Horrorible Review: “Westworld”

Enjoy this Monday with Mildred!

Westworld Website graphic

Westworld

“These violent delights have violent ends” says one of the robot “hosts” to another host. The quote is from Shakespeare, the first famous soap opera writer, and the whisper does not bode well for the human “guests”. We all know where this show is headed, since it’s based on the 1973 sf thriller of the same name. Back then it was just the simple story of a computer error putting guests in danger with a light sprinkle of philosophy. The current television series has a lot more philosophy, with harder questions, and just more of everything else.

Hollywood has loved this story for a long time, and there have been many attempts at a remake since the 1976 sequel. I think it’s great that no one managed it because this is a good moment for this kind of violent introspection, matched with top notch special effects. The goofy idea as faux horror (though I do remember some people being seriously creeped out) has been updated, but just as importantly, today’s audience is vastly more used to the science fictional ideas of lifelike robots and massively intrusive computer overseers. That’s the real world now.  With the more easily digested science fiction in hand, the creators can work harder on the core question of is it okay to be evil if the person you’re hurting is a robot. This is a great way to examine the human psyche and, unlike the original movie, the series doesn’t go straight at the question but sneaks around piling thin layer on thin layer until you have a delicious baklava of thought.

The biggest problem the original Westworld had then were special effects nowhere close to being up to the challenge. The cutting edge makeup of Yul Brenner’s torn off face, exposing the robotics under the skin, was huge at the time and a big part of the horror. Now we get more deeply into the exploration of human evil, as experienced through the lens of the very human looking robots. And there is some serious evil done.

There are many storylines and the viewer will find herself wondering which is the main one. Is it that the robots are simply malfunctioning through an honest error, are they malfunctioning through robotic evolution, or is it sabotage? It takes a while, but you’ll notice you’re being played as much as the guests. It’s really easy to get caught up in the storylines and forget that things are going to get ugly for the guests. It gets deeper and deeper and just when you’re getting used to everything and you think you know what’s going on, the bottom drops out. You can’t watch this show and get sentimentally attached to a plotline, but it’s so cleverly done it didn’t bother me.

The problem with feeling disdainful of the humans who treat the very lifelike robots like machines is that it creates a paradox in the viewer. How many times have you watched a gory horror movie and rationalized the bad things that happens to the actors by saying, “It’s not real so it’s okay.”? Welcome to Westworld.

Anyone who has ever watched a squib explode and the character die gruesomely, or watched a green screen dismemberment of a character, or watched a cinematic rape scene without a flinch, knowing it’s all fake, are the same as the guests in Westworld. We don’t know how many of us today would go that little extra distance psychologically to shoot down a robot that looks just like a human, and we don’t know how much humanity will have changed in the time it takes to get to Westworld’s level of technology. Much like people when I was a child would have been struck dumb with horror over the images we routinely consume today, maybe the whole world will have become so calloused in this future that almost no one will think twice about killing “real” people for fun,. This is how the creators of the show treat us like the guests treat the hosts.

In the end, I was wowed by the extreme storytelling in Westworld, amazed at where they took the story, and how they got it there. I also felt dirty, after figuring out just how I’d been played, and what it all means personally. And I feel guilty for wanting to know what comes next in the storyline.

A big deal has been made of the ubiquitous player piano. For decades every television and movie western seemed to have one somewhere. The series features a modern tune from the likes of Radiohead, Coldplay, Amy Winehouse or the Rolling Stones plinked out on the tinny upright every episode. The creators have a reasonable justification for it, but they also score some scenes with veiled modern music, like an orchestral Beatles during a slaughter-the-whole-town sequence. The piano in the Sweetwater Bar is the real thing, with real piano rolls cranking out the remastered modern tunes. I get the obvious analogy of omnipotent control over what was high tech then in the same room with omnipotent control over what is near tech now, and I understand they wanted to give the viewer a little dissonant buzz, but I felt the score and themes got a little precious after a while.

There are a lot of great actors in Westworld. You won’t realize it at first, but Rachel Evan Wright is the major player in the series. I’ve rarely seen an actress perfectly portray this many characters in one show, sometimes from one line to another, from farmer’s daughter to controllable robot. Jeffrey Wright, acting with his glasses as he did in Hunger Games, is very good at portraying a very smart man. Here he gets to be sexy, too. Ed Harris, who I’ve loved since Knightriders, is a terribly evil bad guy – or is he? Antony Hopkins keeps the viewer guessing about his level of evil, though he’s got the Hannibal Lector effect working for him. Luke Hemsworth, Thor’s older brother, seems to be the only person on the payroll who doesn’t treat the hosts like humans but not evilly, which if you think about it may be the most correct way, though they’re so lifelike it still feels cruel.

The DVD extras are very nice, with the Best. Gag. Reel. EVER. The Bechdel Test is inconclusive. Maeve and Clementine Pennyfeather often shop talk with each other, but they’re prostitutes, so…

I’m going to have to watch this series again. The pacing on backstory reveal is brilliant, and more convoluted than you’ll know at first. The storylines are way deeper and more poignant than they appear at first, and everything is beautifully rendered by the actors and a top notch production crew. Westworld is sometimes over the top violent, with a nasty old fashioned habit of showing mostly female full frontal nudity, which means plenty of naked women but the guys only have to show off their Iron Pit abs with only a very few exceptions late in the season. I’m also kinda over the player piano and sometimes the score, but not enough to grade the show down. I recommend this series if you can take the violence, especially if you’re in the mood for a sf oater.

If you REALLY want to give yourself a nice little freakout, watch this show about maybe going too far with letting computers control our world, then watch these two commercials:  FedEx Dream, and IBM Cloud.

LINKS:

Westworld Season 1 Official Trailer (2016) | HBO

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