Thursday 27 October 2016

Is Westworld sci-fi's answer to Game of Thrones?

As HBO tries its hand at a new genre - filled with sex and violence - our reporter asks are audiences over gratuitous scenes, or will 'Westworld' do for science fiction what 'Game of Thrones' did for fantasy?

Published 04/10/2016 | 02:30

Gamble: James Marsden and Evan Rachel Wood star in HBO’s latest TV series 'Westworld'
Gamble: James Marsden and Evan Rachel Wood star in HBO’s latest TV series 'Westworld'
Fantasy: Thandy Newton
Anthony Hopkins and Evan Rachel Wood star in Westwood

It's the big-budget TV show set in a fantastical universe that shocks viewers with its frothy cocktail of sexual violence and bloodshed. No, I'm not talking about 'Game Of Thrones', but you'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise - after all, it's the formula that has helped turn the show based on George RR Martin's novels into a global phenomenon. Now HBO, the American network that brought us the clothing-optional fantasy smash, is throwing the same ingredients at the screen once again.

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'Westworld', HBO's $120 million new series, debuts tonight on Sky Atlantic. Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris and Evan Rachel Wood are among stars of this dystopian melodrama about a wild west theme park populated by robots where visitors from the outside can kill, rape and wear unflattering cowboy outfits with impunity.

Everyone involved is crossing fingers for 'Game of Thrones'-scale ratings. But do audiences truly crave further helpings of spraying arteries or in your face and copious amounts of nudity? Or might such fleshy flourishes in fact be off-putting to viewers who, it may be argued, have already sat through enough X-rated hijinks for a lifetime?

The answer to that question represents a multi-million dollar gamble by HBO - and by Sky, which, facing competition from Netflix in particular, relies heavily on "buzzy" American imports.

Fantasy: Thandy Newton
Fantasy: Thandy Newton

With 'Game of Thrones' set to run for just a further two seasons, these broadcasting juggernauts require a new hit to fill the Westeros-shaped gap upcoming in their schedules. Otherwise, what's to keep subscribers hanging around? Thus for 'Westworld' to succeed, it needs to be more than a cult success. It has to be everyone's new favourite thing.

If the show's name rings a bell it is because it is (very loosely) based on a hokey 1973 movie directed by the author Michael Crichton (from his own novel). In the original, tourists at a wild west theme park are attacked by android cowboys led by Yul Brynner's charismatic man in black (think a folically challenged prototype of Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator).

It was, in other words, essentially a dry run for Crichton's 'Jurassic Park' in which the exhibits similarly rebel and attempt to kill the sightseers.

The new series spins the idea in very different directions and poses deep questions about what it is to be human and whether our humanity will be altered as we come closer to sharing the world with life-like machines.

That may sound a lot for a mere TV drama to bite off. Certainly such weighty introspection is in contrast to 'Game of Thrones', ultimately based on the simple premise of an army of frozen undead about to attack civilisation (the 'GoT' formula might be simplified to "'Lord of the Rings' plus 'Walking Dead' equals ratings gold").

Moreover, 'Westworld''s path to the screen has not been smooth. The series was conceived by husband and wife writing team Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy (Nolan is younger brother of 'Dark Knight' director Christopher). However, their hopes of delivering the project by 2015 were frustrated as they struggled to tell the story they wanted.

Anthony Hopkins and Evan Rachel Wood star in Westwood
Anthony Hopkins and Evan Rachel Wood star in Westwood

With the creators entangled in an increasingly complicated plot, shooting was halted late last year so that Nolan and Joy could take another pass as the screenplay.

"We didn't have scripts at that point; we'd finished shooting everything that we had and we had a few more episodes at the end," Joy told the 'Hollywood Reporter'. "To be able to write them in advance and then go back to production and fully commit… it was an enormous opportunity and we're so grateful."

This led to chatter of a "troubled production". It didn't help that HBO was reeling from its most recent mega-bucks flop, the $100 million 'Vinyl'. That show was supposed to be the hot new "must see" in prestige drama. With Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger among the producers and respected character actor Bobby Cannavale starring alongside Jagger's own son James, its credentials were seemingly impeccable.

But 'Vinyl' turned out to be a bland mess - so underwhelming it was cancelled after just one season and was seen as contributing to the replacement of HBO head of programming Michael Lombardo by Casey Bloys (Lombardo had been closely involved in shepherding 'Vinyl' from page to screen).

JJ Abrams arrives at the Los Angeles premiere of Westworld (AP)
JJ Abrams arrives at the Los Angeles premiere of Westworld (AP)

"It's a little intense for people, no question," was how executive producer JJ Abrams ('Lost', 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens') described the pressure on 'Westworld' to the 'Hollywood Reporter'.

"I think it's something people will respond to. It deserves an audience. 'Game of Thrones' is a phenomenon that can't be matched, so I think we need to stop comparing it and just say that it's another series on an extraordinary network."

Yet as 'Westworld' debuts in Ireland tonight, it's possible that over-the-top sex and violence rather than a muddled storyline will be the major potential stumbling point.

Science fiction tends to focus on the bleaker aspects of human nature. Here the outlook is positively misanthropic with Nolan and Joy clearly of the view that, set loose in a world without limitations, people will quickly turn into blood-thirsty sex predators ('Westworld''s in-game regulations decree that, though the robots can be "killed", humans cannot be harmed).

Just how sordid the show is likely to turn is hinted at by leaked casting notes informing auditioning actors they may be expected to appear "fully nude, perform genital-to-genital touching" and "consent to form a table-like shape while being fully nude".

If this is an indication as to what 'Westworld' has in store, then 'Game of Thrones'' notorious Red Wedding will pale in comparison. Hold on to your Stetsons - things may be about to get very dark indeed.

'Westworld' is on Sky Atlantic tonight at 9pm

Irish Independent

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