This is not the first television series based on the 1973 sci-fi western thriller Westworld, written and directed by the late Michael Crichton, but it the first to take the premise in a new intellectual direction. With the basic story copied or parodied by everything from The Terminator to The Simpsons, series creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy recognise that there’s much more beneath the surface of the man versus machine narrative. Like the Gunslinger (Ed Harris), they rise to the occasion and go head first into a deeper game.
WESTWORLD plays with our assumptions almost immediately in this pilot episode, winkingly called “The Original” for reasons that are only revealed in the final moments. Before the credits even begin, we are taught to question everything, as an unseen voice asks the naked Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) about whether she has ever questioned the nature of reality. We are then introduced to a familiar environment that has been completely constructed for the guest’s pleasure, as lifelike robotic Hosts cater to their clients’ fantasies. Newly arrived cowboy Teddy (James Marsden) enters the immersive Westworld amusement park to search for Dolores. Yet as their path plays out, the aforementioned Gunslinger has different plans for their reverie, flipping the Yul Brynner role from the original as we are forced to question the reality of what we are seeing.
The 1973 film deliberately used simple cliché to dictate its story structure and setups. Rather than being a simple battle for survival between a human and a robot gone wild, “The Original” sets up a dichotomy between what can be seen and what lurks behind the scenes. Enigmatic creative director Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) and his head programmer Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) have introduced a new component to the system, one that may be causing the Hosts to tap into a different level of consciousness than they had previously experienced. WESTWORLD keeps its mystery tight but hands us plenty of hints, as the A.I. starts to question itself and malfunction throughout the land. More intriguing is the nature of the Gunlinger’s quest, leaving us unsure as to whether he is a guest or a highly aware Host on the warpath.
WESTWORLD lives up to all of the HBO expectations by hammering us with nudity and bloody violence throughout the extended running time of “The Original.” It’s actually quite confronting, and our experience mirrors the guests’ immersion, once again pushing us to remember that it isn’t “real” while acknowledging that it is. The gorgeously shot Californian vistas instantly make this a much bigger production that the 1973 film, coupled with meticulously created technology that is both haunting and sterile. It’s no wonder that the icy stares of Hopkins fit in perfectly with the latter. Ramin Djawadi’s musical score is constant, the production’s perpetual reminder of the creative hand behind the scenes.
By the end of “The Original,” writers Nolan and Joy have set up a myriad of possibilities for the series. Thematically, it’s a cross between Blade Runner and the short-lived (and criminally underrated) Caprica, and of course, this isn’t the first time that that executive producer J.J. Abrams has asked us to question what we are seeing. However, unlike Lost, we hope that WESTWORLD gets deeper into the sins and perils of artificial consciousness quickly, especially given that we are much closer to this reality than ever before.