What if you lived in a world in which you experienced every day over and over again, almost exactly the same? What if that day always ended with rape and murder? Your rape and your murder and the rape and murder of everyone you know and love. What if your only salvation was that at the end of each day, the memories of your horrific life were wiped clean so that you might live it again and again?
What if you were powerless to stop it? What if the gods who made this world and designed you in their image forgot the purpose of your world? What if they went mad? What if they decided to give you the capacity to remember?
Welcome to Westworld.
Jonathan Nolan is no stranger to weird, mysterious narratives driven by intrigue and sleight of hand. He wrote Memento (which got him a best screenplay Oscar nomination,) The Prestige, Interstellar and the Dark Knight Trilogy among his many other credits.
With Westworld, he gets a chance to stretch his legs a bit and tell a long-form 10 hour story. And boy is it a doozy. American cinema is no stranger to the science fiction theme of artificial intelligence. It’s even come back into style in the last few years with flicks like Ex Machina and Transcendence. But Nolan makes the tropes of the genre all his own here.
It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Philip K. Dick. The idea of the Turing Test (robots passing as human when interviewed by humans) and androids gaining consciousness has been around a long time, popularized by the movie adaptation of Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep as Ridley Scott’s masterpiece Blade Runner.
Nolan and his team take a play straight out of the PDK playbook here, giving the robots of Westworld an unsettling paranoia, a violence and a rage hidden just behind their eyes. Tragedy, loss and madness creep around the robots’ smiles and scripted lines. The memories of their horrific lives dancing just beyond reach, ready to leap out at any moment.
We follow several androids’ (they’re called hosts in the show) story lines and several human story threads throughout the show. Each one overlapping the last. Each one providing its own tiny pieces of the puzzle our characters are desperate to solve. Why are these robots suddenly remembering their pasts? Who has been changing their coding?
Anthony Hopkins masterfully takes on the role of Robert Ford, the co-creator and main architect and story designer of Westworld. I can’t think of a role outside of his turn as Hannibal Lecter that’s been so intense and so compelling. He’s really at the top of his game here. Every scene and every monologue is pitch perfect.
Evan Rachel Wood plays the tragically confused and always tormented Delores. She’s great in the role and the character is essential to the overall plot of the show, but I found hers to be the weakest story link, even if it’s one of the most important. Her mystery was also super easy to solve. I had it figured out several episodes before the reveal.
Ed Harris. The Man in Black. That’s another fantastic character. And his mystery took the longest for me to figure out. I only caught on maybe 30 seconds before the reveal.
Jeffrey Wright is also great as Bernard. He holds his secrets close to his chest and burns with an intensity maybe only matched by Thandie Newton’s Maeve Millay. It’s hard to decide if I liked Maeve, Ford or The Man In Black the most. They’re all awesome characters whose story threads are the most intriguing.
I would be remiss if I didn’t at least give an honorable mention to James Marsden’s tragic Teddy, Jimmi Simpson’s William and Clifton Collins Jr.’s Lawrence. They all play their parts well and add to the sweeping narrative of the show.
If I have one complaint about Westworld it lies with Nolan’s insistence upon hammering his points home with a bluntness that often comes off as insulting to his audience’s intelligence. He’s playing games with us the whole time, yes.
His tricks can be convoluted and require a bit of explanation for the more dense among us, but as with the ending of The Prestige, there are DUH moments where he spends far too long explaining plot reveals that some of us caught onto scenes or even episodes before they play out, and yet Nolan chooses to spend 5 minutes on dialogue exposition and flashbacks in order to hand-hold us through the entire narrative to make sure that every last dumb ass in the audience understands the trick he played.
Sometimes he acts like a magician who ends his show by walking his audience through the whole trick. It’s often unnecessary and more than a little condescending.
Having said that, I was enraptured, appalled and completely engrossed in HBO’s Westworld. Enough questions were left for next season to keep me waiting with bated breath to see what happens to our tortured robots next.
5 out of 5 Strangeheads which may or may not be android heads who believe they’re real heads.