Monday, 27 November 2017

Westworld, Season 1, by Jonathan Nolan, Lisa Joy and chums (HBO/Sky Atlantic) | review by Stephen Theaker

In the future life is too easy (good to know they fixed that whole global warming thing!) and so people jazz up their lives by coming to Westworld, a live action roleplay version of Red Dead Redemption, with robots playing the parts of all the non-player characters. The original film didn’t spend a great deal of time thinking about how any of this would work, simply showing people having a gunfight and bedding girls in brothels before setting Yul Brynner off on his famously terrifying rampage, but this new series is all about life in Westworld, and specifically what life is like for the robots who live there. For reasons best known to the park’s founders (one of whom is here played by Antony Hopkins, bringing his usual gravitas to a show that really appreciates it, since it is trying its hardest to be taken seriously), these robots, rather than being all run by some central computer system, have individual minds of their own, some of which have been operational for over thirty years, and they are beginning to have strange thoughts. They start to notice the glitches in their matrix, they start to remember their mistreatment at the hands of the park’s patrons, and they start to get angry about it. Thandie Newton, Evan Rachel Wood and James Marsden portray brilliantly some of the androids as they react to their dawning knowledge of their unconscionable situation, and here the show is at its best: how should we treat non-human people, and how will they react to that treatment, it asks. The programme’s problems come when you think too much about the park itself, and how it is supposed to work, and why people would want to go on holiday in such an unpleasant and horrible place. Yes, we’re happy to play Red Dead Redemption, but when you fall off your horse in that game you won’t break your actual neck. Westworld guns may not work when pointed at a human, but a knife will kill you just as quickly if a visitor decides to kill you and there aren’t any androids around to stop them. Would anyone want to go to dinner in a place where your fellow holidaymakers could start sexually assaulting someone right in front of you? And would the people who liked the idea of doing that kind of thing be happy to be filmed doing it? The programme does show one chap being blackmailed, so it’s unclear why this doesn’t bother everyone else. Equally odd is the way the quest lines work. They seem to proceed whether any players turn up or not, which leads to a great deal of damage being done to the scenery and the androids, all of which (it’s a major plot point) needs to be repaired, apparently pointlessly. Hard to understand why they don’t just use squibs for the explosions of blood, rather than wrecking the androids every day. And why use expensive androids rather than cheap human actors, as, for example, in Austenland? Plus, if you’re a guest who rolls out of bed a few hours late, how happy would you be to find that all the storylines have gone on without you? Would you be happy paying $40,000 a day to twiddle your thumbs? The important new storyline being created by Hopkins doesn’t seem to have any role for a human at all – though that might foretell a twist to come in season two, showing that the new storyline is not actually the one we’re shown; there do seem to be some metagames going on. (Though there’s nothing to suggest this in the first series, I wondered if it will eventually be revealed that the Earth faces disaster and so the park is an attempt to accelerate the evolution of post-humans who might survive it.) It’s an HBO programme, so there’s a requisite amount of nudity. Most of it is degrading and unsexy, in the course of the androids being repaired, reprogrammed and analysed; you’re supposed to feel bad for the androids, as demonstrated very clearly by a scene where Antony Hopkins’ character rips away the clothing a lab technician has allowed one robot, but you feel bad for the actors too. That doesn’t stop it being an interesting programme, though, and it rewarded the time it took to watch it with some later developments making clever sense of what had previously appeared to be storytelling non sequiturs. I would never go there on holiday – at least in Austenland the food looks nice! – but I’ll be happy to watch more idiots risk it. Here’s hoping for Roman World in season two. ***

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