Should you watch Westworld? Yes, you should watch Westworld.
I’ve seen the first four episodes of HBO’s new show (airing on Sky Atlantic in the UK), and while they’re not as gripping as, say, the first four of Breaking Bad, there is enough intrigue to make me wish I’d watched them a little slower and now didn’t have to wait four weeks for the world to catch up.
It’s setting - a Wild West-themed park where the environment, the inhabitants, the dashes of colour in an iris, are realistic to the point of it being almost impossible to distinguish human from robot - is endlessly fascinating and incredibly relevant amid all the disturbingly wonderful advances in virtual reality technology and ominous predictions for A.I.
It may not have a Truman, ignorant to its true nature, but Westworld reminds me of The Truman Show in the way its characters perform in a choreographed way for the paying guests, and in the way the robot (if you can call them that) hosts begin to suspect that their experience of ‘reality’ isn’t completely authentic.
It also has elements of Groundhog Day, insofar as the hosts repeat the narratives they create for the guests on loop. As with the Bill Murray film, with every repetition you learn a little more, and every time it is deviated from or corrupted, new and often very dramatic experiences and sequences play out.
It also has a very strong Red Dead Redemption vibe. I mention this Western game as opposed to as Western film because, though Westworld is very much physical, it does have a video game air to it (the creators brought up Grand Theft Auto in relation to the series this week). Venture to a certain broken down wagon on a specific dirt trail and you’ll initiate a plot sequence involving a raid on some bandits. Pick up the dropped groceries of the beautiful farmer's daughter and you'll wind up having rescue her from imprisonment.
There are plenty more reference points for the show, Quantum Leap, The Matrix, The Terminator, The Hunger Games… it doesn’t feel derivative of any of these though but rather fresh and new. And its the scenes outside of the park that are often the most gripping, where the hosts are rebooted into a sort-of Safe Mode and are checked for functionality and that they aren’t harbouring any kind of homicidal or, worse, existential thoughts.
Here we meet Anthony Hopkins park director Dr. Robert Ford, a confounding character and also the show’s best, who one you know to be brilliant, but can’t decide whether is good or evil from episode to episode. And that’s where the central fascination of Westworld lies - how can we establish good and evil, right and wrong when screwing around in uncharted A.I. waters. We’ve been so caught up worrying about A.I.’s threat to mankind, but what about their threat to themselves? Do they experience consciousness? Some semblance of it? Do they hurt like we hurt? It is these questions that I’m sure the series will go on to explore.
Westworld premiered on HBO in the US 2 October, it begins in the UK 4 October.