By Anna Richards
The US television network, HBO, were keen to secure their next big hit show with the end of the hugely popular Game of Thrones in sight. After a string of production delays, re-casting of several major characters and a huge $100 million budget, Westworld was hugely pressured to be a roaring success. The ten-part series did not disappoint at all; it is a complex and highly enjoyable sci-fi roller coaster with an impressive cast.
Based on Michael Crichton’s (the man behind Jurassic Park) 1973 cult sci-fi film of the same title, Westworld is a theme park populated by state-of-the-art androids (known as hosts who are indistinguishable from humans), who are stuck in a Groundhog Day style where they re-live the same day repeatedly without realising. Human guests pay several $1000s per day to live out their Wild West fantasies in the park. Westworld follows two realities, the hosts and guests in the park as well as the employees behind-the-scenes who have the task of maintaining control over the impossible. Essentially, it is Jurassic Park but the dinosaurs are androids with cowboy hats and Smith and Wesson’s instead. It’s a theme park doomed to fail from the start and explores similar themes of humans ‘playing god’.
The mastermind behind the park is Dr. Robert Ford (an excellent Anthony Hopkins) who is a bizarre mash-up of Jurassic Park’s John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) and Hopkin’s own legendary role as Dr. Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. Dr. Ford is remarkably brilliant, charming, corrupted and evil. Other staff members working behind-the-scenes is head of programming division, Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) who has one of the most baffling but compelling storylines in the series and behaviour programmer, Elsie Hughes (a fantastic Shannon Woodward) who uncovers one of Dr. Ford’s best kept secrets.
Alike to Game of Thrones, the supreme ruler of gory violence on TV, Westworld is not for the faint-hearted. The mysterious Man in Black (Ed Harris) is often brutal and cruel in order to solve the Maze (a puzzle set out by a deceased employee of the park). Senior manager Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen, star of Danish political drama Borgen) confides in Dr. Ford that she visited the park as a child but who in their right mind, would bring a child to this theme park? The park is specifically programmed for affluent and prosperous men to indulge in their deepest and darkest fantasies (violence, sex, rape and murder come to mind) without having to face any consequences at all. In a year of the Harvey Weinstein allegations, #MeToo and Time’s Up, Westworld has its provocative, problematic and occasional uncomfortable moments of men controlling women and glorifying sex robots.
However, the two standout stars are Evan Rachel Wood and Thandie Newton who shine brilliantly as female hosts questioning their elaborated constructed reality and fighting against Dr. Ford. Both Wood and Newton are stars who speak out openly and regularly about sexual abuse in the film and television industry. After a successful career built around independent film roles, it is refreshing to see Evan Rachel Wood take centre stage in a mainstream television series as the oldest host in the park, Dolores Abernathy and receive the recognition she has always deserved. Thandie Newton is on exceptional form as Maeve Millay, a brothel madam, who decided to take the role because it mirrored what she and other women have experienced with sexual abuse.
Westworld is a difficult world to enter because of its vast and complex nature. It needs a certain amount of patience but once you wrap your head around how the park works, it is a completely addictive, gripping and visual-stunning watch. Who knew robot cowboys and sci-fi dystopia would work so well together?
Season 2 of Westworld returns on April 22, 2018 and if you can’t wait till then,
Decoding Westworld, a podcast by Joanna Robinson and David Chen, is a highly recommended listen to fulfil all your Westworld needs