HBO and Sky Atlantic’s much-delayed reworking of Michael Crichton’s 1973 movie starts off with a very strong opening episode that uses the visual image of a pianola reel to good effect from the credits onwards. Those reels were the simplest form of mechanics – they were made of paper which has holes punched in it. As the reel was turned mechanically, that made the keys of the piano use the hammers to hit the strings. It was an early version of recorded music: every time that a reel is played, the effect should be the same.
And that – with a few minor allowances for improvisation – is what the “hosts” at Westworld are designed to do. As we see, their days are on a perpetual loop: much of the episode focuses on Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores, constantly resetting to her waking up in bed ready to start another beautiful day. She chats to her father then, goes into town, meets up with an old boyfriend and returns home – at least, that’s what’s scripted. He may get held up, so someone else sees her in town and she returns home a bit later. You get the idea.
And that’s how those in charge of Westworld like it. Robert Ford, played by Anthony Hopkins, likes to continue to work on the quality of the hosts so that the guests get a better experience each time. He’s assisted by Jeffrey Wright as AI director Bernard who seems to see all interpersonal interaction on a technical level, and a host of others whose jobs range from scripting the hundreds of interconnected narratives to cleaning down the “blood” from the hosts who have been killed during the course of the day.
The trouble is there are some flies in the ointment. First is Ed Harris’ Man in Black, who’s clearly got an agenda of his own. And then the hosts start malfunctioning… Not to the level (yet – it’s only the first episode!) of the 1973 film, but there’s signs that things are going wrong.
The world building is very skilfully done, with some things left for the audience to connect for themselves. It’s HBO so there’s some gratuitous nudity, and graphic violence – the hosts may not be human but you shoot them in the face and it’s just as messy as it would be with someone of flesh and blood. But from the first voiceover you realise that this isn’t going to be just an update of the Crichton tale, but an examination of what it means to be human. It’s covering ground that E4’s Humans, Syfy’s Battlestar Galactica and even CBBC’s Eve has been examining over the last fifteen years on TV – but (thanks to an ingenious idea that comes out in the last twenty minutes or so) charts its own path.
Verdict: A confident and powerful opener. 9/10
Westworld begins on HBO on 2nd October and on Sky Atlantic on 4th.