, so that the guests don't freak. And clearly, we're being set up to explore the human desire for control, the dark desire to subjugate others, and the impossible question of what makes a being "alive." I'm into it.
I'm also into the production design, which is breathtaking from start to finish. The sweeping western plains crackle with energy, and so do the underground rooms where robots are built, treated, dismantled, and recalibrated. There's a recurring milk image in the pilot that's fascinating, too. One rebel robot keeps killing fellow hosts in grotesque ways he wasn't programmed for, and he likes to pour milk on their corpses. Meanwhile, as robots are built, they're dipped in some kind of milk bath...
...which is weird and beautiful. Add all these elements together, and you've got my attention.
Can it last, though? In my experience, shows like these are great when they're setting up a world, but when it's time to actually tell an ongoing story, they get a little creaky. (I'm thinking of The Walking Dead, Heroes, Lost, and Orphan Black, though that show got back on track.) Once we're past the novelty of this universe, how long must we stretch out the robot revolt, or whatever ensues? Will action be supplanted by self-serious philosophizing? A milk bath is beautiful now, but if the show becomes nothing BUT milk baths, I'm going to lose it.
I've been burned before, is what I'm saying.
For now, though, I'm happy to keep watching. There are so many damn people in this show that they won't run out of interesting exposition and backstory for at least five episodes!