Westworld Episode 1 Review: “The Original”
“Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.”
The late Michael Crichton delivered numerous, memorable fictions both on the page and on the screen, and while the mostly sci-fi tales cover a wide range of topics many of them share a common theme – mankind’s creations and hubris are destined to double-team our asses. From the cloned dinosaurs of Jurassic Park to the genetic patents of Next (with a brief layover involving Gene Simmons and robotic spiders in the ridiculous but under-appreciated ’80s flick Runaway) humanity’s greed-infused efforts to move forward always present a risk of knocking us back.
His 1973 film, Westworld, is something of a precursor to Jurassic Park as it posits a theme park made possible through advances in science that crumbles beneath the weight of behind-the-scenes human machinations. It’s a pretty straight-forward thriller with robot attractions turning on guests who in turn are forced to fight for their lives. The robots, headlined by the himself robotic Yul Brynner, encounter a malfunction that turns them into monsters without depth or character.
HBO’s new series adaptation – still titled Westworld – keeps the Old West setting, but it makes it immediately clear that the glitch in the robots’ programming is something far more nuanced. These artificial beings are beginning to question their place in the universe after being updated with new memory-fueled gestures designed to make them appear even more life-like and human. That idea – what does it mean to be human and alive, and can it be simulated solely on the outside – appears to be at the core of the show, and series creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy Nolan jump immediately to the artificial creations to begin their exploration.
Wisely, and perhaps to set the stage for genre-expected revelations later on, it’s made immediately clear just how difficult it is to tell human and robot apart. Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) is a robot – referred to as “hosts” by the staff – whose daily story line involves witnessing the murder of her parents (also hosts) before being raped by a guest who paid good money for the privilege. Voice-over placement and our own assumptions sees a young guest named Teddy (James Marsden) arrive in town seemingly to play out heroic aspirations of rescuing a damsel in distress, but we soon discover that he too is a robot.
It’s an interesting turn, but it raises a question I’m expecting the series to leave unanswered. (There will be more.) Namely, why are there park story lines that see hosts interacting so extensively and dramatically with only each other? Dolores and Teddy’s path to his being gun-downed and her assault sees the pair spend a lot of time together with no guests around to witness and watch. They could just as easily be stationed at the house awaiting the trigger arrival of a guest couldn’t they?
Again, to the series’ central theme of what it means to be human, the episode’s most human characters are so far the non-human hosts. Dolores, Teddy, and Dolores’ father (Louis Herthum) express emotions and behaviors befitting real people designed to earn our affection while the actual humans leave us wanting. Dolores, revealed late in the ep as the park’s oldest working host, seems positioned as the driving force behind a possible uprising. Her role as the show’s Spartacus or Caesar (the chimp) stems from her existence as little more than a tragic appliance. Her cyclical tragedy, like Irreversible on an increasingly painful loop, earns our immediate sympathy, and paired with the character’s hopeful outlook makes her someone we’re already aching to see stand up and fight.
Some of the human characters engage based more on the charisma of the actor than the script – Jeffrey Wright and Ingrid Bolsø Berdal in particular – but two stand apart from the crowd. Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) is the man behind the park’s technology, and a guest known only via the credits as The Man in Black (Ed Harris) is intent on discovering what’s behind the park’s entire existence. Their motivations and activities are wholly different, but it feels like they both might be inadvertently working towards a similar destruction. Harris’ black hat villain is terrorizing the hosts in search of the park’s “deeper level” – the inside of one host’s skullcap seems to reveal a puzzle piece (a map?) – and it seems clear he’ll go through all of the robots to find it. Ford, by contrast, is in the business of putting the hosts back together, but am I wrong to think he may have a role in their simmering revolution? It’s his code that started their awakening, and his talk of “mistakes” playing an integral role in human evolution seems like some Hopkins-ian foreshadowing.
Viewers expecting more accusations against HBO of misogyny and flesh-peddling should be at least temporarily calmed by the time the end credits roll, but they’ll be on high alert early on – the first twenty minutes alone features two suggestions of rape and one highly suspect girl on girl kiss. There’s more nudity to come, yes, mostly of the female variety, but while some is clearly there to meet HBO’s longstanding T&A quota the bare skin on display in the lab scenes quickly takes on a colder, less sexual sheen.
The nude robots are products to be examined, repaired, and put back in rotation, and these scenes serve as a stark contrast to their clothed selves above. In the lab they’re naked machines sitting awkwardly on office chairs, but costumed and in character the robots are people on the surface. By the time the ep ends, and Dolores does the one thing the hosts are supposed to be incapable of, the show suggests they have some of humanity’s darker inclinations under their skin too. More death is coming, but for Dolores and Teddy’s sake let’s hope her father’s final words – “These violent delights have violent ends,” from Romeo and Juliet —aren’t prophetic ones.
But, and, what…?
- Whenever I see Steven Ogg – Rebus, the host who kills Dolores’ father – I’m overcome with a desire to spend a few hours playing GTA V. He knows why.
- What’s the deal with the milk? Two different hosts pour the dairy product over the recently deceased – is it solely a visual connection to the creamy white substance they’re “birthed” in or is it some kind of cattle rustler habit I’m unaware of?
- A piano take on Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” plays early in the episode, but it’s the instrumental version of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black” that had me checking Amazon for the digital track. (I did not find it.)
- Am I alone in wanting a few minutes introducing the park’s routine on a normal day to see how it should be functioning before things start going awry? Does it close at night? Do guests watch them do their clean-up/resets or just return to the hotel? Is there a gift shop?
- I’m no theme park expert, but it seems to me storing all of your defective and defunct robots in an underground warehouse instead of, say, destroying them so they can’t come to life and tear you limb from limb, is probably not a smart idea.
- Speaking of bad ideas, maybe they should have put cameras/microphones in the robots instead of subconscious desires. Just sayin’.
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