Dr Ian Malcolm, in another Michael Crichton adaptation, derisively says that if the Pirates of the Caribbean malfunctions, “the pirates don’t eat the tourists”. He was explaining the risks of a dinosaur theme park but his words also describe HBO’s new mega-show, Westworld.
Based on Crichton’s 1973 movie, Westworld wonders what would happen if those pirates gained consciousness and impaled the guests. The film opts for the simple route, showing the experience from the guests’ perspective as they are stalked by Terminator forerunner, the Man in Black. And, it is with the Man in Black that Jonathan Nolan makes his first genius twist. In the TV Westworld, the Man in Black (Ed Harris) is human and is attacking the robots as part of the game. The “good” and “bad” guys are swapped and the perspective of the story changes — this time out in the fake wild west, the story is told from the robots’ perspective and how they will react to the fact they are designed to be the ultimate playthings is a more interesting narrative hook than run away from the robot.This deviation from the source material allows Nolan to ask pseudo-intellectual questions about human nature and the fact that most guests revel in the ability to fulfil their darkest desires — rape, pillage, murder — shines a stark light on our desensitisation to violence. Humanity is cast as the devil. The switch deepens the material and allows us to understand why the robots possibly go berserk.
Most of this conflict revolves around Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood). Dolores is a pawn and Wood plays her as if she is pretending to be a naive child. She has everyone fooled but we know there is something sinister lurking beneath her immaculate surface. Her opening salvo with James Marsden (an underrated actor) may seem cliché because everything in Westworld is staged by a backroom staff.
The backroom staff is stacked with “character actors” and Westworld uses their career history as a shortcut to help the audience understand the characters. Hopkins’ history especially creates a shroud of ambiguity around his character. Hopkins may be the A-list draw but Sidse Babett Knudsen’s badass business lady, Theresa Cullen, is the true star. It is glorious watching her cut down all in her path.However, when Knudsen and co. are scrambling to fix the robots, the show’s potential problems come forward. Nolan and Lisa Joy’s dialogue lacks nuance and is swamped by its need to talk about ideas. Whilst Dolores’ storyline balances its ambiguity, the “drama” elsewhere is too obvious. Westworld struggles putting character before vapid ideas. It’s not like Nolan’s scripts are known for thematic ambiguity, he is, after all, one of the brothers who tried to sledgehammer some psychobabble onto Batman.
His dialogue may lag but Nolan’s direction is a great magician’s assistant, distracting you from the show’s shortcomings. He keeps the episode rattling along, creating evocative images that aren’t afraid of being weird and he uses violence to further character. His directing talents are obvious when he stages a sexy saloon shoot-out that is everything Westworld could become: funny, violent and, soundtracked by a rearranged ‘Paint It Black’, weird. Big brother Chris should be looking over his shoulder.