“At one point or another, we were all new to this world. The Newcomers are just looking for the same thing we are: to be free, to stake out our dreams. A place with unlimited possibilities.” So says Dolores Abernathy (Into the Forest‘s Evan Rachel Wood) when she is asked about her life.
She wakes every morning and basks in the sun and breathes in the beauty of the world and hopes for the return of gentleman caller Teddy Flood (X-Men: Days of Future Past‘s James Marsden), never questioning except in the dreams of another reality where everything she knows falls away, dreams which frighten her and from which she wishes to escape.
The design of Westworld carries what can only be described as a good pedigree: originally a film released in 1973, it was written and directed by the novelist Michael Crichton whose resume also includes The Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park and Sphere. The success of that movie inspired a sequel, Futureworld, and then a television continuation of both, Beyond Westworld, and now a new show from HBO, developed by Jonathan Nolan, writer of The Prestige, The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar, and Lisa Joy, a writer on Pushing Daisies and Burn Notice.
Westworld is more than a Wild West theme park, it is a whole environment, where two thousand android hosts welcome over a thousand guests, the Newcomers, playing out a hundred parallel storylines of escapism, of pleasure, of violence, leaving the modern world and its responsibilities, personal and legal, behind. Everything is convincing, but nothing is real except the warning signs of coming trouble.
Gunfights are part of the package, but a recent software upgrade has introduced glitches into behaviour, first minor twitches and shutdowns, but enough to be a concern to the members of management who oversee from afar. “The park hasn’t had a critical failure in over thirty years,” the calmly analytical head of programming Bernard Lowe (Source Code’s Jeffrey Wright) assures director of operations Theresa Cullen (Borgen’s Sidse Babett Knudsen) who is more pragmatic, her responsibility being to ensure that Westworld does not descend into chaos.
If anything, the long gap means that they are overdue an incident, and sure enough more aberrant behaviour begins to be expressed, unscripted fighting among the machines and Dolores’ father Peter (True Blood’s Louis Herthum) becoming aware of discrepancies in the world which he should not be able to conceptualise.
Pre-empting a catastrophic failure in which the paying customers could become injured, the decision is made to accelerate the storylines carefully planned by narrative director Lee Sizemore (The Devil Inside’s Simon Quarterman) into a spectacular shootout in the town centre, a crowdpleasing distraction of gunfire, robbery and explosions worthy of any Hollywood producer which will allow all the affected Hosts to be extracted without raising suspicion.
With a genre defining fictional treatise within the last decade it seems unlikely that another show could stand alongside Battlestar Galactica to bring something new to the examination of artificial lifeforms, their aspirations, their possibilities, their complicated relationships with their flawed creators, yet with only a single broadcast episode directed by Nolan, The Original, Westworld already seems poised to offer an alternative vision.
The themes of the show encapsulated in the exquisite opening titles accompanied by a haunting theme by Game of Thrones‘ Ramin Djawadi, it is made clear that every object is designed and crafted to give an illusion of perfection, of life, but that behind the scenes every decision is controlled, manipulated. Within the control room and workshop where creative director Doctor Robert Ford (The Rite‘s Anthony Hopkins) sits in seclusion with his creations, unemotionally and analytically extrapolating the big picture while his subordinates bicker, everyone has an agenda.
Nor are all the Newcomers what they appear to be: for many Westworld is an escape to the supposed romance of the frontier for those who feel constrained and limited by modern life and are rich enough to afford the vast fees, a chance to break free and cut loose, but this is a rougher place and not all those who are wealthy can in any way be considered nice people.
There is nothing so simple as the traditional western motif of the good guys in white and the black guys; while the character so far only known as “the Man in Black” (Snowpiercer‘s Ed Harris) was presumed to be filling the iconic role of the Gunslinger once taken by Yul Brynner he is already far more complicated and interesting than that primitive automaton of the 1973 original, all the more dangerous and driven for having a purpose rather than a malfunction.
That dark heart is also carried on the soundtrack with two contemporary tracks rendered in new versions, a honky-tonk player piano version of Soundgarden’s Black Hole Sun and later, during an impressive shootout on main street, an orchestral version of The Rolling Stones’ Paint it Black; whether each episode will expand the parade of noir or feature a different hue remains to be seen.
Undeniably one of the most beautiful shows on television, filmed in truly breathtaking scenery including Castle Valley in Utah and Simi Valley and the Aguora Hills in California under the eye of cinematographer Paul Cameron, it’s easy to understand why these wild lands under the wide sky have inspired stories from Bonanza to The High Chaparral to Firefly.
As a high profile HBO production no expense has been spared on the sets, both high tech and rustic, and the costumes, particularly those of Maeve Millay and Clementine Pennyfeather (Chronicles of Riddick‘s Thandie Newton and American Horror Story: Freak Show‘s Angela Sarafyan), the township’s unflappable madam and the principal attraction of her establishment.
Perhaps due to the setting there is more of a feel of companion piece Caprica rather than Battlestar Galactica itself, but there are also echoes of Dollhouse, the fantasies of the wealthy made flesh, the lives lived in looped snatches of time, the layers of overwritten programming building to epiphany and enlightenment, and where that show had an attic where the worst secrets were hidden here there is the basement of the former Delos facility.
Similar to the true purpose behind the Dollhouse network, there are questions here begging to be answered: what are the applications and limitations of the technology, and what controls are in place, both within and beyond the borders of the facility? One question at least has been answered, at least in the negative, as posed by Philip K Dick: androids do indeed dream, of life beyond the terrifying nightmare called reality.