Review: HBO’s Westworld

Imagine a show set in the near future in a high-tech, ultra-realistic, Wild West themed amusement park populated by artificial beings known simply as ‘hosts’, and visited by guests referred to as ‘the newcomers’ who are free to do as they please. That show is Westworld, HBO’s attempt at filling the hole that will be left when the astronomically successful Game of Thrones finally draws to a close. So, can Westworld succeed in meeting such high expectations?

Produced by sci-fi heavyweight JJ Abrams and starring household names such as Anthony Hopkins, the odds look good for Westworld to become HBO’s next big hit. Based on the 1973 film of the same name, directed by Michael Crichton (screenwriter of probably the best known film about a fictional theme park; Jurassic Park), Westworld is certainly enthralling, often chilling, and sometimes downright insane. Coupled with the jarring juxtaposition between the theme park mimicking a bygone age, and the futuristic ‘behind-the-scenes’ headquarters from which the park is controlled, this bizarre concoction makes for highly watchable television. That is if you enjoy all the hallmarks of a HBO classic; debauched scenes of violence and sex, all topped off with an action set piece that’s almost straight out of an Old Western film from decades gone by (though, granted, with much better special effects).

Much of the outdoor scenes are filmed against the stunning backdrop of the infamous Monument Valley in Arizona, providing the perfect setting for this amusement park filled with “unlimited possibilities” for guests “looking for a place to be free”, safe from the ‘hosts’ who are programmed against any aggression towards living things. The whole show is completed with a beautiful score from Ramin Djawadi (who may be familiar as the composer for Game of Thrones) which is as anachronistic as the show itself.

Posing rather philosophical questions such as; “what separates man from machine?” and “what constitutes true consciousness?” Westworld almost acts as a very elaborate form of the Turing Test – a test to establish whether a machine’s intelligence is distinguishable from that of a human. Distinguishing the robots as nonhuman is something we as the audience might find difficult to do. We sympathise with the gruelling narrative loop the artificial ‘hosts’ are placed in, subject to the pleasure-seeking guests and their limitless whims. The standout performances are those of Ed Harris as the aptly and ominously named ‘Man in Black’, an elusive guest who seems to have an ulterior motive for visiting the park, and Evan Rachel Wood as Dolores, a ‘host’ modelled as a fresh faced Western girl.

It might be easier to dismiss Westworld as the Western counterpart to Game of Thrones’ Medieval dramatics, and while there are definite similarities that can be drawn between the two, judging from the pilot alone, Westworld doesn’t struggle to stand on its own two feet. The eerie ending only leaves us finishing the first episode with ten times more questions than we started with.