James Marsden and Evan Rachel Wood star in “Westworld.” (HBO)
My favorite video game of all time is “Red Dead Redemption,” a 2010 PS3 game overlaid “open world” gameplay onto a cowboy movie. When it came time to upgrade to a PS4, I held off for six months longer than I should have largely in part because PS4 can’t play PS3 games and I wasn’t ready to hang up my digital spurs yet.
As “Red Dead Redemption” was an open world concept, you could go anywhere and do anything. It featured hundreds of extra missions you could play based on the characters you interacted with. You couldn’t help but wonder what happened to the storylines you didn’t engage in or the missions you chose to skip. “Westworld” answered that question in its premiere and the answer is when “newcomers” (real people) don’t engage the “hosts” (robots/AI/characters at the theme park), they get woke.
Based on the 1970s movie written and directed by “Jurassic Park” author Michael Crichton, “Westworld” arrives on HBO just as the endgame has been announced for “Game of Thrones.” Whether “Westworld” is the successor to Westeros remains to be seen. If not, it won’t be for lack of trying. This world is HUGE. The possibilities extend as far as the eye can see, or at least as far as the meticulously crafted landscape have been designed to go.
Despite being a high-concept sci-fi show, “Westworld” opens — not surprisingly — like a western. The first 15 minutes of the show looks like an homage to John Ford’s technicolor classic “The Searchers” right down to the do-gooder audience proxy, Teddy (James Marsden) and wide-eyed, optimistic, dusty rose of the old West, Delores (Evan Rachel Wood). It’s obvious we’re watching a fantasy be played out in front of us in all of its classic Western trope gloriousness, but it isn’t until the end of the first act that we’re sure whose fantasy it is. What is set up to be a completely immersive experience for some guests is a chance for others to explore the darkest fantasies they can dream up. Regardless of which camp is occupying “Westworld,” our “hosts” deal with the consequences. It’s a real TV funhouse mirror type of realization once we meet the other half of the cast, lead by Jeffrey Wright and Anthony Hopkins, as we watch them reset all of their walking, talking set pieces for another day of making the dreams of “newcomers” come true.
“Westworld” feels more realized and cinematic than its HBO contemporaries, and maybe that’s because there is just so much history and recognizable stereotypes to pull from given the genres on display. The performances — specifically by Marsden and Wood — are so good, but given that we know we’re watching a play-within-a-play, they seem almost over the top. This is no mistake, either; it’s a genre-bending gift. It’s a very clear signal for the audience to look for glitches in the matrix and to start to wonder just how deep in trouble the creators and patrons of this park will be when the programs they have designed start to do their job too well.
Given that this is the pilot episode and we’re dealing with a ton of world-building here, the expositional dialogue that explains just how the gears fit together is handled by Anthony Hopkins and Jeffrey Wright, who I’m pretty sure are the Dr. John Hammond and Ian Malcolm of “Westworld” insomuch that there’s a philosophical debate going on as to what “Westworld” is and what it could be. The longing in Hopkins’ Dr. Ford’s eyes tells more than half the story here — a creator marveling at his life’s work and also disappointed that this is all it is. Bernard Lowe (Wright) presents the other side of the coin as a man who sees the genius in the binary code and asks how can we fine tune the inward experience of the world we’ve built, because haven’t we outwardly expanded enough?
“Westworld” aims to close out 2016 like a Now That’s What I Call Premium Cable Drama compilation pulling together some HBO “best of”s: The size and scope of “Game of Thrones,” the marvelous set pieces and aesthetic of “Deadwood,” and the benign and optimistic naivety of the subjects as seen on the always heart wrenching “Hard Knocks,” starring one of the largest and most accomplished casts on television.
Regardless of what it looks and feels like, “Westworld” is a sci-fi show, not that it is running from that distinction. The best type of sci-fi asks big questions and explores the limitless variations of the answers. 2015’s “Ex Machina” did so as well as did 2016’s “Stranger Things.” The focus is entirely on asking great questions and not worrying about outsmarting the audience with an answer. There doesn’t need to be a ship’s wheel at the center of the island in order for me to wonder why there are polar bears running around on the surface — just show me as many polar bears as possible and let my mind expand.
To paraphrase Ed Harris’ Man in Black, the creator of this world had something specific in mind. It is clear to see that the creator of this world does.
ROGUE THEORY: The Man in Black discloses to Teddy and Delores that he has been coming to Westworld for 30 years. Meanwhile, Bernie Lowe discloses that there hasn’t been a massive issue in the world they’ve created for 30 years. My guess is that Ed Harris is either the cause of the problem or has been lost in Westworld for that amount of time. He’s a real person, but he is also the malware in the program.