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Review: Westworld Premiere, "The Original"

HBO’s latest venture, Westworld, tells a tale of a futuristic world where wealthy humans run an Old West theme park full of artificially intelligent “host” characters that the visitors can use to live out their Western fantasies. Based on the 1973 film of the same name starring Yul Brynner and James Brolin, the show decides to follow a similar premise while tacking on a star-studded cast and traditional HBO staples of excessive rape, violence, and profanity. While the show has all the makings of a hit, the first episode offers plenty of ideas that have already been featured in numerous other sci-fi works.

The cowboys and bandits are not the only thing riding high on the show. With a reported budget of $100 million, expectations are tremendous. If the show does not perform well, HBO will surely pull the plug. Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright, Ed Harris and Anthony Hopkins all deliver excellent performances for their characters, showing viewers why they deserve their paychecks. The writing, however, is shaky at best. As viewers of recent HBO excursions Game of Thrones, Vinyl (RIP) and The Leftovers know, the first seasons often struggled with finding not only a compelling voice but an era-appropriate one as well. Although one of the writers for the “hosts” (Simon Quarterman), called A.I characters, gets chastised for being a poor worker, that doesn’t help do much to make some of the cliche one-liners any more forgivable.

As this is the first episode of the show, characters naturally give a little more exposition about what’s going on than normal. While that would usually be okay, the more that is said about the minutiae of the plot, the less interesting it gets. The general idea for the plot is a mix of the critically acclaimed video game series Fallout and the films The Matrix and Avatar. Essentially, Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins), the creative director for the theme park, and programmer Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) go too far in their attempts to make the characters in the park lifelike. The “newcomers” are people who pay for the privilege to live out whatever generally chaotic or heroic fantasy they chose in an old-Western themed world. Something, predictably, goes wrong in the coding and the A.I begin to malfunction.

If we lived in a world where the science fiction genre was brand new and untested, the deeper meanings and subplots of the show would prove intriguing. Unfortunately, we are nearly 100 years removed from the “Golden Age” of the genre, and ideas of pre-programmed beings rebelling against their masters are now trite and have been for some time. In 2016, a year where scientists and billionaires debate the pros and cons of artificial intelligence, it may have seemed very trendy to put a show out about that same topic. While the show is aesthetically pleasing, it simply cannot cover up the fact that we have seen this all before. 

The Man in Black (Ed Harris) is the standout character in the episode, and perhaps the most intriguing reason to return week after week. As a “newcomer” who has returned to the world over and over again, he seeks to find a deeper meaning to the world where he enjoys taking his yet-to-be-explained issues out on the A.I hosts. If his adversary, played by James Marsden, wasn’t so utterly uninteresting a protagonist, the show would be much more intriguing. As it is, Westworld would be totally lost without the character of Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), who provides a compelling layer of added complexity. As an A.I. who is becoming increasingly self-aware, she seems to be the character whose past will impact the future of the park as well as the giant, future-thinking-to-a-fault corporation that runs a program spiraling out of control.

The “host” bandits that serve as the villains in this episode are essentially taken straight out of Clockwork Orange. They wreck havoc, drink milk, and ultimately turn on one another. While this is an interesting homage to the cult classic, if these guys don’t return it would feel like the show borrowed yet another idea from another work without adding any new spin on it.

While anything can happen over the course of a ten episode season, it seems unlikely that the show will break from the tired tropes that it shamelessly flaunts throughout the episode. While gory shootouts and magnificent sunsets may keep viewers coming back for now, the show will need to dig a little deeper and throw some Thrones level twists into the largely explored world of A.I mischief.

Grade: C

Westworld is on Sundays this Fall at 9 pm (ET) on HBO, HBO GO and HBO NOW.

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