Westworld (Review)

11/10/2016 12:32
Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Before watching the JJ Abrams reboot, I watched the 1973 Michael Crichton film and I was blown away by how inventive and visionary it was. Driverless cars, hovercraft, and artificial intelligence are all featured decades before they became a reality. No such invention makes its way into the JJ Abrams remake, written and directed by Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan's brother (executive producer Lisa Joy - Nolan's wife - shares a writing credit).

The pilot was a disappointment from the outset. What we get is heavyhanded voiceover from Evan Rachel Wood's character Dolores, on first appearances a simple ranch girl who likes to paint the stunning vistas - only we don't really get to see her do much painting. (God forbid we should actually see a woman doing something!)

When I heard about the remake, I was excited to find out what JJ Abrams would bring to the project. Here was an opportunity to reimagine the American West for the 21st century. Westworld is, of course, a theme park for the wealthy, offering its guests a chance to "shoot a few Indians and fuck" as one resort executive remarks. But Native Americans are thin on the ground here, as are Mexicans (I counted one of each, that's how involved I was in the plot). Yes, Nolan seems to have whitewashed the West. What a surprise.

Westworld looks stylish enough - but it's an empty soulless exercise. There isn't a single character you can invest in. Dolores, really the show's protagonist, is a male fantasy writ large. A buxom girl with a heart of gold - and a memory that can usefully be wiped at the end of each day. At the end of the pilot, there's a hit of something more when Dolores kills a fly having told a techie that she would never hurt a living thing. But this certainly isn't enough to make you keep watching. When I heard Nolan was involved in the project, my heart sank a little. I don't think I've seen a credible female character in anything the brothers have done. Has no one connected to this series heard of Annie Oakley?

This Westworld is an acutely male space. Aboard the steam train bearing newcomers to the resort, one woman remarks to her companion that she prefers "bad boys". All any woman need do to meet one of those is open her front door and step outside - you certainly don't need to pay for it. Unless you have a thing about leather chaps. (And why would anyone bring their children?). That's the real problem with this pilot - we don't understand the "rules" of Westworld; we don't know what people are leaving behind or understand their reasons for coming to the resort. Nolan has nothing of interest to say here about the nature of wealth or power, and their corrupting influence. Just robots are good, people are bad. That's pretty much it.

It's HBO, so that means plenty of nudity and gratuitous violence. Yawn. Quentin Tarantino did it first - and better - in Django Unchained. This Westworld wears its influences very heavily on its sleeve. There are shades of Bladerunner here with Wood as the Rachel character, the robot who desperately wants to prove her humanity. But it's really a dark version of Enchanted, where an innocent abroad must come to terms with a new reality - and I'm pretty sure that's why James Marsden was cast, here as Dolores' ill-fated suitor. There are also shades of The Truman Show, with a manipulative creator in Dr Robert Ford, played by Anthony Hopkins. (I don't think it's any coincidence that Ed Harris was in The Truman Show - as a manipulative producer...) It's all very "meta" with a foul-mouthed, obnoxious writer -- played by a Brit!

There are many new and exciting directions Nolan and Abrams could have taken this. But they don't. In the end, Westworld suffers from the same problem as Alex Garland's Ex Machina, another "boyfest". Why would anyone expend so much energy, time and resources creating a harem when you could just fly in a bunch of hookers for considerably less time and money? In Westworld, why would anyone bother creating such a complex storyworld and sophisticated artificially intelligent beings - just so that rich folk can shoot and fuck them? Seriously? It just doesn't make any sense. Nolan tries to hint that there may be something else going on but, frankly, I'm not interested in sticking around to find out. This is one "mystery" I can live without knowing the answer to.

It should be said that Westworld is very well acted with some spine-tingling performances. I can well understand why big names actors such as Hopkins, Thandie Newton, Marsden and Harris signed up for this. I'm sure come awards season, a couple of actors should at least receive nods. What's interesting is that Newton, who plays a saloon bar madam, features heavily in the trailer - but really doesn't have very much to do in the pilot. Someone at HBO must have heard of the "Shonda Rhimes effect"...

Westworld is on Sky Atlantic