Review: Westworld – Episode I

Please note: This review contains spoilers. So – go watch before you read. 

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Sky Atlantic’s Westworld, taking it’s cue from the film of 1973 has, as most television these days, been “hyped to fuck” as one friend put it. A movie star cast, tonnes of money spent on effects, costumes and writers and directors who are such hot property one would be forgiven for thinking they were conceived in the depths of a neutron star. Guys – I think they really want us to like this show.

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Going off Episode 1 there is plenty to keep audiences entertained for the time being. No prizes for guessing where the series is ultimately heading (Robotocalypse anyone?) – with quite a bit of narrative steer being divulged through the umpteen trailers screened prior to release – it will be interesting to see how the show gets us there.

Westworld focusses on the eponymous theme park modelled on the Old American West. Set in some indeterminate future the show is concerned with the creators and managers of Westworld, the guests of the park and the humanoid robots (Hosts) who inhabit it. Imagine an actualised version of Rockstar Games’ Red Dead Redemption spliced with The Truman Show and you’re part way there.

Complete immersion in various ‘storylines’ of the Old West is the goal of the park’s owners. Or is there something more profound going on?

The Hosts

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The show’s generators of dramatic tension, the humanoid robots that populate the ‘park’, exist soley to immerse the paying guests in the narratives of the Old West. Manufactured to look and act like real people, their frames are built to withstand the whims of the guests and these whims range from the mildly curious to the depths of the sadistic.

All of them have roles to play; the spirited artist who dotes on her father, the sassy hooker with a heart of gold, the outlaw, the bar keep, the sheriff; an entire town of characters, scripted and rehearsed to play out the same storylines again and again and again.

Although designed to look indistinguishable from humans, core programming prevents them from harming living things. It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the ’73 film (or the deluge of trailers) that this cannot last.

The Hosts are, as one guest puts it, the equivalent of ‘scenery’. They add credulity to the suspension of your disbelief.

The ‘is s/he, isn’t s/he?’ trick of who is a Host and who isn’t will be played in future episodes in order to keep the audience on their collective toes. Their existence as ‘authentically’ human is thrown into further disarray due to a software update modified by their original creator, Ford (Antony Hopkins). This update grants the Host the ability to access some of their older personalities or ‘builds’ confirming that one model of Host plays a variety of roles in its lifetime.

If something is designed to imitate life and tricks the viewer into believing that it is alive (bleeds the same, cries the same, dies the same) then what is left to distinguish them from the rest of us?

The Guests

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One supposes that the Guests are outnumbered by the Hosts in Westworld although we only encounter a handful in the first episode and one cant help but feel, given the narrative of the film that we are going to get to see a great number of these guests in a dire strait or two.

What type of person visits Westworld? It seems that they fall into three categories: tourists, hedonists and sadists.

The tourists indulge an innate curiosity: to gawp and marvel at the sheer scale of Westworld’s simulated environment. When that simulation begins to crack and splinter their reaction is one of disgust and mild panic. The sheriff (a Host), out on a campaign tracking outlaws with two Guests in the mountains, malfunctions and a female guest huffs and puffs to be taken back to the town. Maybe she gets a refund.

Shagging robots – a sci-fi trope almost as old the genre itself. One watches a cadre of young, alpha males high five one another after slaking their thirst for some robot tail in the town’s brothel.

It’s a dream isn’t it? A willing robotic slave ready to serve your every fantasy and desire. But it raises questions that have far from pleasant answers.

Are the Hosts consenting? Can a Host even give consent? Do they want to do this? Is that even in their servers? The prostitute Hosts peopling the brothel are there to act as prostitutes but there is seemingly nothing stopping a Guest from taking a fancy to another townsperson and forcing themselves on them. It is a disturbing thought.

Although the Guests are invulnerable whilst in the Park – leading to some of them dispensing violence on the Hosts with impunity; it is doubtful that that this will last.

The Management

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The puppeteers of this living theatre – the managers and creators seem like a typical close knit family. The patriarchal creator who, because he runs the joint, feels as though he can sneak around the basement talking to decommissioned robots. His every action or inaction criticised or praised by his employees.

There is the guileless ‘writer’ of the scenarios which guests can participate in in the park. The inquisitive engineer of the robots themselves who diagnoses and troubleshoots issues with software updates and is endlessly fascinated by the nature of the machines themselves.

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A distant, authoritative security officer who, at present, seems to be there simply to poop the party of the others enjoying the Westworld circus. As the season progresses it is anticipated those characters blithely dismissing her warnings about the machines will eventually come pleading to her for help.

Series Predictions

  1. The robots will begin acting up more (duh). Dolores’s casual killing of a fly at the end of the episode is a pretty strong indicator that things are only going to get worse.
  2. Someone in the management of Westworld is a machine. It is hard to say who at present but Antony Hopkins latest tinkering with the software update to enhance the Hosts’ humanity is pointing that way. The “deeper” purpose alluded to during Sizemore’s conversation with Theresa is to create a Host which is indistinguishable from a human being. Who knows how far Antony Hopkins has gotten in achieving that goal?
  3. The Man in Black has some mega beef with Antony Hopkins. Perhaps Westworld Hosts murdered his wife or something? His indiscriminate and violent sadism speaks to something deeper. A larger axe to grind beyond the merely violent. The map he found on the inside scalp of that Host may provide him access to the deeper levels of Westworld – whatever they may be.
  4. Someone we are led to believe is a Host is actually human. Perhaps someone’s life was so awful beyond Westworld that they just decided to stay in the park. Permanently.
  5. The ‘future’ in which Westworld is set is itself a simulated world. A huge reach, but the original 1973 film featured a theme park called Delos and Westworld was only one themed world of three. The other two were Medieval World and Future World. Quite why anyone would wish to take a holiday to a Futureworld and have a simulation resting inside a simulation is beyond me but it’s 2016 and frankly it feels like anything could happen.

 

Unanswered questions

  1. How long has Westworld been going? The amount of decommissioned Hosts in the basement would suggest a fair few years. The Man in Black tells Dolores he has been visiting her for 30 years. Antony Hopkins character is fairly old but did he inherit the park from someone else?
  2. Do they ever do a proper head count? At the end when they were collecting all Hosts with the new update they missed the poor Host who got scalped by the Man in Black. Why didn’t anyone spot this?
  3. What is the Man in Black’s problem? You don’t carry around rage like that for no reason; although leaving his sadism unexplained would be a bold and sinister move by the writers of the show, one guesses they will explain it with some tortured backstory about how a Host accidentally killed his daughter. Or something.
  4. Why do all the Hosts need to be naked when they’re being interviewed or fixed? My first assumption was that this was a security measure; so if they did malfunction and attack, they would have limited weapons at their disposal. But then Antony Hopkins saw fit to have some whisky with a really old Host in the basement and both were fully dressed. Go figure.
  5. How big is Westworld and what is the world like outside of it? The future world in which Westworld is set is not seen. Beyond the open plan and glass paned ‘offices’ we have seen precious little. Where is the edge of Westworld?
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Stranger Things – Review

Stranger Things – Review

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Dualism pervades the crunchy leaf swirled autumn of Hawkins – the fictional setting of Stranger Things. The cool and methodical detective work of a sheriff is punctuated by the irrational and anxious searching of a desperate mother. The indolent and obnoxious populism of American high school is exposed by a shy, artistic loner. The shady, secretive world of government experiments corrupted by political assassinations collides with the uncontaminated innocence and wonder of childhood.

Reality as we perceive it is disturbed by a dimension hopping, faceless terror whose origins are as mysterious as they are scary. The result is so exuberant, enjoyable and thrilling that you barely even twig that Winona Ryder is in it until half way through Episode 1.

Stranger Things feels less like a television show set in the 80s and more like a lost reel teleported from that era straight in the laps of the Duffer brothers, the show creators. Much is made of artistic ownership in the digital age and how it is supposedly “under threat” by people stealing a cord progression or character trait and moulding it into something different.

All art borrows from what has gone before and Stranger Things is no different; the show nods, winks and bows to a slew of films, television shows and novels. E.T; Close Encounters of the Third Kind; The Goonies; Heathers; Flight of the Navigator; The Twilight Zone; IT; Cocoon and countless others.

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The characters, motifs and narrative structures of the show owe their genesis to that period; watching certain scenes (four children on bikes riding through twilight) is uncanny. You have seen these things before and they have never felt stranger.

Then there is the music.

As well as including a smattering of songs from the 80s (‘I wear my sunglasses at night’ by Corey Hart; ‘Africa’ by Toto; ‘Nocturnal Me’ by Echo and the Bunnymen) the action unfolds to an eerily beautiful, synth laden score by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein. The music has been a particular draw to an audience jonesing for more of that most dangerous of drugs: nostalgia.

The internet clamoured for an official score shortly after the show was uploaded; whilst that does not have a release date yet, people can content themselves with the knowledge that one is forthcoming along with this mixtape from DJ Yoda.

A second series feels inevitable although it would be refreshing, if somewhat frustrating, to see the show creators permit Stranger Things to stand as it is. Whilst the universe(s) in the show merit further exploration, gorging on this enchanting trough of nostalgic wonder feels wrong somehow.

Are some things, no matter how strange, better left alone?

“We have far more in common than that which divides us”

“We have far more in common than that which divides us”

Getting up to make the long drive from Liverpool to Glastonbury two Wednesdays ago, I knew the country may have changed substantially on my return trip subject to the referendum result.

It is difficult to write about my experience at Worthy Farm without also writing about the vote for Brexit.

Traipsing to the compost loo and clutching a packet of baby wipes on the Friday morning, I heard snatches of conversations from the tents I walked past: all of them were about the vote. Cameron’s resignation, Boris’s potential premiership, the general horror of it all.

Our tent spent the morning getting ready and discussing how we felt. All of us had voted to remain in the EU by post weeks beforehand.

Occasionally someone would mention a band name and a stage time and we were reminded we had a festival to go and see. The promise of live music buoyed up glimmers of joy against the roiling ocean of dread which crashed and bashed beyond the festival’s walls.

We stood in the rain awaiting James who opened the Other Stage on Friday afternoon. The band played the songs and Tim Booth thrashed about, in a juddering, shaman-like frenzy. His limbs agitated by some ecstatic wish for stimulation. Before they finish Jim Glennie mentions the elephant in the field: Brexit. His response to the vote to leave? A casual “Fuck ‘em” met with cheers from a damp and slightly hungover audience.

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Bat for Lashes (Sunday at John Peel tent) is a delight. Natasha Khan does a set of new material mixed with older fan favourites. The new songs come from a concept album in which the protagonist, a bride to be, is informed on arriving at the church that her beloved has been killed in a car crash. The future she envisaged for them both needs to be rethought. It is beautiful and prescient.

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PJ Harvey (Sunday at the Other Stage) enters to a marching band before delivering a moving set. In the middle of it she stops to read John Donne’s poem No Man is an island which receives rapturous applause from a bedraggled and diminished crowd.

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Låpsley (Sunday at John Peel) lulls her crowd to something resembling serenity and quips when she finishes “Any hot Europeans who are single, hit me up. Let’s get married.”

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Foals (Friday at Pyramid) rouse the crowd out of complacency in their pre-headline slot for Muse.  It is as booming as one would expect. Frontman Stannis thrashes his body, feral and brutal against his guitar. The lyrics to Spanish Sahara have never sounded more ominous and relevant – “Forget the horror here/ Forget the horror here/ Leave it all down here”

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Muse, on straight after Foals, deliver a bombastic, cock rocking set of undulating guitars and heavy bass lines, Matt Belamy’s falsetto arcing back forth and forth across it all. It’s an awesome spectacle and the crowd adore it; and yet there is some level of it that I seem unable to access.

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Despite braying, in the run up to the festival, that I would not be watching “the headliners” I find myself at the Pyramid on Saturday (again) for Adele. After opening with Hello she begins a set stacked with hits, interspersed with much squawking and stage chatter: I love her instantly. Is she a living saint? Quite possibly.

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The stand out act, for me, was Christine & the Queens (Friday at Other Stage). Christine (real name Héloïse Letissier) and her band execute a set that manages to be moving in terms of its poignancy and its ability to get people dancing. When the heavens open to pour a multitude of sins on the crowd, Christine cries “Do you want to fight me rain? Is that what you want?”. She doesn’t just sing the songs; instead she and the Queens give a full on performance. Finding flowers on the stage she compares them to singers she admires – a giant sunflower is Beyonce, a lily is Rhianna and a stem with no blooms is the singer herself (an analogy with which I disagree entirely). She nails it. After they leave the stage I reflect on how cool the French are and get a bit sad when I think about future trips to France that require me to go through the “All other passports” queue in airports. How unremittingly grim.

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The last act I see is LCD Soundsystem who close the Other Stage on Sunday night. I will be berated when I get home by my mother for missing Coldplay. James Murphy and his troop deliver an excellent set to an adoring crowd. Flares, animated jaw lines and the odd poncho compile the back drop to the close of my festival. It was a great experience, it always is. And yet…

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In the car on the way home, my boyfriend sleeps in the back and I keep the driver, a mutual friend, company. He voted leave and I ask him why. He gives his reasons as immigration control and sovereignty. He also expresses concern about the political and economic firestorm which appears to have been created in the aftermath of the vote. He says that the one thing to remember is that the electorate is never wrong and to question them or insist on a second referendum is foolish and potentially undemocratic. I reluctantly find myself agreeing with him.

After all – if remain had won – would I agree that the leavers were granted a second referendum? No matter how much I disagree with the results I defer to the system that produced it – that’s democracy.

In the week that follows the Leave campaign begins to disintegrate. Boris Johnson removes his hat from the ring of the Tory Leadership vacuum created by David Cameron’s resignation. The £350 million figure touted by Leave to be spent on the NHS is retracted.

Some who voted leave express regret. Cracks begin to appear. Incidents of racial and ethnic abuse spike. Think piece after think piece is published in the media. Britain shakes and quivers. The aftershocks of the vote are still felt as I type this article two weeks later. They will be felt for generations to come. And when the dust finally settles what will remain?

Glastonbury and other events like it serve as inoculations against a world that is ever more divided, ever more mean and ever more cruel. Yes – as a liberal, left leaning, Guardian reading, yoghurt knitting queer with a predilection for one too many Madonna records – I would write a sentence like that and believe it. Yes – I would vote to remain in the EU if we were given the impossible second referendum. And yes – I think what the Leave campaign, and those responsible for running it, have done is tantamount to fraud.

The social and political flesh of the country has been mutilated. I am sure I am not the only one who feels apprehensive about the scorched landscape that is Britain in the aftermath of the Brexit vote.

However I also think this is a chance to rally. To get angry. To demand our Government, in whatever form, broker a firm and workable deal for our exit from the EU – if that is the course which is decided upon. If the deal is unworkable or would damage our country further – we must shout so loud that those who did vote leave will take notice. We must not allow it to happen. We must convince people of the dangerous waters that this country is currently adrift in.

The divides opened up by the vote its aftermath are multiform and varied. So many people are so angry. Instead of insults and hatred, which will only serve to weaken the connections we share we must begin to build and begin to maintain. We must work together.

If someone voted leave they voted leave for a reason and it’s the reason which requires interrogation. Talk to people. Understand why they made the decision that they did and then investigate how they can be convinced otherwise.

Don’t call them stupid. Don’t tell them that they “don’t get it” or that they have made a “mistake”. If you do that then you’re no better than the gloating Farage or the supercilious Gove – shouting someone down without engaging or understanding them. That politics of fear and unmitigated deception is to be avoided at all costs.

If you’re going to direct your anger anywhere it should be toward the people behind the Leave campaign. Direct your anger at the media who perpetuated half truths and outright falsehoods.

Answer the lies with the truth. Drive the truth home with a conversation. Listen more than you talk.

Remember the words of murdered MP, Jo Cox: “We have far more in common than that which divides us”.

Men are from Mars, women are from…Jakku?

Hello brainless hookers,

Welcome to the new blog. In place of a mission statement I’m just going to do this:

I’ll tell you what is going into my wish list for 2016: Mainstream media not being dead sexist about things. PS – THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS

Like a lot of human beings I went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens with my friends. We got the tickets well in advance and were debating dressing up. Who doesn’t want to drag it up as Princess Leia? I know I do. Mercifully I left the drag to Her Royal Highness, Carrie Fisher, herself; did you see the woman on Graham Norton? She’s a hero.

Our response to the film was positive – I thought it was entertaining, the right level of nostalgic and funny. After drooling over Poe Dameron and Kylo Ren (dah-ling leave that mask ON) I considered Rey and concluded she was a fresh addition to the Star Wars universe. Daisy Ridley, the actress who portrays Rey joins a slowly expanding circle. In the entire film franchise there are a grand total of 9 female characters. By my reckoning they are as follows:

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7. Maz Kenata

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9. Aunt Beru

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Any attempt by the writers of The Force Awakens to include more female characters is to be applauded. However it’s still a low number; which gets even lower when you discount Maz, Mon Mothma and Oola (barely in it).

Let’s also discount Aunt Beru, AKA. Aunt BBQ (get it?) and also Captain Phasma. I recently read J.J Abrams saying Phasma is his favourite character. Look – I love Gwendoline Christie as much as the next man but favourite? Really? Phasma has about three lines in the entire film. Maybe she will do more in Episodes VIII-IX but for now – she’s off the list.

So we’re left with Shmi, Padme, Leia, and Rey.

Shmi (SPOILERS) dies in Episode II and is only really there as a plot device to a) give birth to Anakin in a plot line which has tendrils of the Immaculate Conception fraying around the edges and b) to explain Anakin Skywalker’s gradual descent to the Dark Side of the Force when she is murdered by Sand People causing Anakin to go apeshit and homicidal. She has virtually nothing happening apart from her son and a weird flirtation with Qui Gon Jin.

Padme is the prequel trilogy’s only real female character with anything about her. That’s not an opinion by the way – it’s fact. Once Shmi croaks Padme is, quite literally, the only female character in the film.

She is Leader of her people on Naboo and, suspect racial tension with the Gungun’s aside, she is savvy, cunning and is, at the end of the day, doing her job as leader. Episode II sees her upgraded to Senator. But she’s hardly Hilldog; attempts on her life are met with a placid acceptance of the Jedi’s guardianship of her. She spends most of her time flirting with Anakin, brushing him off and then sleeping with him. By Episode III she has devolved into another plot device to show how Anakin tips over the edge and becomes Darth Vader. Oh, also gives birth to twins who become key players in the Original Trilogy.

Onto Princess Leia, later General Leia Organa. My love for Carrie Fisher aside – Leia is my favourite Star Wars character. She’s bold, vulnerable (Alderaan!), forthright and from what I can gather, the head of a movement looking to take down the Galactic Empire.

Given that the only other woman kicking ass in sci-fi around this time is Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Alien – Leia is up there. Although Han and Luke get to fly the Falcon and wield the lightsabers Leia is directing and organising. Okay – she gets rescued a few times but she rescues Luke and Han too; she’s on an even footing with them in terms of importance.

Which brings us to Rey who I cannot wait to see the development of in Episodes VIII and IX. Many have drawn parallels between Rey and Luke Skywalker and it wouldn’t surprise me if they’re related.

Rey is resourceful, adventurous and not afraid to muck in with the actual fighting. How brilliant.

Some of the best scenes were between Rey and Kylo Ren; both young and, somewhat, lost characters trying to figure each other out whilst at the same time not be outwitted by the other. I wanted to see more of the light sabre showdown between them.

However – I was recently watching an episode of Graham Norton where Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Carrie Fisher appeared together. Graham got out a lightsaber for them to play with and handed it straight to John Boyega who proceeded to swoosh it all over the place.

Ridley has definitely been trained to swoosh one about to so why didn’t she get a turn? It was a small thing but it really pissed me off. I also saw pictures of action figures being sold to promote the film/line Disney’s coffers with more cash. Not one of the figures was Rey. Facepalm.

It’s encouraging to see J.J Abrams make comments about how ridiculous it is that Rey (only like, you know, the LEAD character) isn’t included in the recently marketed Star Wars: The Force Awakens Monopoly game.

Let’s just hope they listen to him.

David Bowie

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I had a dream a few years ago. In the dream I was going to see a concert in a dingy club in a city in a place I could not recognise. The concert passed in a blur and the only thing I remember from the dream is wondering up a flight of stairs to the roof of the building.

I went up the stairs with a man who was tall, angular and extremely handsome. And before your minds descend to gutter, no, it wasn’t that type of dream.

The man and I sat on the roof of the building and looked out on the city below and gazed up at the stars. We sat and spoke for hours and hours and the night seemed to last forever. Then I woke up.

I cannot remember what we spoke about but I just remember feeling very reassured and safe and enchanted by this man. The man was David Bowie.

There will be plenty of obituary specials about David Bowie in the next few days but really there is little to be said. Anything that has to be said can be done through his music.

Good night David. We’ll miss you. RIP