Man at His Best

Westworld's Flaws Are Only Human. And That's Why it Works

HBO's new cowboy sci-fi epic starts with a promising series premiere.

BY Matt Miller | Oct 3, 2016 | Film & TV

HBO

Beginning with its opening scene, Westworld keeps the viewer questioning his/or her own perception of reality. Dolores sits naked in a chair staring blankly ahead. Are you looking at a (human) woman? An animatronic figure? CGI? Something else entirely? A fly lands on her face. She doesn't so much as blink as it makes its way across her open eyeball. Question answered.

Or so it would seem, until the camera cuts to the next scene, where Dolores is opening her tired eyes and heaving two deep morning inhales. The flies will return throughout the series premiere of Westworld, where they are (in a somewhat overused ploy) to juxtapose inanimate characteristics with human ones. For every time Dolores is staring unblinking and responding to verbal commands from her software, she's gazing at a cowboy on the other side of town with a hint of a smile on her lips suggesting a forbidden (or impossible) love. It's these conflicts of sentient life that drive Westworld as it also indulges in the cheap thrills of gunslinger entertainment.

What separates man from machine? It's debate we're engaged in with an early voiceover from Dolores (played by Evan Rachel Wood): "The newcomers are just looking for the same thing we are: a place to be free, to STAKE out our dreams, a place with unlimited possibilities."

Dolores, we'll soon learn is a "host," A human-like machine that inhabits a theme park-type land called Westworld. As Dolores says, Westworld is a "place with unlimited possibilities," where patrons are invited to act out their every wild fantasy, from playing the hero to, more often than not, playing the villain and brutalising Westworld's many "hosts." But, again, it's the perspective here that matters. Much of the story of Westworld is told through the eyes of this host. Dolores, like the humans who visit and pillage her home, is looking for "a place to be free," to stake out her dreams.

From there, we're introduced to a number of hosts who are obliviously stuck on an endless loop telling programmed stories to entertain and state the petty, horny, and violent "newcomers." There's James Marsden as Teddy Flood, the cowboy Ken doll who is killed, hosed down and fixed, and killed again day after day. There's the aforementioned farmer's daughter Dolores, Teddy's love interest who will never actually get to be with her bae due to the story programming by Westworld writers. And there's Thandie Newton as Maeve Millay, the hardened proprietor of the local brothel.

Simultaneously, we meet the crew that runs this near future Disneyland of horrors: Anthony Hopkins as Dr Robert Ford, the man playing god and creator of Westworld. Ed Harris is the mysterious gunslinger wandering around terrorising the local hosts. Jeffrey Wright is Bernard Lowe, the curious programming head who has secret conversations about sentient human thought with Dolores.

There are going to be a lot of comparisons to Game of Thrones thrown around in the conversation about Westworld, but let's get this out of the way straight away—these two shows are completely different except for two reasons: 1) They are both big budget sci-fi/fantasy epics on HBO. 2) They both kill off characters with wanton abandon (though, like some sort of inside joke, the expendable Westworld characters just get patched up and returned to the story the next day).

Which brings us to the first time we see Teddy die. This scene at Dolores's farm does a number of things. It's the first time we see Harris's Man in Black, who has attacked Dolores's home and killed her father. There, he demonstrates how the "hosts" can't kill humans, and he also does something more horrifying. He drags Dolores into the barn in such a way to imply repeated sexual assault. It's a sickening shot that many wouldn't be wrong to take issue with. Show co-creator Lisa Joy defended it this week by telling me, "I think if the implied sexual violence in the show, if it's jarring for people, makes them think and makes them empathize with the machines, then that's part of a conversation that we wanted to start. There are so many video games out there where violence and sexual violence is just something that you play. And here, because you think of them as the 'other' because they are just for recreation, it's just a game."

But, the next morning Dolores wakes up back in her bed and Teddy comes to blinking off the pounding sun through a train's window, both seemingly oblivious to the many horrors they were subjected to the night before. And so we are forced to consider the ethical treatment of machines that are programmed to display emotion, which sounds like some sort of near-future PETA-like activist group, but a legitimate question nonetheless. There was true terror in Dolores's eyes, and there was absolutely real pain on Teddy's face. Just because we as money-paying humans can, seemingly without consequence, do these things, should we? The same could be applied to how we act in video games or how we treat strangers online. If this is getting too heavy for you,Westworld can't help remind us this is still entertainment, with a couple of cheesy shootouts and an entire bandit heist scene set to a sweeping (and dorky) wild west version of "Paint it Black."

While giving us a primer for how to navigate this robo cowboy world, and the many themes which it not so subtly raises, this premiere also invites us into the machinery behind the machines of Westworld. This is where the problems (with actual real world consequences) arise. There's some sort of weird coding in an update to the hosts' software, which is causing them to freak out, prompting incredible, spastic performances by some of the host actors (or CGI? Or motorized props?). It also seems to be causing Dolores's dad to have some sort of existential crisis. More serious is that these hosts are also going batshit, killing each other, and terrorising the guests. Unfortunately, the people who run the show are too busy squabbling and jockeying for power and worrying about investors to have any real cause for concern.

Where we're left is with Dolores's dad getting decommissioned for his existential freakout, Dolores herself getting questioned about reality, and some sort of ominous glitch working its way through Westworld like norovirus laying waste to a cruise ship. And the show has introduced itself, like its mechanical characters, as a piece of entertainment, flawed as the next one, but with the potential to do and say so much more than it was designed for.

 

From: Esquire US