Tuesday 23 January 2018

Westworld review: You can almost smell the money as HBO chucks it at the screen

Eight things we learned from the first episode

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

Ed Power

It has been billed one of the year’s biggest television events. But after all the hype and “troubled production” rumours, was the first episode of HBO’s Westworld any good?

The $100 million dollar sci fi western has been ruthlessly engineered to take over from Game of Thrones when the swords and sorcery ratings-gobbler gallops into the sunset in 2018.

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'

And while tonight’s pilot showed plenty of promise it was also brooding and slow-moving and may have benefitted from a twinkle of levity. Here are eight takeaways.

1: Wow, that was bleak wasn’t it?

In the future humanity will seek fulfilment by dressing as Old West cowboys and embarking on murderous rampages – a sort of Grand Theft Auto with Stetsons and spurs. Such was the bleak vision set out by the first episode of Westworld, in which the robot inhabitants of the eponymous theme park were portrayed as far more humane than the people.

2: Okay, Ed Harris’s Man in Black, you’ve got our attention.

He rapes and kills sure – but always with the all consuming goal of solving the mystery baked into Westworld by its creator Richard Ford (Anthony Hopkins playing a sad version of his Odin from the the Thor movies). In a delicious inversion of Yul Byrner’s rampaging robot from the 1973 Westworld movie, Harris’s Man In Black is an out of control human– a sociopath possessed by the desire to unlock the ultimate puzzle. Consider us hooked.

3: You can almost smell the money as HBO chucks it at the screen.

Every cent of the $25 million HBO reportedly lavished on the pilot could be seen. There were epic vistas (shot on location in Utah), a top rank cast, led by Harris and Hopkins (reportedly each on $125,000 per episode) and gorgeous cinematography. Westworld was a feast for the senses

4: But what’s it about, exactly?

Setting aside the fact that Westworld isn’t a franchise anyone was hankering to see return, the new series arguably has one cardinal flaw: it doesn’t know what it wants to be. Is it a dark comedy about the things men do when given absolute power? A meditation on what makes us human? A chilly sci-fi romp with Kubrickian overtones? For now, husband and wife showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy appear to be in the dark, just like all of those icky naked robots hiding in Ford’s basement.

5: Evan Rachel Wood is the best thing in it.

As the lady droid with the heart of gold, Wood is a revelation, mixing tenderness, innocence and uncanny-valley weirdness. The show is very visibly still coming together – but we’ll keep watching for her performance alone.

6: So the robots are going to go crazy and kill everyone right?

If a century of science fiction has taught us anything it is that sentient robots have but one mission in this world: rise up and overthrow their flesh and blood masters. With Dr Ford introducing an “update” that encourages  the previously passive machines connect to, and be riled by, buried memories, a robo revolt is surely inevitable.

7: How can Westworld’s bullets harm other robots - but not the human “guests”.

For all its surface slickness, at moments Westworld provides glimpses of a rickety television show underneath. For instance, though bullets from robot guns can cut down sibling artificial people, human guests are immune. Were the bullets treated? Are visitors provided with Kevlar underwear on arrival? The best science fiction pays attention to detail  – there are reasons to suspect Westworld isn’t quite there yet.

8: Whatever else Westworld may be, it isn’t the new Game of Thrones.

Sure, GoT had a somewhat uncertain start. But the first episode at least nailed down the essence of the show. White Walkers were massing in the north, Joffrey was a horrid man-imp, Jon Snow the moodiest man-bun devotee in Westeros. In contrast, you came away from the first Westworld with little inkling how the rest of the season will play out. We leave it to readers to decide whether that is a good thing.

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