TV Review -- 'Westworld' Tackles Tough Questions of a Not So Distant Future We May Soon Encounter
It’s 2016 and the dawn of sentient robotic intelligence hasn’t yet come to pass. The technology is progressing, of course, and watching stories about it is much closer to home than if you watched 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968. With the dawn of Siri, Google, Amazon’s Echo and so many other robotic devices, artificial intelligence is in our pockets, our homes and our cars -- it's becoming an everyday part of our lives. Among many themes in the show, Westworld asks the questions, “What if Siri were conscious? What if the people you kill in your video games were conscious? How do we grapple with those moral implications?”
This is the beauty of the Westworld remake created by Jonathan Nolan, Lisa Joy and J.J. Abrams. It isn’t afraid to tackle difficult questions with compelling, intelligent storytelling, but also doesn’t presume to have all the answers. As we get to know the context, the characters and their differing opinions, we start to form our own opinions rather than having them spoon fed to us. Of its many virtues, the caliber of writing and storytelling is by far its greatest.
Written by Nolan and Joy, Westworld is inspired by the Michael Crichton film of the same name about an adult theme park with artificial human beings. However, they take great liberties and create their own world rather than building on Crichton's. Westworld is a theme park taking people back to the old west where they can live out their wildest fantasies. Guests can be the hero, the bank robber, the gunslinger, the lover or whatever they want to do or be. While Crichton’s Westworld primarily focused on the androids going rogue and killing all the humans, Nolan and Joy take a different approach, focusing on the androids and how they’re controlled by the humans. Of course, as the story unfolds, the androids start to push back.
Abrams couldn't have found better writers than Nolan and Joy. It would have been all too easy to copy Crichton’s surface level approach, throw in some drama and try to drag out the narrative for as long as possible -- but Nolan and Joy dive deeper. They build layer upon layer in the story’s plot, subtext and characters to the extent that it would require a semester of a college class to unpack it. Their use of intelligent topics on consciousness, psychology and artificial intelligence without an air of pretension is perfectly executed. Many of the scenes are both entertaining and intellectually stimulating -- the writers' ability to bring the audience in rather than keep them at a distance is a key to their success. They keep the story at the forefront and don’t get lost in the intellectual weeds.
HBO has built a reputation on visceral and provocative television in the past and Westworld doesn’t diverge from this trend. Everything in the story has a reason and it doesn’t stoop to cheap drama tricks or sexual innuendo -- but that isn’t to say the show isn’t graphic. It is. The writers merely do it in a less gratuitous fashion. It’s ironic in a way. While the androids are often naked in the lab, it is rarely sexualized.
The park on the other hand is quite the opposite. The writers are clearly conscious of their own role to play in the grand scheme of things and tend to go ‘meta’ at times. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Nolan story without themes and devices like time and non-linear storytelling. So, it didn't come as a surprise those two elements played heavily in the story structure. They're both his greatest strength and weakness. While the story unfolds with each episode like an onion being peeled layer by layer keeping all the mystery intact, the device makes it difficult to empathize with the characters right away.
Unfortunately, that is exactly where the writing takes a long time to brew. The characters, while interesting, are too many, too nuanced and too distant to truly connect with any of them for the first four or five episodes. It’s difficult to care for the robotic characters because, well, they’re not conscious. When a character can’t make their own choices, how can I root for them or be behind those choices?
The story’s beauty lies in its complexity and that includes the characters. There is no villain and there is no hero. While the writers try to trick you into thinking there is, as everything unfolds, you’ll soon discover it isn’t that easy and the people you thought are villains might actually be the heroes. So, while it may take some time to care for any of the characters, by the end the character arcs are so good that you’ll see the full picture and feel more attached.
The predictable twists and the endless mysteries are the two biggest flaws to the writing. It’s entertaining and exciting to guess the answer to all the mysteries, but they won’t ultimately suffice. It’s something Abrams should have learned from LOST. While mystery will keep an audience hooked, it’ll never make them happy once they unravel the mystery. Westworld builds up so many questions and mysteries that it comes dangerously close to collapsing under the weight. I can safely say they manage to balance it out eventually and provide some satisfying results.
You can blame Reddit for creating a host of theories and making the twists less awe-inspiring. However, I think audiences are getting better at picking up on hidden clues and predicting the answers as well. With all that said, Westworld’s story isn’t hinged on twists. While they are important to understanding certain elements of the story, the story doesn’t live and die on the twists.
The cast is, simply put, phenomenal. The casting director needs a raise for the wonderful job picking each actor for their roles. Everyone is at the top of their game so I could go on forever about each actor’s stellar performance, but I’ll list of a few that truly struck me.
First, Thandie Newton is a major surprise player. I’ll be honest and admit I don’t know much of her work outside of Crash and Mission: Impossible II -- but she truly owns her role that demands many sides, from sweet to cunning to ruthless. I’m looking forward to seeing her in future projects.
On the other hand, it’s no revelation that Anthony Hopkins is an amazing actor, and his penchant for playing the silent, evil type never fails to impress. The writing for his character, however, goes much deeper than that and it’s fun to watch him evolve. Evan Rachel Wood, similar to Thandie Newton, does a terrific job playing a character who is predictable, sweet and caring in the beginning, but develops into something else entirely. Of all the characters in the show, it’s easiest to relate to Wood’s character, Dolores, and want to follow her journey.
Westworld is a testament to a new era of television that wasn’t available ten or fifteen years ago. This new era where television can go beyond surface level storytelling and really create something truly special -- a deep, fully formed, complex and gripping drama you might find more in novels than on television. It plays out so well on television because the writers are given the liberty to service the story and make it true to their vision. While it’s difficult to connect with the characters at first and the mysteries can become overwhelming at times, the writing, cast and direction is masterful.
Westworld should be a required viewing.