The biggest trend in TV of making programs based on popular movies continues Sunday, Oct. 2, when HBO launches "Westworld." The series is based on the 1973 feature film directed and written by Michael Crichton. If you are not old enough to remember the movie, the story's very similar to "Jurassic Park" but instead of dinosaurs becoming a threat to park patrons, it's gun slinging robots that provide the danger.
"Westworld" is an adult amusement park made to look like the old West. It's a place where no fantasy is to wild and no desire to freaky. In the original film, a major glitch overrides the safety protocols that robots can’t hurt humans. But, when that changes it’s a fight for survival by those at the park.
That idea serves as the basis for the new HBO series of the same name. Those with enough money can become part of a variety of storylines. Stay close to the center of the park and the events are relatively mild. The further a person goes away from the center, the more spectacular the experience.
Where the TV series departs from the original film is in perspective. Crichton's film was all about the humans and their efforts to survive the onslaught of the robots. The TV version flips the switch and the real focus becomes the robots.
After years of methodically living out their existence at the whims of the visitors, the robots are beginning to show signs of being self aware. Instead of memories being wiped each night, the robots are beginning to retain snippets of past events and because of the lack of restrain the visitors have to use, those memories are deep, dark and painful.
Executive producer, Lisa Joy, says the elements of what constitutes a sentient situation will be examined in the series.
"It’s questioning where does life begin, in essence, and what characterizes the importance of life, whether it is a human who is dictated by biological impulses and neuron synapsing and the double helixes of DNA entwined within our bodies or whether it’s an artificial being that’s coded with zeros and ones, but that is coded in such a way that this AI believes in its reality, feels the things it feels and feels them and as truly as we feel our own feelings.” Joy says. “So it’s the constant examination about that line and where does consciousness begin and end, and what are the differences between an AI and organic human.”
Central to that examination is Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood), a young woman living a rather calm life on the family’s small cattle ranch. The repetitiveness of her existence begins to shift as she begins to become aware of a bigger world than the one where she lives.
Wood turns in a sterling performance shifting from the sweet young farm girl to the deadpanned version of her in her basic robotic form. She’s able to switch between these very different actions with a beautiful ease that makes both her robot and humanistic sides register very real.
She’s not alone as the series features a host of interesting characters from Anthony Hopkins as the benevolent creator of the world to Ed Harris as a mysterious figure in black looking for the deepest, darkest secrets of Westworld.
Thandie Netwon’s role as one of the town’s women of pleasure is a little flat in the first episode but she plays a major role in the second episode as to the awakening of the robots.
As with many cable and streaming productions, there is no rush to create a full world in the first episode. Network shows can lose an audience quickly if every aspect of the show is not revealed in the opening episode. The first episode of “Westworld” is like the short film production that often precedes an amusement park ride. It’s just the highlights of what’s to come. The substance of the series begins to be unveiled in the second episode.
Executive producer Jonathan Nolan says, “In that great HBO omnibus ensemble tradition, we’re able to explore different points of view with the show. We wanted to start with and ground most of the information that the audience has in the hosts’ perspective. So when it comes to these questions, we tease a little bit along the way, but we really wanted to strand the viewers in that limited understanding of where this place is.”
This blend of action and complex philosophical questions is very important to HBO. The premium channel’s massive hit, ‘Game of Thrones,” will not go on forever and HBO needs another series to find the same kind of massive audience to fill future voids.
Despite being a well acted and smartly written series, there’s no way “Westworld” will become the phenomenon that “Thrones” has become. But, it’s a very solid addition to the lineup because it can be viewed with equal bemusement on a superficial level because of the sex, sand and showdowns or on a cerebral level through the questions that bounce up against philosophical and theological walls.
- 9 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 2, HBO