Genre television is on a roll right now. With the emergence of cable and streaming services, there has been a road paved that has allowed the likes of HBO, AMC and Netflix to take genre shows to the next level, with production values and writing that has allowed series such as Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead and Stranger Things to not only come in and grab the zeitgeist, but also the acclaim of critics and the notices of award voters.
In the middle of all of it, and maybe because it has been off the air for over a year and a half, it’s been easy to forget the considerable impact Westworld made during its first season; boasting an executive producer credit for JJ Abrams, and with writing duties coming from Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy (Person of Interest), and taking as its inspiration the famed Michael Crichton movie from 1973, Westworld arrived on screens with amazing production values, a big budget, A-list stars and a decidedly R-rated attitude to its content, but with an intelligence to its themes that pushed it towards the realm of philosophical.
It’s might be easy to forget in this day and age when the majority of genre pictures being released in movie theatres are rated 12A or PG-13 and aimed, mostly, at a family audience, but there was a time when science fiction projects were very much geared towards adults and had an incredibly mature way of handling its themes along with it; RoboCop, The Matrix, The Terminator, Blade Runner, Alien or Total Recall could give audiences a lot of bang for their buck, but also felt adult and intelligent in their handling of big ideas.
Westworld feels like the type of high-end genre movie that Hollywood has forgotten to make for adults. If it were to be done as a movie nowadays it would once again be PG-13, be filled to the brim with action and spectacle and make a billion dollars, but it might lack that big brainy heart that Nolan and Joy have brought to it here.
Being a HBO presentation, it does mean that sometimes the adult nature of the series can fall into the unnecessary (a trip to a brothel in the middle stages of the season does feel like nothing more but an excuse to get some naked flesh on to the screen, even if the ideas the scene in connoting are necessary), but other times, especially in comparison to something like Game of Thrones, the series can also show amazing restraint; a sexual assault in the first episode is dealt with off-camera, even though it takes on an incredibly disturbing dimension when the series throws its big twist in the finale.
More amazingly, for a series that is remaking a high-end B-movie from the 70’s, the series is not only bigger in its portrayal of its world (complete with glorious western vistas, some of which are filmed beautifully by former Millennium DP Robert McLachlan), but in its portrayal of themes and plots involving mortality, identity, grief, life, sex and death, and what is means to be alive.
For anyone coming to see robots take on humans in a theme park setting (the film itself could almost have been seen as a trial run for Michael Crichton’s later novel Jurassic Park), then you might be disappointed, and might at least want to pace yourself for the second season, or at the very least the finale to this first year which hints fantastically at the chaos to come, but holds back for what is looking to be an even more spectacular second year.
At its core, Westworld takes the basis that formed the original movie, but opens up in a way that it almost recalls the work of Philip K Dick in its themes on what it means to be human, or to earn a soul when one is not actually a human being. Instead of opting to make the “hosts”, as they are referred to here, as simply out of control cyborgs killing off the paying customers who have come to shoot and shag them for their own pleasure, Nolan and Joy make characters such as Dolores (a superb Evan Rachel Wood), Teddy (James Marsden) and Maeve (a devastatingly brilliant Thandie Newton) into fully fledged three-dimensional beings who we come to root for.
Instead, humanity in its most horrifying form is the enemy here; one of the sole sympathetic humans in the show, William, played by Jimmi Simpson, turns out to actually be the horrifying Man in Black (Ed Harris) in a future timeline, while Jeffrey Wright’s character Bernard looks set to be the heroic human element of the series, but in a game changing twist, is revealed to another creation of the park’s creator Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), another decent “host” who is eventually forced into terrible circumstances by the horrifying nature of humanity controlling the park.
The first season is a meaty, brilliant slice of modern science fiction. Anyone coming into it for all the obvious genre trappings may end up disappointed that it takes a somewhat more cerebral route, but for anyone who sticks the landing, it ends up being one of the most brilliant pieces of science fiction to come from a major American studio of 2016. While Game of Thrones and Stranger Things steal headlines and social media posts, Westworld instead opted for its own course and ends up being head and shoulders above other genre productions coming from the producers of high-end American television.
Its final scene hints at the chaos to come and it can’t come soon enough.