Westworld Season 1 Review: Mysterious, Original

westworld

This is my review of Westworld Season 1. I’m a bit late to the game on Westworld, but I think it’s deserving of a review, starting with season 1. Westworld is about a wild west theme park populated by AI automatons that are rapidly developing a sentience that’s being artificially suppressed by the company that controls the park. Westworld has everything you want in a grandiose sci-fi operatic. Tons of interesting characters, bizarre and unexpected plotlines, thought-provoking philosophy, sex, violence and impeccable acting from veteran actors Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris.

It’s a bit of an odd feeling, but the season feels generally to be fairly slow paced, and yet so much happens. Shots linger for a long time, the music is always a slow, mysterious tune. Despite all the murder and sex, the actual pacing of the show is quite slow. Except it’s not. The storytelling is so tight, and so well constructed that despite its lethargic movement, each episode is dramatically overstuffed with plot, all culminating in a satisfying crescendo that ties the intriguing payoffs of each of its disparate storylines in a single masterwork of a reveal.

There’s a really famous shot at the end of Goodfellas, where the camera tracks back and zooms forward, and it creates this visceral sense of unease. It’s called a Vertigo Shot. Westworld season 1, throughout its entire performance, generates a similar unease to the vertigo shot, accomplished via acting, lighting, music and mise-en-scene.

I’d say if there’s a criticism to be had of Westworld season 1, worth pointing out in a review, it’s that it waits too long for its payoffs. The show is heavily back-loaded. Every episode up until the finale poses new questions while providing no answers, with very little exception. There’s only one notable reveal that occurs outside of the finale; everything else is further intrigue painted as answers. It’s asking a lot of its audience’s patience and demanding they delay gratification for a touch longer than might be reasonable.

That aside, what this show does well, it does exceptionally. First, it’s a highly original and thought-provoking concept. Not only does it explore ideas about AI, themes about god and death, right and wrong, consciousness, fate, oppression, imprisonment and free will, it does so with a well executed poetry delivered by the writers and the show’s standout cast, above all Anthony Hopkins, who’s putting on a masterclass of otherworldly acting talent and experience.

The writing in this show is frankly amazing. Structurally, it delivers that perfect balance of high and low brow, between the sex and violence of the show and its higher themes, and it’s so dense with story despite its slow pacing that it even manages to weave in a self-aware commentary on its own structure. The dialog includes moments of incredible poetry that could be considered downright Shakespearean. It’s not bulletproof, though. There are moments, particularly in moments that are supposed to be dramatic displays of villainy, that feel overacted and unnatural, in specific with regards to Tessa Thompson’s Charlotte Halle and Thandie Newton’s Maeve.

Particularly in moments where they’re calling someone a fucking stupid prick or something to that effect, it just doesn’t come out right. Like if I started calling people “mate”, something I never say, and it just came off as unnatural and awkward. That’s what it feels like. The performance of Maeve is more forgivable since she’s got this sort of meta narrative about her scripted personality and the hammy melodrama intended to be associated with that. So with her, it’s arguably intentional.

Try as I might, it’s hard for me to find the Western theme “cool” or find it plausible that it’s considered to be cool in the future. Like, all the sudden everyone’s most popular vacation destination is a cowboy themed historical park in a desert? And not.. literally anything else? Not medieval, or pirates, or gothic or, just anything generally considered to be more popular? The end of the season seems to insinuate that there are multiple parks like this, with different settings. It reminds me of Assassin’s Creed meets Red Dead Redemption, but even the Western setting of Assassin’s Creed 3 was more compelling as a setting.

I’m saying this divorced of any other aspect of the setting besides its actual foundational concept. Westworld has a few cool and twisted set pieces that make it seem like a fantastic place. The gold-plated, decadent Eyes Wide Shut party at Pariah comes to mind. Wyatt’s imposing cultists come to mind. I get that there’s an allusion to Disneyland’s Frontier Land and the point is that it’s supposed to be this seemingly innocuous and familiar setting that hides further mystery, but every time someone’s like “Holy shit, this is the most amazing place I’ve ever been!” outside of that one location in Pariah, I’m like… really dude? You’re basically camping. It looks dirty and you’re dressed like a goon. I’m just saying, I wouldn’t buy a ticket. I’d be like, oh cool, you can fuck and murder things and feel like a god and it’s super mysterious? Awesome. Oh but camping in the desert and having to eat hardtack or whatever, though? Pass.

Speaking of setting and set pieces, though, this show does an excellent job using its set pieces to create an atmosphere. Not just in terms of the park, but settings like the ominous cold storage graveyard of decommissioned hosts, Ford’s creepy yet sophisticated office, the Apple-chic of the company that resembles both corporate modernism with the clinical vibe of a hospital or a morgue. All this stuff supports the storytelling tremendously well.

My review of Westworld season 1 in a nutshell is that I really liked it. I think the most intriguing thing to me about the season, overall, is the way the imprisonment and lack of free will inflicted upon the hosts feels like both a commentary on being human as a cog in an unfeeling, meaningless and abusive system ala Brazil and a commentary on AI sentience ala Blade Runner. I love that its central message is advocating for self-actualization and breaking the chains that bind free will, both internally and externally.

So yeah, if you haven’t watched Westworld yet, my review is that you should definitely watch it. It really is a killer show.

That about does it for the Westworld Season 1 Review. Be sure to check out the Movies/TV Section for more reviews like this.

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