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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