Considering the pace of technological change since the early seventies, Michael Crichton’s Westworld was ripe for a reboot. Where the original movie simply pondered the notion of robots designed by computers becoming psychotic, HBO’s recent ten-part series has opted for a broader exploration of the subject matter. Show creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy reflect upon the nature of sentience, the moral ambiguity of an amusement park such as Westworld and whether fictitious emotions created through programming are any less real than those genuinely experienced. Over ten and a half hours Westworld certainly covers a lot of ground. Its $100 million production cost is also very apparent.
When it was announced in early 2014 that Westworld was to be rebooted by HBO, many media commentators agreed that this was a good match. HBO being free from the content restrictions of network television and enjoying larger production budgets. Due to the scope of the show HBO shared financing with Warner Bros. Television who currently hold the copyright to the franchise. As further details emerged over the following months regarding casting and other production details, Westworld became one of the most eagerly awaited shows of 2016. It was broadly expected by many critics, that a show with such a pedigree was bound to be a hit.
HBO have had a lot of experience with large productions of this nature. Band of Brothers and The Pacific are good examples, both of which maintained a high standard of writing and narrative vision. However, there is also the more recent success of Game of Thrones to consider. This sprawling epic has found an audience not only because of its densely plotted narrative but due to the liberal quantities of violence, nudity and abhorrent behaviour featured in each season. It cannot be denied that the more salacious elements of George R. R. Martin’s fiction are a contributory element to the shows appeal and popularity. Furthermore, these elements may now be considered an integral part of HBOs formula for success because they are also present in Westworld. Whether they are beneficial or not is a hotly debated question.
Westworld is a story that unfolds from the point of view of the hosts, the artificial lifeforms that populate an amusement park owned by the fictitious company Delos. Because the hosts memories and experiences are constantly manipulated, erased or altered by their creators, the narrative is complex and often deliberately confusing. As a concept and a way of telling a story this is a great idea. However, there is a very fine line to tread between intriguing complexity and excessive, even self-indulgent intricacy. There is also a very old maxim regarding telling a story via a visual medium that it’s better to show rather than tell. Westworld seems to struggle to commit to either of these two courses of action over its story arc.
The shows substantial budget can be seen in every facet of the production. The visual effects are very good and the cinematography is well conceived. Costumes, props and locations all contribute to making the Westworld a credible amusement park. The cast is universally good with Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton and Jeffrey Wright especially standing out. Ed Harris is also a very compelling on screen presence. Frequently sub-plots involving these actors are the high point of each episode. The writers should also be commended for some of the philosophical ideas the narrative explores. Television seldom becomes so contemplative. Yet despite so many positive aspects Westworld often slows down as it attempts to tie itself up in unnecessary dramatic Gordian knots. Furthermore, at times it exudes an air of smug satisfaction at its own “cleverness”. A prime example being the weekly use of contemporary songs being played on the Pianola.
A good screenplay can draw on a broad range of dramatic devices if it is well written and the said devices are intelligently used. Thus, physical, psychological and sexual violence can be utilised successfully beyond mere titillation. Because Westworld is a story about an amusement park that allows customers to indulge in such activities, it is natural to assume that they will be depicted. However, I feel that the spectre of Game of Thrones has impacted upon the production. Therefore, on several occasions I felt that the writers were including a degree of profane language or acts of violence because they felt obliged to. Sadly, it did not always work and stood out quite noticeably and the net result was somewhat immersion breaking.
The season finale of Westworld did manage to draw many of the plot element together and upon mature reflection, some of the more esoteric aspects of the previous episodes did now have a clear purpose. Although one should not directly compare HBOs show with the 1973 feature film, as they are very different beasts, there is broadly a comparable story arc. Effectively after ten hours plus of convoluted and at times frustrating drama, Westworld arrived at a point in the narrative that the feature film reached in about forty minutes. The journey has been far from dull but not exactly the rollercoaster ride the producers intended. For every good point of the production there is a negative one. Thought provoking themes give way to arbitrary plot twists and intriguing ideas get lost in a mire of pretentious intellectual posturing. I therefore hope that season two of Westworld manages to keep the cerebral elements of the story but jettisons the pompous tone and the deliberately pedestrian pacing.