Review: "Westworld (Season 1, HBO, 2016)
I bought a ticket to Westworld based on the strength of two things: my total mark status for Sir Anthony Hopkins and my vague memory of the original film from childhood. At this point in the game, too, anyone with a brain is going to take a chance on practically any HBO offering. They rarely miss the mark, and it's a home run more often than not. You can always count on HBO to deliver the goods.
What I didn't expect was how much the idea of Westworld as a concept occupied my mind. Who wouldn't want to partake in those violent delights? How far could you, would you, push it? I think, for most of us, the answer is entirely too far. Maybe that's just me. I'm a sick little monkey with a lot of shit that I need to work out. No lie.
The source material (as I have previously reviewed) is from the mind of the late, great Michael Crichton ("Jurassic Park", "Sphere", "The Andromeda Strain"). Westworld is a Wild West theme park of the future for adults, populated by cyborgs known as hosts. The hosts are indistinguishable from you or I. They are flawless and intuitive. You can fight them, fuck them, and kill them. Let's face it, folks- what else would you be going there for? You can live out your darkest or most heroic fantasies with no repurcussions. Tell me you wouldn't pay top dollar for that.
Evan Rachel Wood ("Thirteen", "The Wrestler") is Dolores Abernathy, the angelic and seemingly titular heroine. Thandie Newton ("M.I.2", "The Pursuit of Happyness") plays Maeve Millay, the Madame of the local whorehouse and one tough-ass woman. James Marsden (Scott Summers from the "X-Men" series, "Disturbing Behavior") is Teddy Flood, the handsome and noble hero with a dark past. They are all hosts who are having strange memories of death and violence. All are unsure of whether or not they are, to some degree, cracking up.
They (and a diverse host of others...pun intended) are kept in check by the masters who run the park. Sir Anthony Hopkins ("Silence of the Lambs", "Dracula") is Robert Ford, the park's creator, an enigmatic genius of questionable morals, & a lover of a good story. Jeffrey Wright ("Boardwalk Empire", Felix Leiter from the 007 films) plays Bernard Lowe, Dr. Ford's top man and the head of QA for Westworld. Rounding out your "baddies" is the incomparably badass Ed Harris ("The Rock", "The Abyss") as the Man in Black, a sinister and bloodthirsty villain who wreaks utter havoc everywhere he goes.
There's just so damn much to love in this show. A well told story needs a strong antagonist to bring the menace and danger, and this show gives you three deep and complex antagonists. None of them are what they first appear to be and yet they are. That's not easy to pull off, but with legends like Hopkins and Harris you can't lose. The show stealer is Jeffrey Wright, who is (in my not so humble opinion) one of the most criminally underrated and underappreciated actors of his generation. He provides the bridge to humanity for the hosts and gives you some serious emotional depth.
Make no mistake, though- it's the Hosts and the Guests that are the centerpiece of this insanely promising show. The questions of "What is reality?" and "Who am I, really?" are hanging over everything from the first episode. They want you to deeply imagine what it's like to be a host. Do you even know that things are not what they appear to be? Is it even you making all of your decisions? For my money they do a stellar job of keeping you thinking and talking. It's very similar to "Lost" in that regard (though in a wildly different setting).
Don't be fooled into thinking that this is just a philosophical thinker. "Westworld" does not fuck around when it comes to the hallmarks of a great HBO show- twists, turns, sex, violence, dark humor, & amazing locations. It will immerse you in the best kind of way. Could it be another "Game of Thrones" in time? Maybe.......
I'm giving the complete first season a very solid 8.5 out of 10 (with a 9.5 out of 10 for sheer future potential). There were a couple of episodes at the midseason point that lagged a bit in terms of action/exposition imbalance, but even those served the purpose of furthering the narrative. The finale was a jaw dropper with mulitple "Oh, shit!!" moments.
In the words of the great Hunter S. Thompson: "Buy the ticket, take the ride".
I don't think you'll be disappointed.