Tuesday, December 13, 2016

HBO's Westworld Makes A Grand Comeback

When the Emmy Awards come around in a few months the executives at HBO can be certain of going home with a additional trophies for their latest offering, Westworld, a thought-provoking and addictive science-fiction venture adapted from the 1973 motion-picture of the same name. As a kid I fondly enjoyed the premise of Westworld and was surprised to learn HBO was going to televise a weekly series adapted from the motion-picture. Could they pull it off? They did -- and in spades.

Westworld is an inter-active theme park played out by advanced robotics for tourists who are willing to pay big money to role play as a gunslinger, sheriff, bounty hunter or simply spend the afternoon screwing the whores in the town saloon. Customers/tourists (known as "the guests") dress in costume and play out a fantasy of their own choosing... many of whom want to get their money's worth. With proprietary software, the storylines in the million-acre landscape continue to change and adapt according to the responses of the tourists. 

Every night when the tourists go to sleep, the staff of Westworld sneak into the park, pick up the pieces, repair the robots (known as "the hosts") and wipe the memory banks clean. The sun rises in the East and the storylines play out again through a repeated cycle for the next day's tourists. But when some of the robots in the park start developing anomalies and independent thought process, artificial intelligence is born. Pity for the tourists who wanted to play cowboy for a day and it comes as no surprise that the robots will ultimately take over.

Westworld is based on a story idea conceived by Michael Crichton, who later recycled his concept with dinosaurs instead of robots for Jurassic Park (and yes, there is a verbal tip-of-the-hat to Jurassic Park in one episode). The scenario unfolds in a series of ten hour-long episodes in what is now known as Season One. (HBO has since renewed Westworld for an additional season.) Direction is top-notch, writing is both academic and witty, and the special effects are the best I have seen in years for any television program (or movie, for that matter). Westworld is a complex, intriguing and fascinating series worth binge watching if you can find an afternoon free from all distractions.

If Westerns are your meat and potatoes, you will be pleased to know that the dialog fits the bill. When the Deputy approaches a notorious gang of bank robbers, riding into town, the tourists who paid good money for excitement get their money's worth. "That's the sheriff's horse you got there," the deputy remarks. A bullet quickly takes the life of the deputy, killing him on the spot. "His rifle, too," remarks the villain.

"You can't play God without being acquainted with the Devil."

"Wouldn't want anything disturbing our guests from their rape and pillage."

Behind the scenes there are a number of growing conflicts. The moneymen want a boost to the theme park with new storylines. The company wants to protect its intellectual property while at the same time phase out Dr. Robert Ford, played by Anthony Hopkins, the creator of Westworld who slyly accepts the fate ultimately handed to him. Ed Harris plays the mysterious man in black who pays good money to keep returning as a guest to the theme park, operating like a standard-issue serial killer, hoping to uncover a deeper level in the game known as "The Maze," which will supposedly provide fulfillment. Evan Rachel Wood, who receives top billing on the series, plays the oldest robot in the theme park, Dolores, who is among the first to wake up from her simulated life and set out for the path of enlightenment. Her unsympathetic creators, and challenging foe (Ed Harris) will climax in the final installment that puts all the pieces of the puzzle together.

There are plot twists with almost every episode. Who is manipulating a few robots with a transmission from a hidden satellite feed? As the robots start discovering their true identities, how will they react when they face the decision to rebel? Most importantly is the overall exit strategy put into place by Dr. Ford, knowing the company wants to remove him as soon as they can excise the exact details of the proprietary technology?

It must be the policy of HBO to take a premise that can effectively be dramatized without vulgarity or sex and inject gratuitous scenes of nudity and sexual violence in practically every episode. But for this series the vulgarity and nudity works because it becomes essential to the story -- the nude figures of human-looking robots are not used for the sake of having nudity on the screen. And the motives of every major protagonist through the series is intelligent. A good thing, too, when you consider some of the best science-fiction and fantasy plays up to the intelligence of the audience and not down to us like we were four-year-olds. 

Anyone who has seen the 1974 Yul Brenner movie knows the robots will rebel and attempt to take over. They will, one-by-one, develop consciousness. But how the scenario unravels is half the fun of Westworld. In one great scene, Maeve, a female robotic who runs the whorehouse in town, wakes on the operating table to have a coherent conversation with the mechanics who are busy repairing her gears and fake flesh. It does not take long for her to discover both our strengths and our weaknesses. "At first, I thought you and the others were gods. Then I realized you're just men. And I know men. You think I'm scared of death? I've done it a million times. I'm f---ing great at it. How many times have you died? Because if you don't help me... I will kill you."

If you have seen The MatrixBladerunner, The Wild, Wild West and the recent Battlestar Galactica then the events unfolding in Westworld offers nothing new in the science-fiction genre. It is in the execution, however, that the series excels. Husband and wife team Lisa Joy Nolan and Jonathan Nolan are responsible for bringing this weekly television series to life, mapping out and storyboarding every scene. Repeat viewing will reveal just how crafty the entire story plays out from Wood getting stabbed in the same spot multiple times, props in the background that go unnoticed, and vengeance restaged with roles reversed. Just what is Robert Ford's end game? The final episode of the season will not disappoint. If gratuitous sex and violence is not taboo with your preference of binge watching, give this one a try and you will quickly discover why I say this is the best television program on the air this year