In 2004 two of Westworld‘s producers (JJ Abrams and Bryan Burke) brought a genre-bending series with the most expensive TV pilot, at the time. Lost may have stalled a little, nearly collapsed under its own weight and disappointed some of the most diehard fans come its finale, but for 6 seasons it brought wild postulation, presupposition and philosophy to the water cooler. Add to that Jonathan Nolan, who came up with the idea for Memento and co-wrote the last two Batman sequels, Prestige and Interstellar with his brother Christopher, all of which explore themes and concepts under the surface of the narrative threads.
Westworld sets out its saloon in the opening credits. A hauntingly literal and metaphorical dissection of everything Westworld will represent.
Whether you’re familiar with the 1973 classic starring Yul Brynner as the The Gunslinger or this is your first trip to Westworld, the first instalment is equal parts mystery, examination and skilful introduction. Jonathan Nolan (on writing and directing duties) cleverly constructs a tantalising world both familiar and alien. All the tropes of the western line up to greet our guests as they step onto the platform of the dusty town. Every interaction with the town’s hosts are presented as subtle side quests in an RPG: Posse up with the sheriff to find a wanted man, gather information and your bearings in the saloon, explore the open world. Much like Michael Crichton’s original, this series begins by highlighting the moral ambiguity of allowing your theme park guests to indulge all fantasies, dark or otherwise, but there’s something much deeper going on here. In fact Westworld‘s biggest gun is the ability to bait-and-switch, despite the number of times it pulls the Stetson over your eyes. If at first you’re familiar with the lament on what happens to people in a world devoid of consequence, you suddenly find yourself examining the complex riddle of artificial intelligence and whether creators have the right to meddle. Ed Harris’ Man in Black appears as the familiar antagonist, when he is something entirely different. Where comfort should be found in the conventions of the “Wild West” there’s a disquiet in even the beautiful canyon expanses. Even the repetition of the town’s own narrative routine tightens a foreboding grip around the audience like the wheels could come off the wagon at any time.
However, rather than become a tedious game of let’s-out-smart-our-audience, Westworld takes joy in toying with conventions. If there’s a detectable dejavue in the saloon, it’s because the piano is playing Soundgarden’s Black Hole Sun. Even when the park’s directors get full-tilt yee-haw, perversely to bring the park back under control, there’s a surging orchestral arrangement of The Rolling Stones’ Paint It Black.
While the machinations, power struggles and politics of those in charge of the park have well needed exposition as well as hints that all are not as they seem in the organisation, Westworld‘s real success is its ability to play an enthralling and multi-layered game without ever tipping its hand.
5* – The unbearable likeness of beings