A brave and unique debut episode from Westworld hits the mark in every conceivable way, making this one of the finest TV pilots in quite some time.
It’s hard to categorize Westworld. Based off of Michael Crichton’s 1973 films of the same name, the new HBO series is a Russian doll type show. It tells the story of an artificially created theme park world, based on the old West, in which robot “Hosts” fill stock roles and follow cycles of actions and dialogue. The park is open to visitors, dubbed “Newcomers” or “Guests”, who are able to interact with the Hosts and their surroundings without fear of any retaliation.
On top of this fascinating premise, there’s a whole host of big names involved with the show, both onscreen and off. Its co-creator, executive producer and director is Jonathan Nolan, and he is joined by directors Neil Marshall and Michelle MacLaren, and executive producer J. J. Abrams. It stars Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright, James Marsden, Thandie Newton, Ed Harris and Sir Anthony Hopkins. Add in the backing of HBO, hoping this to be their next Game of Thrones sized hit, and the bar has been set very high for Westworld.
So does Westworld live up to its lofty expectations? Yes. Yes it does. With sprawling landscapes and perfectly designed sets, the world of Westworld harkens back to the iconic visuals of the highly influential The Searchers and other such westerns. With its mixing pot of themes and genres, Westworld pays a wonderful homage to the cinematic landmarks whilst managing to carve out its own identity. Coupled with these luscious visuals comes some excellent cinematography, both in the Lawrence of Arabia wide shots sense, and in the superbly shot Terminator action scenes sense. It’s coherent and clear, making for a fantastic experience; Nolan, the director of this episode, really knows how to put together an excellent piece of television.
Of course, with such a talented and diverse ensemble cast, the expectations are high, so it’s fortunate the performances are stellar. Evan Rachel Wood captures two differing personas with ease; on one side, she is a sweet and charming country girl, and on the other, she is an unemotional and expressionless Host. As the lead in a vast ensemble, she is required to take significant screen time, and she manages to be an enigmatic and engaging lead. Jeffrey Wright, as a Westworld programmer, is terrifically nuanced and subtle, and he slips effortlessly into the role, continuing Wright’s strong resume of superb character work. Whilst the likes of Marsden and Newton don’t necessarily have much to do and the roles don’t require as much diversity as Wood’s, they are solid performances from two solid actors. Sir Anthony Hopkins is, of course, brilliant; his Westworld creative director is clearly an intelligent, layered and intriguing individual, and credit must go to Hopkins for conveying all of this with such focus and awareness of the little things that make the character. But it’s perhaps Ed Harris who steals the show. Known only as the Man in Black, Harris combines subtle and subversive menace akin to Henry Fonda’s Frank from Once Upon a Time in the West, with the downright psychopathic relentlessness of Sylar from Heroes. This is magnificent stuff from Harris.
But be warned; Westworld doesn’t pull any punches with the violence or the darker themes. This world is very much the brutal side to the old west, and the wider psychological and ethical implications of this theme park world are touched upon lightly in this episode, but set up for a much deeper exploration to come. As it moves forward, expect Westworld to dig its claws in and force you to really consider the issues of morality and, to an extent, philosophy, that comes with this unique premise.
Obviously Westworld is a very different story to what one may expect, so the first part of this episode may catch you a little off guard and take some getting used to off the bat. But the episodes is built beautifully so that any doubts or confusions are soon put to bed as the narrative develops, and the bigger picture of how this story will be told is unveiled.
Westworld is epic and bold, and committed to what it wants to be. As arguably one of the finest TV pilots in quite some time, Westworld is really set apart from the rest of the pack as a show that should not be missed. Westworld – you had my curiosity, now you have my attention.
Westworld airs on Sky Atlantic every Tuesday.