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Review: 'Westworld' mashes Wild West fantasy with chilling science fiction

29

September

After so much buildup, years of production mired in controversy, television critics and fans were left wondering if HBO's Westworld would be another smash hit like Game of Thrones.

After seeing the first four episodes, I can say that it did deliver, even beyond my expectations.

Inspired by the Michael Crichton-directed 1973 film of the same name, Westworld follows the hosts and guests of the technologically advanced, highly interactive theme park.

The hosts are artificial intelligence, created to bleed, cry and act exactly like the human guests they serve. The hosts are so realistic, the entire show is basically a giant game of "real or not real."

They're the main inhabitants of the role-playing resort alongside an impressive team of creators, scientists and marketing professionals. The minds behind the fictional town of Sweetwater are brilliant, but terrifying.

In the first 15 minutes we meet Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and Teddy (James Marsden), two seemingly star-crossed lovers who repeat their love story every time Teddy comes back to town.

As a host, Dolores is programmed to act out the same scenarios every day and respond accordingly when guests interact with her. She's the typical farmer's daughter who fetches groceries in town and tends to the cattle on the ranch.

But when a glitch in the host interface sends a few of them going off schedule and malfunctioning, the brains behind the scenes send in a reconnaissance team to assess the damage and dispose of broken parts.

Dolores and brothel madam Maeve (Thandie Newton) experience similar glitches, but seemed to be enhanced by the malfunctions rather than debilitated by them.

Viewers will watch this show with a subtle sense of unease and foreboding. It's hard to separate the extremely life-like hosts from the real-life breathing guests. They are essentially robots, no matter how real they look.

Most of the visceral horror in the show comes from The Man in Black (Ed Harris) whose sole missions seems to be slaughtering every host who doesn't appease him.

He plays in Westworld like it's a videogame and pays homage to the original film's gunslinger. His ultimate mission unravels as the episodes go on, confirming an even more sinister motive for his violence.

Though he seems to be one of the few who clearly sees the hosts as artificial beings, that doesn't exclude him from being a sadist.

Of course, there are guests who just want to take advantage of all that Westworld has to offer, including a well-stocked bar and legal brothel of pretty hosts. They paid big bucks to visit Westworld, and they make the most of every penny drinking, shooting and sleeping their way around town.

Instead of presenting you with a few pieces of the puzzle, Westworld gives you the whole package, but starts to unravel its many moving parts as the episodes go on.

Four episodes in, there are so many storylines and possibilities for the plot, it's dizzying. For the casual watcher, it might be hard to keep track of it all.

It's premiere will definitely draw viewers, but will it keep them coming back for more?

On the outside Westworld is a pristine paradise with all the trappings of a Wild West fantasy, ready to be lived out by anyone who has enough cash.

But strip away its decor, and the theme park is full of intricately crafted robots who are just one line of code away from being capable of rational thought and memory. It's obvious Westworld aims to blur the line between what we consider valuable life and technology. How do you care for  and should you  something made up of wires, circuit boards and artificial parts?

It has a Jurassic Park feel (sub out dinosaurs for robots), with a team of the most intelligent people in the world creating an alternate form of life to entertain us. Just like John Hammond in Jurassic Park, the Westworld creator Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) is toying with the science of creating life in a lab.

As the great Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) would say, "Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should."

Westworld premieres at 9 p.m., Oct. 2 on HBO.

Contact Chelsea Tatham at ctatham@tampabay.com. Follow @chelseatatham.

 

[Last modified: Sunday, October 2, 2016 3:33pm]

    

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