Tuesday, March 13, 2018

TV Review: Westworld Season One: The Maze (2016)

Westworld Season One: The Maze (2016) created for television by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy based on the screenplay by Michael Crichton

In a not too distant future, the well-to-do can vacation at Westworld, an amusement park that recreates the late 1800s American West, complete with saloons, trains, cowboys, farmers, Civil War vets, and Native Americans. All of the characters in the park are highly sophisticated robots that are almost impossible to distinguish from the real people who visit. Of course, safety measures are in place so that none of the visitors (they are referred to as "guests") are harmed by the local androids (called "hosts") or each other. Guests can join in various storylines in the park--joining a posse, fighting with bad guys (including bloodthirsty Native Americans), defending a ranch, gambling, etc. The park would be idyllic if it didn't bring out the worst in some guests and if the people running it wouldn't come into conflict over how best to run the park.

The park was invented by Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) who has overall creative control and a mysterious past (his original partner in the project died in an accident just before the park opened thirty years earlier). He wants to push the limits of storytelling and has an odd relationship with the other workers and the hosts. A mysterious Man in Black (Ed Harris) is a frequent visitor who wants to solve the ultimate puzzle of the park, the titular Maze. He's both helped and hindered by the hosts, a few of whom he's come to know quite well. Some robots start to glitch, remembering bits of their previous cycles through the storyline (the typical visitor stays two weeks and the stories are set to run through the fourteen days). One robot thinks she is going mad; another thinks she can escape from what feels like enslavement.

The show isn't so much interested in seeing the hosts becoming human as it is in discovering whether they achieve consciousness, presumably the most human characteristic of humans. Some of the guests and employees clearly think the hosts achieve a certain level of humanity. Viewers can reach different conclusions based on the sketchy evidence presented. The filmmakers seem to be ambivalent; they seem more interested in exploring Dr. Ford's obsessions with the park and his God-like power over the park.

Some of the plot lines are not very believable as they are going along. If I hadn't had trust in Jonathan Nolan (brother of Christopher Nolan of Batman and Inception fame) and hadn't had the DVDs on loan from the library (with only a week to watch them), I might have bailed out on the show. I marshaled through to the end and patience was rewarded for the most part--glaring errors were not in fact errors (or at least it was easy to interpret them as ultimately having a reasonable explanation). One or two things still strike me as highly implausible but I'd have to watch the series again to try and figure that out. Some of the plot twists at the end also make rewatching an interesting prospect. I fear the show is not quite good enough to make me watch it again right away, like The Sixth Sense did so many years ago.

While the show is much deeper than the 1970s movie, I'm not sure that it is that much more satisfying. The show provides a lot of fodder for thought, which I enjoyed. The film makers clearly planned for a second season (which is coming out on HBO in a few months as I write this) which makes the story less complete and therefore less satisfying. I recommend it, but not highly.

Parental Warning: The show does have a lot of graphic nudity, though most of it is shown as the hosts are reprogramed or repaired by park employees, so the nudity isn't sexual in nature all the time (though parts of the park are explicitly sexual--this is an HBO series after all). Moments of hard, graphic violence do come up. The themes are also challenging. Some of the characters have very salty language--again, this is an HBO series and sounds like it. I'd say this is the equivalent of a hard R rating in movies, so only late teens and up is my recommendation.

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