The premise for HBO’s “Westworld” sounds like a bad situation comedy — robot cowboys entertain the rich at a futuristic theme park. There are showdowns and shootouts, and hilarity ensues when the guests fall in love with the coy robot ladies.
But “Westworld” is an arguably brilliant serial science fiction thriller, far transcending its gimmicky central plot contrivance. It is occasionally weighted down by some challenges with pacing, story structure and exposition. But I still loved it enough to get hooked on it immediately, and I’d give it a 9 out of 10.
I think it’s the smartest science fiction show I’ve seen in a long time. Its brilliance doesn’t stem from its kitsch premise. (I haven’t seen the original 1973 film based on Michael Crichton’s screenplay, but I’ve seen it lampooned at least once.) It generally doesn’t extend from the show’s many twists and surprises, however well executed they are. Nor does it stem from the show’s ambitious discussions of the nature of consciousness.
Its brilliance, in my opinion, stems from its nuanced and surprisingly disturbing depiction of human evil. Of course there’s the obvious — the theme park exposes human depravity by allowing people to rob, rape and murder lifelike human surrogates with impunity. But there is far more that the show has to say. To get a sense of it, you have to watch the entire 10-episode season, and see several key character arcs reach completion. One of these arcs was so dark and cruelly contemplative that it’s stayed with me long after I watched the final episode.
The show is well made at every level. It’s gorgeously shot, at locations throughout California, Utah and Arizona. The special effects are great. Anthony Hopkins is characteristically perfect as the park’s patriarch, and Jeffrey Wright is terrific as his well meaning right hand. (That actor is starting to grow on me.) The entire cast is quite good — even those in relatively minor roles, like the two hapless technicians (nicely portrayed by Leonardo Nam and Ptolemy Slocum) who become entangled in the events connected with the park’s malfunctions.
Ed Harris, however, consistently steals the show as “the Man in Black,” a park guest who vacations as a brutal rapist and murderer (and who we learn has another agenda, as well). He’s chilling. I never really saw Harris as an amazing actor before, despite seeing him in many roles, including his memorable turn in “A Beautiful Mind” (2001). But he was incredible here.
I wanted to give this show a perfect 10, but even someone who loves it as much as I do can see the weaknesses of this first season. Overall, “Westworld” is sometimes too drawn out. I feel the plot moves forward rather slowly, and I think Season 1 would be perfect if only it were carefully edited down from ten to maybe seven episodes. I found myself getting a little frustrated by the the fifth episode, when we see two major characters follow arcs that seem redundant. (I’m being intentionally vague here to avoid spoilers.)
The problem is compounded by the deliberately superficial nature of “Westworld’s” setting. This is a theme park with stereotypical stock characters associated with Hollywood westerns. Accordingly, its inhabitants have overly stylized speech and behavior. Furthermore, these androids are programmed to follow the same “loops” repeatedly, as the same preconceived story “narratives” are reused to entertain new patrons of the park.
It gets annoying. Yes, I know it makes perfect sense and is necessary in the context of the story. But it can be grating to someone who tunes in to see a science fiction show, and not a cheesy western. James Marsden is a decent enough actor, and he’s well cast as “Westworld’s” prototypical “good guy” cowboy. But seeing this character’s shtick over and over was irritating. So, too, were the sassy ladies at the brothel and some other minor characters.
Finally, I suggest that, for some viewers, “Westworld” may be hard to follow. I occasionally found it that way. There are twists that are wonderfully well crafted, gradually deciphered mysteries, and a very layered backstory. Finally, the show’s discussions of things like consciousness, morality and artificial intelligence can sometimes border on the didactic. (It helps a hell of a lot, though, when the actor delivering the exposition is the priceless Hopkins.) It’s a lot to take in. People tuning in should be prepared for some challenging, cerebral science fiction instead of easily digested, escapist fantasy.
All in all, this show was superb. If you’re a science fiction fan, you need to at least give it a try.
Unnecessary postscript: actor Jimmi Simpson sure looks a hell of a lot like a young Christian Slater.