HBO’s new drama Westworld poses interesting questions



Dolores is a ‘Host’, a highly advanced robot built as part of Westworld. It is a lavish and immersive theme park for the world’s super-rich. Guests pay enormous sums of money to visit, and once inside they are free to interact with the characters there in any way they see fit.

They can talk to them, work with them, have sex with them, and – if the desire takes hold – assault, rape, torture and murder them.

Every night the robots are repaired and reset, and every day they are programmed to run through same routines all over again. That is, until some of the robots begin to remember what happened on the previous days.

Westworld is a new science fiction drama from HBO produced by J.J. Abrams (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and Jonathan Nolan (Person of Interest).

It is a remake of the popular 1973 film directed by Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton. Whereas that film focused on what would happen when the robots in the theme park went murderously out of control, this series hinges on a far more intellectual question: what happens when the robots become self-aware?

It is difficult to fault Westworld’s production values; the series was produced for a staggering $100 million dollars, with $25m alone spent on its lavish first episode.

It is also difficult to fault its cast: asides from Wood and Marsden the series also features Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Thandie Newton and Jeffrey Wright.

The performances are uniformly excellent. The series’ strongest aspects are its science fiction elements: it is asking genuinely provocative questions about the ethics of creating and manipulating artificial intelligence.

The Hosts are put through the most violent and horrifying of tortures, and while the park’s creators may dismiss these tortures as entertainment it rapidly becomes quite difficult for the viewer to do the same.

We get to see what the park staff – such as head programmer Bernard Lowe (Wright) – are only beginning to suspect. The Hosts are rapidly evolving, and beginning to suffer growing distress and trauma. There is a gentle but building sense of menace: how long before the robots take their welfare into their own hands?

Where the series – or, at least, its first few episodes – stumbles is in the way it dramatizes events. The ethical quandaries of A.I. are fascinating enough, but it’s an intellectual problem.

As pure television drama Westworld feels a little inert. The entire first episode focuses on the Hosts, with human guests only getting a proper introduction in the second week. That actually makes the series a little difficult with which to engage: the robots might be transforming into intelligent, emotional beings, but they have not managed it yet.

The result is a first hour that really suffers from a lack of characters with which the viewer can identify. It is easy to get interested in the world Abrams and Nolan have created, but it seems a much harder task to care.

There are a lot of competing agendas going on among the characters, whether it is Bernard Lowe’s secret tinkering with individual robots, or park creator Robert Ford (Hopkins) working on his own secret project, or Ed Harris’ nameless gunslinger carving a brutally violent path through the park.

The lure of seeing these mysterious plans be revealed and come to fruition is what will drive viewers to stick with Westworld over its 10 episodes. At the same time, it does seem like a series to be enjoyed intellectually more than emotionally.

Westworld premieres on Foxtel’s Showcase channel today and is repeated throughout the week.

Grant Watson

Grant is an award winning playwright and comic book writer. He writes about film and television at Fiction Machine and The Angriest.

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