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What’s the Big Idea? A Review of HBO’s Westworld

Westworld, HBO’s new science fiction drama that will premiere Sunday, wants to be the big idea. Trade in your zombies and dragons for life-like robots. Tackling notions of morality, artificial intelligence, and entertainment in the premiere alone, Westworld wants to be a show that makes you think. Or perhaps it wants to make you despair.

Set in the near-future, Westworld is essentially a high-end period piece amusement park. Colonial Williamsburg but set in the Wild West of Hollywood imagination and populated by 3D-printed automaton “hosts” instead of humans. Tourists spend extravagant amounts of money to interact with these hosts and live in the fabricated frontier town. However, as you might expect from an HBO show, there is no limit to those interactions. So while a young boy might be excited to feed a fake horse, we’re presented with many characters excited to pillage, rape, and murder their human-like hosts. A visitor boasts about the great time he had on a previous visit where he went evil immediately.

Things are about to fall apart however as Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins) has introduced an update into the hosts that creates “reveries.” Normally at the end of the day, the automatons are repaired and have their minds wiped of whatever great or horrible experiences at the hands of their visitors. The update, however, allows traces of those experiences to remain in the hosts to, in effect, subconsciously guide their actions. The upload goes awry, however, and the automatons begin to remember more than they should, think more than they should.

It’s thrilling to watch as the delicate machine of the automatons’ lives begin to spin out of control. Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, and Thandie Newton promise to become more and more compelling as the self-awareness of their automaton characters begin to grow. It will be on the strength of their abilities to be “real” and “fake” that the show will live or die.

These are plenty of questions about the overall premise that the premiere doesn’t answer that left lingering could pose problems if never addressed (e.g., is the young boy excited by feeding the horse really permitted to be in a fake town filled with other humans who are gleefully play-raping?). Also, as might be expected for a Nolan product (Westworld was co-created by Lisa Joy and her husband Jonathan Nolan — creator of CBS’ Person of Interest and co-writer of brother Christopher’s Dark Knight trilogy), there is a stiffness in certain speechifying moments. It’s not a show that wants you to forget it’s about big ideas. For now I can say that I look forward to the potential though I might despair at what it says about our future.


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