An ambitious update of Michael Crichton’s sci-fi thriller, “Westworld” finds an intriguing new point of entry into the story – examining morality in the context of artificial intelligence – that both provokes thought and blunts the HBO program’s dramatic impact.
On the plus side, for those unenthused about a recent wave of series inspired by movies or old TV shows – most of which haven’t been particularly inventive – in bringing “Westworld” to life, the writers didn’t just robotically go through the motions.
Crichton’s 1973 film (which spawned a good sequel, “Futureworld”) was clearly prescient, dealing with an amusement park for adults populated by realistic robots, allowing for hedonistic indulgence. Despite assurances to the contrary, everything went wrong, as the robots went haywire and began killing their human playmates.
As conceived by writer-director Jonathan Nolan (a veteran of brother Christopher’s movies and “Person of Interest,” another series with a baked-in warning about technology) and Lisa Joy, “Westworld” seems just as timely. After all, part of that early vision has already come to pass, with dramatic breakthroughs in AI, robotics, and immersive entertainment experiences like virtual reality.
The main twist, beginning with the 75-minute premiere, is that the producers approach the material heavily from the point of view of the “hosts,” as they’re called, who are experiencing new sensations that come perilously close to the dawning of sentience.
At the same time, the “guests” – most of whom pursued fantasies that involved good guys in Crichton’s take – now revel in wearing black hats. That includes Ed Harris, a frequent visitor whose barbaric tastes hint at a deeper, more nefarious motivation, still vague after previewing four episodes.
In fact, there are a lot of mysteries that the writers of “Westworld” appear in no hurry to disgorge. There’s also a genuine all-star cast of a caliber only HBO could likely lure to TV, including Anthony Hopkins as the facility’s eccentric founder, Jeffrey Wright as his chief programmer, and Evan Rachel Wood and Thandie Newton as “hosts” who seem to be retaining memories in a manner that’s more than just a glitch.
Flipping the concept on its head brings a subversive quality to the show, leading the viewer toward identifying with the machines, whose rising consciousness creates the prospect of rebelling against their abusive overlords.
The actors, certainly, master blurring the line between who’s fake and who’s real. Even so, the program’s unorthodox perspective proves intellectually engaging and emotionally chilly, and at times the show’s internal logic seems a little twitchy too.
Notably, very little is exposed or discussed about the world beyond the park. But the wealthy that come to play cowboy revel in behaving badly, exploring the heinous things people do commit if they knew they could get away with murder.
At its core, “Westworld” – whose premiere was delayed due to production complications – contemplates what makes us human as technology makes more and more marvels that were once the stuff of science fiction possible.
“We practice witchcraft,” Hopkins’ character says at one point. “We create life itself out of chaos.”
Handsomely produced, there’s certainly enough here to sustain interest and curiosity, without fully cementing the show’s must-watch status just yet.
“Westworld” premieres October 2 at 9 p.m. on HBO.