HBO’s long-awaited drama balances its mechanical gloss with a surprisingly genuine sense of life.
For several decades, countless Hollywood film and TV properties have flirted with the question “Do androids dream of electric sheep?”, but few have tackled it head-on in as much depth as HBO’s Westworld. Part A.I. existential drama, part western thriller, this big-budget and long-awaited reimagining of Michael Crichton’s 1973 film fulfils its promise of excitement and profundity in equal measure, and- if its first 70-minute episode is to be believed- will be the small-screen’s latest phenomenal success story.
The lines between the real and the programmed are blurred from the very beginning, as we’re introduced to our protagonists without initial clarity as to their nature. Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores is a blatant prop of Westworld (a Wild West-themed robot theme park experience), but James Marsden’s Teddy is only revealed to be inhuman midway through the episode. Ed Harris’ Gunslinger, a twist on Yul Brynner’s character from the film (between this and Magnificent Seven, it’s a big month for remakes of Yul Brynner westerns), is a park visitor with violent intentions. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Wright and Anthony Hopkins lead a team of park managers tackling faults in the system.
As glitches become apparent in their perfect tapestry of ones and zeros and cowboys and indians, the action ramps up and the show really hits its stride. An armed robbery soundtracked by an orchestral “Paint It Black” is terrifically staged, while the episode is heavy on director Jonathan Nolan’s atmospheric arial shots of the western landscape. Djawadi’s music is very strong; superior to his Game of Thrones work, and builds a simultaneous sense of sadness and impending horror.
It’s the primary cast, however, who really steal the show. Evan Rachel Wood has waited years for a strong leading role like Dolores, and the character (who’s developed very well in this episode alone) will surely be explored in incredible depth throughout this season. Marsden is another under-appreciated talent who’s put to good use here, while Hopkins and Harris bring the drama and weight that they’re supposed to.
Westworld delivers on its expected epicness, but the melancholy that accompanies it- difficult to pull off in a show about robots- is surprising and enormously effective. For all its gloss and mechanical sheen, this has begun as a show with genuine life; more so than most “westerns”. But this isn’t really a western…