TV Review: HBO’s ‘Westworld’ an Immersive Vision

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What happens when a theme park goes awry, putting its patrons in danger?

HBO’s new series “Westworld” has obvious parallels to Michael Crichton’s other nightmare theme park novel “Jurassic Park.” Both share a desire to entertain patrons on a grand scale and both love to revel in the pleasure of complete disarray and chaos.

While “Westworld” carries the torch of unbridled fantasy, pockmarked by unmitigated disaster, much like the park itself, it has a few glitches to get through.

Westworld is a life-like Western theme park where guests can live out their gun-slinging fantasies with convincing presentation and none of the risks. Start a shootout? Sure. Have sex with a prostitute? Why not.

It’s a contained little world full of picturesque Old West landscapes, treacherous bandits, patronized saloons – and flies. So many flies.

What makes the park bona fide are the hosts, robots programmed to play a part within Westworld and stick to a script with minimal improvisations, that look like the real deal – think of it like “Ex Machina” meets a John Wayne flick.

We’re first introduced to Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), the park’s oldest host, a sweet-tempered country gal with an easy-to-follow storyline. We see her live out her scripted day several times – which includes waking up and greeting Pa (Louis Herthum) on the porch before heading into town to meet her beau Teddy (James Marsden).

The park operates smoothly – men live out their gun-wielding fantasies and women aspire to be courted by a rugged cowboy – until a few hiccups show up in the hosts.

Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), one of the chief creators of the hosts, faces pressure to find out what’s going on and fix it quickly. Bernard, though, is an intrigued observer and is more interested in the why.

Investors don’t want a repeat of what happened thirty years ago – a vague reference alluding to Westworld’s last major failure.

The problem is coming from reveries, a new class of gestures designed to make the hosts seem more human. The reveries, designed by the park’s creative director Ford (Anthony Hopkins), unbeknownst to the park operating personnel, allow the hosts access to previous “memories” – former scripts and drives from past programming.

If this sounds confusing, it’s because it is at times.

As beautifully immersive and intricately layered as “Westworld” is, it often stumbles on its own premise. It takes a while to absorb the two oscillating settings and pick up on the lingo that is pertinent to understanding the hosts and, therefore, the world they inhabit.

Adding some confusion is Ed Harris’ character, known only as “The Man in Black,” a violent host with a penchant for bloodshed and havoc. Why he’s programmed with such a grisly nature is uncertain. Perhaps it just comes with the territory. But he’s not the only one spilling blood. Pretty soon, other hosts begin going so off script it requires a mandatory shutdown and careful review of the hosts.

“Westworld” mediates between the world of the future and past, nestling into a suspended milieu that serves as a liberation of the id and an internment of stymied sentience.

“Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?” asks a park staff member to Dolores. Much like “Jurassic Park,” Crichton likes flirting here with creation and the struggle between science and a God-complex. And much like his other stories, we know where this one is headed.

“Westworld” is setting up all the right plots, characters and moral dilemmas for an epic spurs-clad Frankenstein of a mishap.

The beginning is slow and tedious to get through, but luckily there’s time and lush potential to see this take off right.

Creators, and husband-and-wife team Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, know how to infuse the story with enough excitement to get past the tedium of introductory procedures. As soon as the scientists begin going on about reveries and narrative loops, they thrust us back in Westworld where a holdup is taking place.

Adding to the show’s pedigree is executive producer J.J. Abrams, who just couldn’t stay away from this reboot of the 1973 James Brolin sci-fi film of the same name.

As long as “Westworld” keeps elevating its game, it’ll find itself embraced by fans eager for the fall.

“Westworld” airs Sunday nights on HBO.

Let us know what you thought of the premiere in the comments below.

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Clayton Davis is the esteemed Editor and Owner of AwardsCircuit.com. Born in Bronx, NY to a Puerto Rican mother and Black father, he’s been criticizing film and television for over a decade. Clayton is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association where he votes and attends the kick off to the awards season, the Critics Choice Awards. He also founded the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association, the first Latino-based critics’ organization in the United States. He’s also an active member of the African-American Film Critics Association, New York Film Critics Online, International Press Academy, Black Reel Awards, and the Broadcast Television Journalists Association. Clayton has been quoted and appeared in various outlets that include The New York Times, CNN.com, Variety, Deadline, Los Angeles Times, FOX 5, Bloomberg Television, AOL, Huffington Post, Bloomberg Radio, The Wrap, Slash Film, and the Hollywood Reporter.