TV Review: HBO’s Modernized “Westworld” Far Exceeds Expectations

"HBO and executive producers J.J. Abrams, Jonathan Nolan, and Lisa Joy, have re-imagined Crichton's futuristic wild west setting and have transcended its 1973 cinematic predecessor."


 

A series inspired by the 1973 film of the same title written by Michael Crichton about a futuristic theme park populated by artificial beings.

The late Michael Crichton was ahead of his time, way ahead of his time. In 1973, he wrote the screenplay for a movie titled “Westworld,” which starred James Brolin, Richard Benjamin and Yul Brynner, and it told the story of a not-too-distant future, where theme parks do not encompass roller coasters and thrill rides, instead, three themed “worlds” have been created to cater to adults who wish to live out their fantasies. Be a gladiator and visit Roman World, or become a knight and save the damsel in distress in Medieval World, or, and this would be my personal favorite, assume the form of a cowboy, and visit the wild west in West World. But what elevated the story, was the fact that each park was populated with robots, mechanical beings who looked, sounded, and felt exactly like humans. You could shoot the bad guy with no fear of retaliation, sleep with the beautiful princess, or just be a part of every day life in the frontier. But then the robots start to malfunction and turn on the guests. Sounds very similar to another Michael Crichton premise that took place in another theme park, filled with prehistoric creatures that turn on their creators but that’s another story.

HBO and executive producers J.J. Abrams, Jonathan Nolan, and Lisa Joy, have re-imagined Crichton’s futuristic wild west setting and have transcended its 1973 cinematic predecessor. Instead of three different “worlds,” there is only one, the titular “Westworld” and the show is better because of this change. Where the movie only had 88 minutes to tell its entire story, HBO has fleshed it out to a 10 part mini-series. In the movie, the majority of the story is told from the guests’ perspective but here, it cuts back and forth from the guests to the machines, and to the creators of the park, behind the scenes. The robots herein are so far advanced, it is practically impossible to tell them apart from the humans. Each android has been programmed from its inception so it has a back story, memories, aspirations and dreams for the future, and to top it off, they do not know they are machines. Each and every night, they power down and the next morning, they wake up and start a new day over, exactly like the previous day, and the next one to come.

There is a multitude of characters on display here but most notably, is that of the Gunslinger, the part played so effectively by Yul Brynner in the movie. This time around, Ed Harris takes the reins, literally, and brings an air of menace and inquisitiveness to a role that could have so easily fallen into caricature in the hands of a less-capable actor. As he becomes aware of his consciousness, and that there is more going on in Westworld than meets the eye, he becomes dogged in his determination to discover why he is there and what purpose, other than being shot at by park guests, he serves. In many ways, his character resembles that of Truman Burbank, the character in “The Truman Show,” played by Jim Carrey, who gradually comprehends that his very existence is for some bigger purpose and with Ed Harris having played the part of Christof, the creator of The Truman Show, here, he is searching for his own maker.

“Westworld” boasts an all-star cast including Anthony Hopkins, Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, Thandie Newton and Jeffrey Wright and does an excellent job alternating between the guests, the robots, and the park engineers, who work their magic behind the scenes. But as the show progresses, the machines simply don’t malfunction like they did in the big screen adaptation, this time, they become self aware, causing considerable grief and headaches for the engineers. Like a virus, one by one, they each, within the confines of their individual programming, become cognizant that something, ever so slightly, is different in their day-to-day existence and the show does a great job exhibiting their frustrations. You find yourself empathizing with them and in many ways, their situations are comparable to that of “The Matrix,” discerning that there is more going on around them than they’ll ever know.

There has been much criticism of the amount of nudity throughout this embodiment of Michael Crichton’s vision but none of it is graphic. Because these robots are made to human specifications, including genitalia, we sometimes see shots of debilitated and defective naked bodies, standing next to each other in a sort of android scrapyard, awaiting their fate, but that is about the extent of it. I had long been a fan of Crichton’s 1973 classic and when I heard that HBO was planning to update it, I became overly curious but now having seen it, I can safely say, it is far superior to its celluloid incarnation. If you are familiar with the film, keep a close eye out when Teddy Flood (James Marsden) visits Westworld for the first time, there is a nice homage to Richard Benjamin’s character who is hiding out in the hills.

“Westworld” premieres Sunday, October 2nd on HBO at 9/8c


 
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James McDonald

Originally from Dublin, Ireland, James is a Movie Critic and Celebrity Interviewer with over 30 years of experience in the film industry as an Award-Winning Filmmaker.
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  • Dan Heaton
    6 October 2016 at 10:40 AM

    I also liked Westworld and the way that it expanded the original premise to focus more on the creators and different hosts. I do wonder about your comments on Ed Harris’ Man in Black. I think the show is saying he’s just a guest that’s taken his involvement further, right? It wouldn’t surprise me if we find out later that he is a host, but I think he’s a “newcomer” by what the show has presented so far.

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    • James McDonald
      James McDonald
      6 October 2016 at 12:04 PM

      Hi Dan, just going from the original, the Man in Black was a host but for this incarnation, it wouldn’t surprise me if he wound up being a guest, I just got the impression that he was a machine, searching for his maker, akin to Roy Batty in “Blade Runner.” Makes for great conversation though!

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