Questions are easy. If you show a closed box, anyone’s natural inclination is to wonder what’s inside of it. The problem is taking that wonder and turning it into a need, a primal necessity that you find out the answer. And then, once you rip the lid off and claw through to the contents, to make both the journey and the destination worthwhile.
Westworld is designed to excel at the first part. It’s an entire universe of boxes, each one tightly clasped shut with tantalizing and enigmatic security. It’s one of the great qualities of Michael Crichton, the writer and originator of the property this new HBO series is based on. He manages to fabricate a brand new world of impossible possibilities and make it all feel as real as you or me. And then he makes you wonder.
That’s all well and good, but how do you go beyond that? How do you get to the next step—unraveling all these mysteries—and succeed at it? That’s a damn good question, but we don’t have to worry about that for a while. For now, Westworld is doing exactly what it needs to be doing: making you ask questions.
It’s centered around a theme park called Westworld, a giant naturalistic hub of rolling hills and steep cliffs set in a wholly manufactured, late 1800s-ish Wild West. The main attraction for guests is that it is populated by Hosts, which are hyper-real synthetic beings designed to live out (and invite visitors to join) exciting and interesting stories. Whether it be joining the sheriff to take down some bandits or partaking in drunken and lustful sins of the saloon, Westworld gives it to you.
The crux of the drama, however, is that these Hosts are constantly being improved by the mysterious genius inventor Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), and the latest one has given them the intended but unforeseen consequence of peeking into their own past. Until this, they’ve always been purged of memories upon each narrative loop, but now that they are bleeding through between their own builds, they are starting to ask questions, too.
Created and written (and directed as far as the premiere episode is concerned) by Jonathan Nolan, it’s not surprising to see the show attempt a tack at cultivating an air of mystery, especially with J.J. Abrams and Bryan Burk as executive producers. It even takes on a bit of the personality of his older brother’s Inception, namely a crisp and unsettling doubtfulness of reality. But it does so in its own original and fundamentally more terrifying way.
Rather than simply propose the question of “what if” (what if you could visit a fake world, what if your reality was fake, what if etc.), it goes a step further and asks why. It is even a bit pointedly critical at both taking this journey and you going along with it at the culmination of one hell of a firefight. There must be a reason why fantasies, whether dark or moral or what have you, can only be rendered in our heads and not at our hands.
It perhaps hits the ponderance a bit too squarely on the head at one point, but it also does so in the middle of an exceptional deft pilot. It sets up this relatively complex world of myriad rules while toying with forward-looking dramatic arcs. There’s rarely exposition that doesn’t feel justified, and several visual motifs drive home not just this episode’s particular story but the foreshadowing of the entire show. Who knew a fly could be so seismic?
One of which is a full bodied tackle on the concept of awareness. It doesn’t quite go down the same rabbit hole as something like Ex Machina, but it certainly carries the same evocative and slow simmering dread. As we think on the ideas of behavior and appearance—the natural and the simulated—we get a sharp and relentless prodding in our basest parts. It wants to shake up your core with fear and excitement, anything to get your barbarous brain to overtake your rational one while sifting through the heady intellectualism of its thesis.
In short, there’s a lot of value here, both in terms of philosophical daydreaming and more basely provocative material. It cribs a lot from things we’re familiar with (bits and pieces of Groundhog Day and The Hunger Games and The Truman Show are littered throughout) but it also does so with aplomb and panache, not to mention it’s the perfect excuse to let actors go hog-wild on stretching their acting chops, ripping through the spectrum of rage to fear to horrifying neutrality as these Hosts do the same.
Besides, where else can you get an Old West shootout with a bangin’ orchestral version of “Paint it Black” playing in the background? Even with the impressive roster of hands on the pilot fading away and no promise that neither Nolan nor the litany of storied producers will be able to deliver on the overwhelming minefield of mystery they’ve established here, there’s at least that.
(You can watch the first episode “The Original” online now if you’re in the proper regions of the world.)