We’re quite enjoying Westworld, the HBO series derived distantly from Michael Crichton’s fun film, the original Jurassic Park only with robot cowboys instead of dinosaurs.
No spoilers, unless you’re the kind of person who doesn’t want to know anything, in which case you ought to have stopped reading by now.
The TV show, created by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, attempts to spin the concept out by splitting the narrative among multiple characters, and putting the robot revolt into extreme slomo. The accretion of plot developments is glacial in pace. This is partly because of the numerous plotlines — just as something interesting is happening, we tend to cut away (J.J. Abrams is also involved, and those who lasted a season of Lost will recognize the strategy.) It makes the series compelling yet slooooowwww. Which is no bad thing in itself, although the regular inclusion of sex and violence is working hard to convince us that in fact this is an action-packed thrillride.
But very little of the violence in Westworld itself counts for anything, since it’s all a mechanical simulation. There’s one massive plausibility hole, by the way. Crichton’s movie made its theme park seem vaguely like fun, until it all went wrong, but it was a movie made when video games consisted basically of Pong. A holiday destination where you could play dress-up and shoot Yul Brynner seemed vaguely desirable. This new series comes on the back of video games like actual western bloodbath Red Dead Redemption, and might not even be possible without that example. Nobody plays cowboys and Indians anymore.
But video games offer us more sophisticated narratives than Pong, and in order to engage us, they work on a reward-punishment system where the player’s skills determine how successful they are. In Crichton’s concept, continued here, robots are programmed with Asimovian restraints that prevent them shooting the guests. So you seemingly can’t lose a gunfight if you’re a guest. Seems to me this would get rather boring. Some kind of paintball scenario where you can get fake-injured and lose points/privileges could have been concocted, but this park is short on rules and explanations. Introducing one main character who is new to all this, who has a friend who’s played before, should have allowed the writers to dole out information in a dramatically pleasing manner, but seven episodes in I’m still unsure how the park is supposed to work on the most basic level. Turns out the robots are allowed to punch guests. I wouldn’t go on a holiday where robots punched me, not even Thandie Newton robots.
Oh well, maybe just a little.
There’s another thing that doesn’t make sense — taking their cue from vidgames, the writers have imagined lengthy and complex narratives that the guests can get involved in. These are designed to be as believable yet dramatic as possible. But wouldn’t these be necessarily compromised by the fact that everybody who gets killed comes back to life the next day? A scenario like this would require the dead to stay dead until their narrative is over, and until the guests they’ve interacted with have finished their vacation.
Despite all this, we’re hooked. Good actors like Ed Harris, Anthony Hopkins (de-aged by CGI to appear in flashbacks), Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie. An AMAZING scene with a guy called Louis Herthum as Wood’s malfunctioning dad. Uncanny in all the right ways. The Abrams connection suggests it may not ultimately prove to be satisfying, while the Nolan connection suggests it may not be as clever as it thinks it is (see above). But it looks great and keeps throwing out good scenes.