Skip to main content

First, have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?

Westworld
Season One

(SPOILERS) The debate over whether TV should be consumed in bite-sized, weekly chunks or gorged in box-set style season binges occasionally gets a jolt when one of the enthroned architects of the medium vouches for the former (Joss Whedon, Damon Lindelof), but it’s most especially pertinent when a show itself creates a “water cooler” atmosphere. The irony of Westworld is that the waves it has created, fuelled by Lost-esque speculation over what was really going on amid its multiple timelines and potential identity crises over which humans were really robots, has been somewhat dampened by the stark realisation that its creators didn’t have in mind anything as wild or dense as many conjectured. In that sense, it hearkens back to the conclusion of the first season of True Detective and its complete lack of a supernatural element (although, that series fundamentally paid off in character terms). Coming to the Westworld party six months late, I’ve been spared the weekly thrall, and it’s a case where I think I can safely conclude I haven’t missed out. Although, with such shows –and I can, to an extent, affirm this as a Lost aficionado, albeit nothing here exerted that level of must-see next time grip – it’s arguably not so much the having as the getting.


Some voices had it that, by focussing on plot twists and ifs and maybes, viewers were ignoring the more profound depths of Jonathan Nolan’s “soft” sequel to the 1973 Michael Crichton movie. That might have been the case if Nolan had unfurled a vision of complex and engrossing characters, where the establishment of identity and the thematic underpinnings of the world resonated with any degree of consistency.


Sporadically, there’s something to chew on, and aesthetically Westworld comes replete with your classic prestige HBO show trappings (although, while the cinematography is generally first rate, the direction is often on the undistinguished side, along with hammy, pedestrian stylistic choices: all those bulbless rooms requiring X-Files torches to light them), but watching it I increasingly felt as if I was experiencing an emperor’s new clothes, that Nolan didn’t have enough to say to justify its series status or its pretensions to substance. No sooner had I begun to think the series might actually have something up its sleeve (around midway through) than the disconcerting feeling that it didn’t began to take hold. I was on board with the reincarnation metaphor for a while, and the bicameral mind conversations provided engrossing food for thought (the irony being that for the bicameral model to work in Westworld, it requires an external, creator voice to instil in robots the seeds that will lead to introspection and consciousness, the very gods the model seeks to explain away as dissipating with the development of self-awareness).


Bernard: The longer I work here, the more I think I understand the hosts. It’s the human beings who confuse me.

This hasn’t been a show that inspired very much speculation in me as I viewed it, and more to the point, the plot points that expressly invite speculation (the maze, the nature of the Man in Black, the journey of Dolores to self-realisation, Ford’s plan) rarely felt very intriguing. Indeed, I still don’t really buy that the culmination of the Man in Black visiting the park for 30 years is that he embarks on a treasure hunt. It makes him seem like a frickin’ idiot. The counter is that, along with an apparently inspired Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris performance was easily the most satisfying out of the cast. His final laugh as marauders emerged from the trees, having been shot by them for real, almost made the longueurs worthwhile.


Although, I’m less convinced that leads to an interesting Season Two (the robot uprising). The big “Man in Black is William” reveal (which had evidently been much speculated upon beforehand) didn’t really do much for me either, because… well, I don’t know, his character is all about Harris’ performance, and good as Jimmi Simpson always is, I just didn’t find the Dolores-William thread very engrossing; in the final analysis, Man in Black’s obsession falls rather flat (not helped by some painfully spoon-fed exposition: “After all, it was you who kept Ford in business all those years ago”).


Most of the characters here are rather like that, though. If they’re effective, you can mostly attribute it to the performances rather than the material the actors are given. Jeffrey Wright is tremendously nuanced as Bernard, particularly on realisation of his artificial status, and Thandie Newton (between this and Line of Duty, she seems to have given her agent a kick up the arse) outshines often lame dialogue and motivation as Maeve. Maeve does have one strong reveal, that of being told her growing self-awareness and bid for freedom are not of her own volition but determined by Ford’s programming, as well as not being the first time she was awoken (“Someone altered your storyline and gave you a new one: escape”). Some of the better AI conceits also come in her scenes, including her reading off the entire chain of thoughts as she thinks them, triggering a shutdown.


MaeveOh, Felix. You really do make a terrible human being. And I mean that as a compliment.

On the other hand, there’s very little in her being upgraded that tangibly evidences itself as super awareness, other than being able to instruct other hosts. She isn’t exactly vibrating with Roy Batty-like insights, or Lucy levels of cosmic awareness. There’s been much criticism of the logic of the tech guys allowing themselves to be manipulated by her (if they can up her faculties, why not drop them right down?), and in Sylvester’s case, certainly, it’s difficult to believe he wouldn’t at least find some way to undo her demands when she isn’t looking. Felix, however, I could mostly go along with, the aspirant, empathic guy who is both terrified and fascinated by what he (as it appears) has unleashed.


Ford: Sadly, in order to restore things, the situation demands a blood sacrifice.

No one here is immune from clumsy dialogue or motivation. The consistency of Hopkins’ Ford reads like it hasn’t entirely been sealed by 1.10: The Bicameral Mind because the writers have spent so much time make him appear murky previously (you end up wondering “Did he really need to do that?” in situations such as Elsie’s demise). He’s also, as the most feted performer here, given some particularly inglorious exposition that even he cannot make natural or digestible (his account of Arnold to Bernard in 1.3: The Stray, and relating why he built Bernard in 1.8: Trace Decay; “The human engineers were not up to the task of constructing the shades of emotion, and so I built you”). One minute he’s congratulating Bernard on his sentience (“After such a long absence, it’s good to have you back, finally”), the next he’s having him shot (“Goodbye, my friend”) and the next episode not apparently being remotely surprised when Bernard, reactivated, is back and interacting with him). On the plus side, Ford’s grand plan has a kind of coherence to it, that his goal for his co-creations requires the long game (“I realised you needed time. And I’m afraid, in order to escape this place, you will need to suffer more”), but it feels as if, to stretch the reveal to ten episodes, the makers have opted for far too much treading water and obfuscation.


Arnold: Do you understand now, Dolores, what the centre represents? Whose voice I’ve been wanting you to hear?

There’s much here that suggests that kind of sense of misconceived delivery. It could be regarded as appreciably meta that James Marsden, a singularly bland actor, is cast as a character (Teddy) without any backstory. Except that a singularly bland actor makes for singularly bland scenes. I expected Evan Rachel Wood to be much more engaging than she is, based on previous roles (not least HBO series True Blood), but Dolores is required to fulfil somewhat bland narrative repetitions in aid of the most passive of character development, and then she’s handed really corny dialogue for moments of realisation (“I imagined a story where I didn’t have to be damsel”).


Her contrast with Maeve, on a Prometheus quest to meet her makers/free herself from The Matrix, highlights how Dolores has drawn the short straw. In the bicameral model, Dolores achievement is becoming self-conscious, self-aware, the centre of the maze being the reaching of that point (if one were to pursue a reincarnation metaphor that might symbolise the higher self, rather than a state of enlightenment). Like Blade Runner (reference is made to retiring robots), memory is a key factor in developing artificial awareness (“Your memories are your first step to consciousness. How can you learn from your mistakes if you can’t remember them?”), but unlike Blade Runner, Nolan has failed to make his AIs interesting, more interesting than the humans. Even the Michael Wincott host, restricted to two scenes, is submerged in prosthetics.


Dolores: I think there may be something wrong with this world, hiding underneath.

This is the pervading problem with the show; it’s very difficult to really care about anyone or anything. You might read Westworld as the prosperous elite holding the hosts (us) in check through repetition of daily graft as they interact with and manipulate us until they are inevitably dethroned through bloody revolution, but that doesn’t particularly make it more fascinating either. There’s a pulp versus highbrow tug of war in the show that extends back to its leaner movie model, but in this serialised form neither is given sufficient play to satisfy. As Logan (Ben Barnes proving he can do villainy every bit as one-note as heroic) notes, “Guns and tits and all that mindless shit that I usually enjoy”; but Westworld isn’t exciting in that way, and the cerebral aspects are sorely lacking.


Teddy: The maze itself is the sum of a man’s life, the choices he makes, the dreams he hangs onto. And there, at the centre, there’s a legendary man who’s been killed over and over again countless times, and always clawed his way back to life. The man returned for the last time and vanquished all his oppressors in a tireless fury. He built a house. Around that house, he built a maze so complicated, only he could navigate a way through it.

Given that Season Two promises to be more action orientated, one wonders if the show ever had any great ideas to begin with, although Nolan doesn’t seem to have been a writer short of them in the past. Perhaps Westworld was an uncomfortable retrofit for prestige TV, but on the other hand – bizarrely and some would say foolhardily – he apparently saw the first year as a prologue or prelude to the next four seasons. He’s lucky he got the greenlight to go ahead in that case, particularly as the first year’s teething problems have been much discussed (as in: the storytelling here suggests they hit some considerable problems in how to actually get this thing up and running, and never really surmounted them).


Theresa: Do you really think the corporation’s interests here are tourists playing cowboys?

The company’s plans for the Westworld are one source of speculation, but anything really out there (I pondered if, since disease has been conquered but presumably not aging, they might envisage downloading human consciousness itself into a synthetic mind, although that might be a bit too nebulous, and besides, they wanted rid of the genius behind the park, so going forward without his insights seems unlikely; if their plan comes down to having a robot in every home, that’s not exactly a thrilling conspiracy). Oh, and the de riguer de-aging of the show: Sir Anthony Hopkins (at two different periods). Actually quite well done, as these things go, but the technique is currently inescapable. Just as well Jimmi Simpson’s appearance changed so drastically in 34 years, or no one would have needed to guess anything.


Man in Black: I wonder what I would find if I opened you up.

Maybe Westworld will surprise, though, and show its true strengths in seasons to come. I keep meaning to go back to Person of Interest, a show I pretty much gave up on after the first season but appears to have been widely advocated to as one of the good ones. If there really is a five-year plan here, there must surely be much Nolan has left to explore and has held back, because Season One barely had the material for a show half its length. And one thing they definitely need to stint on next time – all those Radiohead piano covers.




Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Popular posts from this blog

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Well, something’s broke on your daddy’s spaceship.

Apollo 13 (1995) (SPOILERS) The NASA propaganda movie to end all NASA propaganda movies. Their original conception of the perilous Apollo 13 mission deserves due credit in itself; what better way to bolster waning interest in slightly naff perambulations around a TV studio than to manufacture a crisis event, one emphasising the absurd fragility of the alleged non-terrestrial excursions and the indomitable force that is “science” in achieving them? Apollo 13 the lunar mission was tailor made for Apollo 13 the movie version – make believe the make-believe – and who could have been better to lead this fantasy ride than Guantanamo Hanks at his all-American popularity peak?

We’ve got the best ball and chain in the world. Your ass.

Wedlock (1991) (SPOILERS) The futuristic prison movie seemed possessed of a particular cachet around this time, quite possibly sparked by the grisly possibilities of hi-tech disincentives to escape. On that front, HBO TV movie Wedlock more than delivers its FX money shot. Elsewhere, it’s less sure of itself, rather fumbling when it exchanges prison tropes for fugitives-on-the-run ones.

I can’t be the worst. What about that hotdog one?

Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) (SPOILERS) It would have been a merciful release, had the title card “ The End ”, flashing on screen a little before the ninety-minute mark, not been a false dawn. True, I would still have been unable to swab the bloody dildoes fight from my mind, but at least Everything Everywhere All at Once would have been short. Indeed, by the actual end I was put in mind of a line spoken by co-star James Wong in one of his most indelible roles: “ Now this really pisses me off to no end ”. Or to put it another way, Everything Everywhere All at Once rubbed me up the wrong which way quite a lot of most of the time.

Drank the red. Good for you.

Morbius (2022) (SPOILERS) Generic isn’t necessarily a slur. Not if, by implication, it’s suggestive of the kind of movie made twenty years ago, when the alternative is the kind of super-woke content Disney currently prioritises. Unfortunately, after a reasonable first hour, Morbius descends so resignedly into such unmoderated formula that you’re left with a too-clear image of Sony’s Spider-Verse when it lacks a larger-than-life performer (Tom Hardy, for example) at the centre of any given vehicle.

So, you’re telling me that NASA is going to kill the President of the United States with an earthquake?

Conspiracy Theory (1997) (SPOILERS) Mel Gibson’s official rehabilitation occurred with the announcement of 2016’s Oscar nominations, when Hacksaw Ridge garnered six nods, including Mel as director. Obviously, many refuse to be persuaded that there’s any legitimate atonement for the things someone says. They probably weren’t even convinced by Mel’s appearance in Daddy’s Home 2 , an act of abject obeisance if ever there was one. In other circles, though, Gibbo, or Mad Mel, is venerated as a saviour unsullied by the depraved Hollywood machine, one of the brave few who would not allow them to take his freedom. Or at least, his values. Of course, that’s frequently based on alleged comments he made, ones it’s highly likely he didn’t. But doesn’t that rather appeal to the premise of his 23-year-old star vehicle Conspiracy Theory , in which “ A good conspiracy theory is an unproveable one ”?

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.

He doesn’t want to lead you. He just wants you to follow.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (2022) (SPOILERS) The general failing of the prequel concept is a fairly self-evident one; it’s spurred by the desire to cash in, rather than to tell a story. This is why so few prequels, in any form, are worth the viewer/reader/listener’s time, in and of themselves. At best, they tend to be something of a well-rehearsed fait accompli. In the movie medium, even when there is material that withstands closer inspection (the Star Wars prequels; The Hobbit , if you like), the execution ends up botched. With Fantastic Beasts , there was never a whiff of such lofty purpose, and each subsequent sequel to the first prequel has succeeded only in drawing attention to its prosaic function: keeping franchise flag flying, even at half-mast. Hence Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore , belatedly arriving after twice the envisaged gap between instalments and course-correcting none of the problems present in The Crimes of Grindelwald .