Based on the 1973 Michael Crichton film of the same name – although the development of this series has erased the majority of any recognisable connections – Westworld is set in a fictional theme park where guests can dress as cowboys and live out fantasies they’ve harboured since being small children. Head out with the sheriff to track down a fugitive or simply while away your time drinking rye whisky and cavorting with whores; the choice is yours. All tastes are catered for in Westworld. And it’s all perfectly safe, as the park is populated by robots; highly developed android ‘hosts’ whose programming has been designed purely to enhance the experience of what they affectionately refer to as the ‘newcomers’.
From the opening scenes, Westworld has you at a disadvantage. Instead of establishing a central theme and introducing several key ‘newcomers’ you would have expected the series to have been built around, Westworld mixes things up a little. Initially following Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood), a young farmer’s daughter still enjoying the simple joys of life while she awaits the return of her beau, you have no idea she is actually one of the hosts. Dolores simply goes about her normal routine, interacting with other hosts and guests, that is until the arrival of the Gunslinger, a character made famous by Yul Brynner and here portrayed with barely concealed relish by Ed Harris.
And this is the key to Westworld’s intrigue. Instead of the narrative playing out entirely from the point of view of the guests, the series puts the android characters’ front and centre, exploring their sense of existence as they slowly come to question they’re surroundings. ‘Memories’ begin to return like glimpses of past lives – in essence, exactly what they are – and the repetition of day-to-day normality becomes a little more abnormal. When the human characters are introduced it is they who are predictable, they who act in routines, and this unsettling confusion is what makes Westworld utterly enthralling. Yes, the balance between what is or isn’t consciousness has been explored many times, and recently in films such as Ex_Machina and The Machine, but here the robots weren’t designed to push the boundaries of their own creation. These are robots for robots’ sake, created purely to service the needs of rowdy, murderous or horny guests.
Creation does need a beginning, however, and has one with Anthony Hopkins’ brooding inventor. Occasionally rueful, often impulsive, Hopkins dominates every scene he is in and shows how he can still captivate when given a character he clearly believes in. While the remainder of the performances are strong, a slight criticism comes in the formulaic nature of some of the characters. Jeffrey Wright’s Head Of Programing is both naïvely idealistic, Luke Hemsworth is all no-nonsense as head of security and Simon Quaterman is simply irritating as the temperamental writer. It is therefore with the hosts that the best characters are to be found. Thandie Newton is bewitching as ‘ageing’ madam Maeve and Wood shines as her innocence is rebooted with every daily start up. Most interesting, though, is Harris’ Gunslinger whose true nature will not be revealed here.
If one more reason was needed to convince that Westworld truly is appointment television, it is that the series is aesthetically stunning. Whether in the epic western vistas, all craggy and stark, or the polished interiors of the laboratories, this is a series that challenges Hannibal in the award for most beautiful design. You will simply never tire of the sweeping panoramic shots of the plains or the claustrophobic, onyx-like corridors of the control rooms.
Take our word for it: Westworld is one of the best television shows of 2016. It is superbly balanced, with steady, at times slow story development perfectly complimented by barely contained insanity. Westworld is drama of the highest calibre filled with, as one guest puts it, “guns, tits and mindless shit.”