Westworld? Anyone with the vaguest interest in the Western genre will remember Westworld, Michael Crichton’s 1973 sci-fi-cowboy-shoot-em-up. So, it’s with little anticipation that this HBO/Sky Atlantic series hit screens last week.
Unfortunately, I just didn’t get it. Everyone else seemed to – the debut episode was HBO’s biggest series opener in three years. For me, it was a bit underwhelming and confusing and episode two did little to make things any clearer. It’s fair to say I’m not on the hook, yet – but it does show potential.
The plot is loosely the same: Westworld is a fantasy theme park where visitors pay to live out their dreams on the Wild West frontier – it’s an immersive all-in type deal where you have the choice to live alongside the state of the art robot citizens (known as hosts) – or you can do as most choose to and either kill or have sex with them. This is the sort of debauched fantasy theme park you’d expect Donald Trump to be championing; it’s a place where anything goes and holidaymakers are encouraged by the madam of the saloon/brothel to cast off inhibitions and “be whoever the f**k, you want to be!”
Everything in the park is scripted. Visitors are drawn into storylines depending on whether they want to be a goodie or a baddie. It’s a familiar kind of hyper reality where behind the scenes boffins play God with technology and surprise, surprise are unable to put back the genie once it has escaped the bottle. Chrichton, you’ll remember, redrew this theme for the hugely popular Jurassic Park – where the cowboys were replaced with living breathing apex predators and most of the human cast became menu items.
This is a big budget production and once the initial sparring stops and the real story emerges, this could be a winner. It is certainly a show with a stellar cast: Anthony Hopkins and Jeffrey Wright play the two lead creators whose fascination with AI and consciousness threatens to bring chaos; Thandie Newton, Evan Rachel Wood and James Marsden play hosts who, particularly Marsden’s Teddy, are locked in an abusive, bloody Groundhog Day; Simon Quarterman and Sidse Babett Knudsen are the constantly manoeuvring corporate suits for whom everything comes down to cold hard cash.
The guests flit in and out and only Ed Harris has so far had any prolonged screen time to flesh out his sinister and sadistic man-in-black-ooooooh-he-must-be-a-baddie-type character. Harris plays a man, who’s been visiting the park for decades, but it’s more than the sex and adventure on offer that motivates his return to the park, he is seeking a doorway to the maze.
On-demand platforms have been a blessing to long-form storytelling. The likes of Boardwalk Empire, The Sopranos and Game of Thrones all would have made good film franchises – but free of the shackled format of tying up a story in 120 minutes, these series have fledged into hugely popular, multi-threaded and complex modern classics. It is difficult to say whether Westworld can distill its crisscrossing intrigue into a fathomable plotline but it will be fun riding along to find out.
Westworld is showing on Sky Atlantic on Tuesday at 9pm.