Welcome to The Fourth Wall, CHIRP's e-conversation on cinema. This week's subject is the HBO TV series Westworld.
This edition is written by CHIRP Radio volunteers Kevin Fullam and Clarence Ewing.
Kevin, it’s comforting to know that in a world that seems to be ruled by various degrees of stupidity, man continues to develop knowledge and understanding in various fields.
Case in point: Recently, the Chess.com Computer Chess Championship was won by a chess-playing engine called Lc0. There are thousands of computer programs playing chess, but Lc0, the first neural-network program to win the championship, is different. Rather than being programmed in a traditional way, Lc0 was designed to teach itself how the game works and to learn from the huge number of games it plays with itself and against opponents.
It feels like a solid step forward in Man’s quest to increase and refine artificial intelligence. At some point, maybe in our lifetimes, a machine will achieve consciousness, self-awareness, or whatever that thing is that makes us “alive.” But if one did, what would it want? And what would we want from it?
This is one of the overarching themes of Westworld, the HBO series reboot of the 1973 Michael Crichton sci-fi movie. Westworld is an ultra-futuristic, deeply immersive fantasy patterned after Hollywood’s well-established vision of the Wild West. It’s a place where wealthy clients can interact with android “hosts” designed to role-play the denizens of Westworld and suit just about every customer whim, no matter how boring or depraved. Want to take your kids on a horseback trip through cattle country? Great! Want to spend your time randomly raping and/or killing townspeople? That’s great too!
But there’s a problem. Some of the hosts, including sweet-as-peach-pie rancher’s daughter Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood) and the local cathouse madam Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton), are beginning to experience things that aren’t part of their programming, including visions of other lives and places they’ve not seen before. And it’s starting to affect their work with the customers and the scientists/technicians responsible for their maintenance.
The story evolves from these three groups’ perspectives. The customers include William (Jimmi Simpson), a first-time visitor who is appalled by what he sees but also senses something different about Dolores, and the Man in Black (Ed Harris), a long-time customer who’s on a quest to go deeper into the AI game than intended. The management is headed by Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), Westworld’s chief programmer, Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen), the head of Quality Assurance, and Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), co-founder of Westworld. Over the course of the series, these three will have to unravel what is going on and make severe choices as to how to resolve a situation never seen before.
This being an HBO series, Westworld is beautifully shot, with a marked contrast between the picturesque, sweeping vistas of the park and the cold, sterile facilities that run it. There’s also plenty of sex and violence to go around, much of which (it could be argued) leans toward the misanthropic and misogynistic. Numerous scenes involve attractive young women set naked on a chair or table, being questioned or examined by men.
The acting is mostly fantastic, especially from Wood and Newton, who often have to display character development with a minimum of physical movement. There’s one glaring exception - Tessa Thompson as Charlotte Hale, the Executive Director of Delos, the billion-dollar corporation that owns Westworld. Due to below-par writing and acting, I just didn’t believe her as a decadent, take-no-prisoners executive. [The ridiculous way she was introduced to the audience didn’t help.]
In terms of its concept, this show is similar to the 2004 Syfy series Battlestar Galactica, which for my money remains the most radical and most successful sci-fi re-imagining ever. Both stories concern themselves with the physical and moral conflicts caused when machines develop beyond control of their makers.
Yet Westworld didn’t catch fire with the popular imagination the way that shows like Battlestar or Game of Thrones did. While there are some fascinating ideas here, it takes a while to reach important plot points. Even while binge-watching most of the series, several times I found myself glancing at the clock, wondering when something was going to happen.
That being said, when the major plot reveals drop during the second half of the season, they are big and they are great. In sum, this is a very good series that probably could have been told in five hours instead of 10. Kevin, what did you think of it?