Westworld might sound like an ordinary amusement park, but it's the furthest thing from it. HBO has adapted Michael Crichton’s seventies thriller to create a new science–fiction series that's been wracking up rave reviews since its debut last October. The show has generated an enormous fan base, galvanized by ever–changing theories of the show's trajectory. Since the season wrapped up in December, Westworld has infiltrated Penn's campus, dominating conversations within the classroom and without. I hadn't heard of the show until I returned for the start of the semester. However, once I caught wind of it, there was no escaping the hype. I decided I had to experience the phenomenon myself.
Some background: Westworld provides a futuristic Western–themed park, built to provide a fantasyland for rich customers to indulge in their most racy and gory fantasies, consequence–free. The illusion is maintained by Westworld’s population of robotic “hosts”—androids engineered to perform Wild West scenarios as conscience–less pawns whose sole purpose is to entertain. The park is the creation of Dr. Robert Ford (played by Anthony Hopkins), a demonic genius who has created the impression that these hosts possess neither consciousness nor memory and are completely unable to think, feel or remember anything other than what their coding has programmed them to. These humanoids are slaves who are not aware of their enslavement and are thus the perfect mode of entertainment. However, the powers of artificial intelligence start to slip out of Ford and his team’s grasp as hosts begin to be plagued by nightmares and visions of some of the grisly horrors of their pasts. The propelling element of this television series is the idea of “bulk apperception,” which, according to Google Dictionary, is “the mental process by which a person makes sense of an idea by assimilating it to the body of ideas he or she already possesses.” In other words, it is the gaining of consciousness.
At the start of the series, the viewer’s knowledge is almost as limited as the hosts’, and to understand the plot fully, one must patiently absorb information as it is slowly revealed. Arguably, Westworld relies a little too heavily on the viewer’s inevitable confusion and at times, plays so heavily into that mania—often at the expense of the plotline. (**Spoiler Alert**) It isn’t revealed until the ninth episode (out of ten) that multiple time frames of the same plot line are unfolding concurrently onscreen, jumping from present day to nearly thirty–five years prior. Until that point, you are left piecing together information that is very likely invalid, as the line between real and artificial is incredibly thin in Westworld. As the hosts attempt to gain consciousness—and freedom from their creators, by extension—the viewer is simultaneously bulking their own apperception. This aspect of the plot line might disqualify this series as a prime candidate for binge–watching.
Westworld bears resemblance to another one of HBO’s series, Game of Thrones, while also seemingly trying to be GoT’s bigger and badder younger sibling. People of questionable morals are placed in positions of perilous authority, and there is an abundance of nudity and violence, just for the sake of nudity and violence. This aspect is perhaps credited with turning the series into such an expansive, cultish phenomenon, similar to that of GoT. Unsurprisingly, this might also be the reason that the series has become so popular among Penn students. Jake Levitt, (C'17) said: "After watching Westworld, me and all my friends had a big debate over if you were actually in Westworld, whether you'd have sex with a host or kill a host first. Most people thought it was more disturbing to kill a host, but one of my friends decided that it was more disturbing to have sex with a host and he would rather kill a host. It has become a good test of which of my friends are psychopaths." Westworld has become increasingly popular among those of us who are attracted to the kind of caper presented in other HBO series.
However, Westworld lacks the same passion and focus that is present in GoT. The show opens with a promising pilot, but takes a few episodes to find its footing. The narrative is inconsistent and often unimaginative, as scenes flip–flop between grisly shoot–outs in the saloon and explanative monologues within the slippery sleekness of the park laboratories. Rather than being given the opportunity to crack the plot themselves, viewers oscillate between feeling confused and lectured.
Yet, regardless of plot development, Westworld is incontestably an illustrative masterpiece. The production value is superb, the acting is dexterous and the graphics are astoundingly lifelike––overall creating a cinematographic triumph. Thandie Newton gives a chilling performance as the leader of the robopocalypse that galvanizes the narrative into its sweet spot. Evan Rachel Wood is subtle and dangerous as Dolores Abernathy, the beautiful country girl who discovers that her idyllic, cyclical life is actually a carefully constructed lie. Prior to her coming undone, she says: “Some people choose to see the ugliness in this world, the disarray. I choose to see the beauty. To believe there is an order to our days. A purpose. I know things will work out the way they’re meant to.” As the nature of her reality unravels, this preprogrammed speech of hers becomes dismantled and ugly.
Westworld is the perfect viewing experience for any cinephile or film student, as the plot itself discusses narrative technique and the viewing experience is prepossessing. The show is definitely worth plugging through the first slower episodes. Once it finds its aim, Westworld hits the mark. That being said, it seems as though this first season is just hinting at the bedlam to come. A month after the premiere, HBO renewed the series for a second season, planned to debut in 2018. The original film, Westworld, included three distinctly "themed" worlds in the amusement park Delos: Westworld, Medieval World, and Roman World. In the series, we've only been exposed to Westworld. However, in the final episode, we catch a glimpse of two samurai hosts locked in combat, hinting at the creation of another world. The series has the potential to match the grandeur and popularity of GoT. Catch it on HBO.