If you ever watched Game of Thrones (and let’s also assume you know what’s going on, and you can name all of the characters), you’ll probably be on board with Westworld, which takes the mantle established by GoT, not to mention that of Boardwalk Empire, and sets within the confines of a limited sci-fi premise, a show which asks questions about the very nature of human existence. The Thrones and Boardwalk mantle, being that the physical scope of the piece is impressive, but there’s also massive, almost overwhelming scope to the narrative: what we’re dealing with here is not just about what’s on screen, but a pointed, sharp examination of society on a broader scale.
This is the hallmark of great science fiction: it takes a premise in the future, uses technology as a centerpiece of the proceedings, and it is technology that does not exist in the present day. The best examples of the genre use their storytelling as a forewarning against certain archetypes, or tropes: tyranny, fascism, environmental vandalism; hubris, even. This is where Westworld comes to the fore.
The fact that the show has such remarkable scope is what’s most impressive about it. It takes the premise from Michael Crichton’s original 1973 film (thematic territory he explored again in Jurassic Park some 20 years later) and goes beyond just ‘robots take over the park’, to a more complex, nuanced exploration of what gives someone, or some ‘thing’ an identity, or personality (dare I say, ‘soul’), as well as an examination of the motives behind the kind of person who would take a holiday in a place to experience the kinky thrill of shooting a human, or engage in some consequence-free shagging with a saloon sex worker.
You’d think that with James Marsden, Ed Harris and Anthony Hopkins being front-and-centre that the show – the first season at least – would be primarily about their exploits, and the old good versus evil standard tropes. But it soon emerges that the star, and star-making turn of this piece if from Thandie Newton. It’s not like anyone needed examples of her abilities as an actor (she was great in Crash), but there is something about her performance in Westworld that sets her above and beyond the rest of the cast. As one of the park’s ‘hosts’, she has to encapsulate the western archetype her ‘character’ and character within the show need to occupy, as well as being the dead-eyed automaton behind the scenes when things go wrong, as well as the evolving AI when she starts to figure things out. It’s a broad, complex, detailed, and fearless performance (much of her time on screen is in the altogether). Quietly amazing. Evan Rachel Wood also bears the weight of the proceedings on her shoulders, and informs her character with vulnerability and depth. Jeffrey Wright, who is as good as anyone, in anything he’s done, ever, again takes on his part of Bernard with a level of emotional depth you’d not expect from the format (Wright is amazing, and his portrayals can be so broad and varied, from his work as Belize in Angels in America, to his black nationalist on Boardwalk Empire).
Not that Hopkins et al are given short shrift. There is something altogether mesmerising about his portrayal of the park’s founder and ultimate puppet master; there’s a reason he’s held in such high regard as an actor.
It was said around the time of Breaking Bad, Mad Men and the other tropes of TV at its new golden age, its new height or artistic triumph, that the best film of the year was invariably any given episode of one of those shows. Having missed a good opportunity with Vinyl (which started promisingly, if recklessly, and then ran out of steam super fast), HBO have in Westworld the opportunity to really get under the skin of humanity, and explore the very nature of our existence.
Such lofty heights were never attempted on TJ Hooker.