Adapted from the 1973 sci-fi thriller written and directed by the late Michael Crichton, ‘Westworld’ is the biggest and most ambitious high-concept event series HBO has launched since ‘Game of Thrones’. The pilot episode leaves me with a lot of questions, not all of which I’m certain the series will be able to answer satisfactorily.
The original ‘Westworld’ was written specifically for the screen by Crichton, not based on a novel. The new version was adapted by Jonathan Nolan and his wife, Lisa Joy Nolan. Jonathan Nolan has written or co-written many of the films his brother Christopher directed, and additionally created CBS’ recently-concluded ‘Person of Interest’, which shared a similar preoccupation with A.I. run amok that will be the dominant theme here.
As a precursor to his later ‘Jurassic Park’, Crichton’s ‘Westworld’ boiled down to a fairly simple premise: the scientifically-created attractions at a high-end theme park go out of control and attack the park’s visitors. In both cases, Crichton sold his concepts with a gloss of speculative but just-on-the-edge-of-plausible science, which mostly served as window dressing for basic stalk-and-attack horror thriller plots. (Don’t get me wrong, I love both ‘Westworld’ and ‘Jurassic Park’.) In order to expand ‘Westworld’ to an ongoing series, the Nolans would like to dive deeper into the themes.
The pilot episode starts with an elaborate misdirect. In a laboratory setting, a girl who’s clearly an android is woken up and interrogated by her programmers, who probe her with questions such as, “Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?” We get the hint that something must have gone wrong. The girl is named Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood). In flashback, we see her again in a Western setting. She wakes up on a farm, talks to her father, and rides into town, where a handsome stranger named Teddy (James Marsden) has just arrived by train. Through a series of clues, we can gather that the setting is a fully-immersive recreation of the Old West, where wealthy “guests” pay a lot of money to interact with extremely-convincing synthetic “hosts” that will indulge their Wild West fantasies and play out various classic Western storylines.
This does not appear to be Teddy’s first visit to Westworld. He and Dolores have some history. He rides with her back to the farm, only to find that her parents have been murdered by bandits. Teddy gets to play hero and triumpantly gun down all the outlaws, until he encounters The Man in Black (Ed Harris), who refuses to play along. Even as Teddy shoots him multiple times, the Man in Black doesn’t flinch. He then shoots and kills the dumbfounded Teddy and absconds with Dolores.
Just as we think we’ve figured out that Harris is playing the Yul Brynner character from the old movie – a robot who went nuts and killed the theme park visitors – the rug is pulled out from under us and we learn that Teddy was in fact a robot too. The next morning, the day repeats. Dolores wakes up on the farm, talks to her father, and rides into town where she meets Teddy again.
Behind the scenes in the control center of the park, scientists and technicians build, repair and program countless more robots. Even the horses in the park are synthetic. (A gunfight scenario may result in horses getting shot, and you wouldn’t want to do that with real animals.) We’re introduced to lead programmer Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), his assistant Elsie (Shannon Woodward from ‘Raising Hope’), and the genius who created all the robots, Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins). Ford added new code to a recent software update to make the robots behave even more realistically human, and a bug in the code may have resulted in some so-called “unscripted activities.” Park administrator Theresa Cullen debates whether to recall the 200 or so robots that received the software, but the park’s “Narrative Director” Lee argues that doing so would throw all the scripted storylines into chaos. Bernard assures Theresa that the robots’ core programming is still intact and that they’re totally unable to harm any guests.
However, when an outlaw character goes off-book and scares some of the guests, Theresa decides to order the recall. In order to accommodate this, she instructs Lee to move up a scheduled saloon robbery storyline that would end with a big gunfight and numerous character deaths (thus providing a natural excuse for the removal of many robots).
Meanwhile, Dolores’ father finds a photo that a guest left behind of a woman in a modern metropolitan city. He becomes obsessed with the photo and can’t reconcile what it is. He shows it to Dolores, who says it doesn’t look like anything to her. The father then starts glitching and exhibits symptoms similar to a human having a stroke. Dolores frantically races into town to find a doctor. She gets there just as a gang of outlaws, led by chief bandit Hector (Rodrigo Santoro), arrive in town and cause a big scene.
During the ensuing gunfight, Teddy is shot while trying to save Dolores. Lee is very proud of a grandly villainous speech he’s given Hector to deliver at the conclusion of the scene, but it’s ruined when a guest plays hero and guns Hector down first. The guest is thrilled, but Lee is heartbroken.
Park staff then clean up the bodies and bring the ‘bots back to the lab. Most of them check out OK, aside from Dolores’ father. Dr. Ford interrogates him to determine what why he’s not working properly. From what he can tell, pieces of its older programming from former character roles it has played have bled into its current code. Ford has no explanation for this. The robot is deactivated and put into cold storage. The next morning, Dolores wakes up on the farm again and talks to her father, now played by a different robot.
We learn then that Dolores is in fact the very first robot built for Westworld. She’s been remodeled and had so many parts replaced that there’s little of her original left, but she’s technically the oldest robot in the park.
The episode ends with the Man in Black again. He’s been acting strangely the whole time. He kidnaps and tortures a minor character to get “answers.” The man doesn’t seem to have any answers to give, but the Man in Black doesn’t have traditional questions. He kills and scalps the man, discovering a Westworld logo and imprinted pattern on the underside of the scalp.
Episode Verdict / Grade: B+
‘Westworld’ is obviously a prestige production for HBO. The premiere episode is very slick and glossy and has a great cast. (I didn’t even mention Thandie Newton as a brothel madam.) The drama and storylines are also intriguing, but I’m left with a lot of questions about the premise. For example:
- Would an Old West theme park really be such a popular attraction? It’s suggested in one scene that this is a resort for wealthy patrons. In another scene, we’re told that the park currently has 1,400 guests. At the time Michael Crichton made the original ‘Westworld’ movie, the setting made sense because Western movies were still very popular with audiences. However, the genre fell out of favor a long time ago. Today, even the star-studded ‘Magnificent Seven’ remake is underperforming box office expectations. I’d imagine that some sort of superhero or fantasy setting would sell a lot more theme park tickets… but then I suppose the show couldn’t be called ‘Westworld’.
- The twist that Teddy was a robot all along suggests that the robots play out storylines even when there are no guests around to see them or participate. What would be the point of that?
- Are the guns really armed with live ammo? It sure seems that way, based on the amount of damage the robots take. Even if the robots’ programming supposedly prevents them from harming visitors, would you really want 1,400 armed guests running around with loaded weapons, in a setting where they can’t tell the difference between the robots and other humans?
- The park’s controllers can immediately tell when other robots go off-script, yet the Man in Black walks around repeatedly breaking the fantasy without anyone noticing. After his initial introduction at Dolores’ farm, both Dolores and Teddy were repaired and put back in place for the next day, so obviously the events of that scene were known. How are the Man in Black’s activities a secret?
- The episode timeline makes no sense to me. Dolores and Teddy repeat the same day over and over. That’s logical from the perspective of wanting to put the robots and their characters back in service. However, this doesn’t seem to happen to anyone else. Guests in the park may stay multiple days or even weeks, and they don’t repeat the same storylines every day. When park manager Theresa reschedules the bandit raid on the town, she says that it’s being moved up a full week, which suggests that character storylines play out over much longer periods of time than what happens to Dolores and Teddy. I seriously doubt that every episode of the show will revolve around this one day’s narrative being repeated with variations over and over again, ‘Groundhog Day’-like. Can this contradiction be resolved?