“Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality.”
As things in our world become exponentially more chaotic and inexplicable by the day, the theory that we’re all living in a computer simulation becomes a little harder to completely dismiss. The idea that our reality is an illusion dates back to the 17th century but most recently gained traction thanks to a 2003 paper published by Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom. It’s also been a popular theme in classic sci-fi works like Blade Runner, Total Recall, and The Matrix. To that list, we can now add HBO’s Westworld, a slick and star-studded sci-fi/Western mash-up that features the requisite shoot-em-ups and pay cable sexcapades, but is actually most interested in exploring the nature of humanity.
“Welcome to the world.”
Westworld is based on Michael Crichton’s 1973 film of the same name about an extravagant, adult-themed amusement park where a robot malfunction endangers the lives of its guests. The movie served as a cautionary tale about what happens when humanity’s worst and most indulgent instincts run amok. While that’s also a significant theme in this newer version, HBO’s adaptation approaches the material from a different perspective.
The first “person” we see is Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), who we quickly come to learn is a robotic host at Westworld. For an un-mentioned — but surely outrageous — amount of money, guests can come to Westworld and live out their greatest fantasies with the park’s hosts, whether it’s killing an infamous outlaw like Hector Escaton (Rodrigo Santoro) or bedding a very willing madam like Maeve (Thandie Newton). Westworld is the brainchild of Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), who runs the park with lead programmer Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) by his side.
“I’m sorry…I’m not feeling quite myself.”
The hosts’ programming prevents them from causing harm to the park’s guests. and their entire existence revolves around servicing the needs of longtime visitors like The Man in Black (Ed Harris). We learn the park has been around for about 30 years, so Ford is eager to unveil a mysterious new narrative. However, a recent software update seems to throw a monkey wrench into the system as hosts start recalling flashes of their past lives…and what they see is not pretty.
– “Are you real?”
– “Well, if you can’t tell, does it matter?”
Westworld has been adapted for television by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy. I almost just typed “has been adapted for the small screen…” but that doesn’t come close to capturing the show’s ambitions. The impressive pilot episode/“The Original” is directed by Nolan and features sweeping vistas worthy of a John Ford Western (more on that later), an electrifying shootout, and some neat swerves. (Nolan, after all, is the younger brother of Christopher Nolan and has either written or co-written twist-happy movies like Memento and The Prestige.) One of those swerves revolves around handsome cowboy Teddy (James Marsden), who certainly looks the part of a typical Western hero, but that archetype (like many others) is quickly turned on its head.
Dolores is our entry point into Westworld, which efficiently gives us a glimpse at the park’s inner workings through her daily routine. (The host’s lives are soul-crushingly referred to as their “loops.”) More importantly, starting with Dolores establishes the intriguing idea that Nolan and Joy are approaching their story — and what it means to be human — from the perspective of the hosts. Yes, there is the basic irony that the hosts often display more humanity than guests who are running wild, including aggressive jackass Logan (Ben Barnes) and his more idealistic companion William (Jimmi Simpson). But there are also deeper questions related to what it means to be conscious; when the hosts start getting traumatic flashes of past loops, they long to break free.
These weighty questions are lightened and made palatable by the sensational cast, led by Wood. The actress has the soft features to pull off Dolores prairie girl next door appeal, but fiery eyes that barely conceal that darkness and turmoil within. It also doesn’t hurt to have a bona fide acting legend like Anthony Hopkins around to convicingly play God. Wright gives a subtle, multi-layered performance that anchors many of the sequences showing the park’s behind-the-scenes happenings, while Marsden’s unabashed goodness makes the destined-to-fail Teddy a tragic figure. Newton, meanwhile, is an emotional and fierce standout as Maeve slowly becomes a revolutionary figure. Westworld is so stacked that a dynamic performer like Tessa Thompson (as an upstart board member looking to usurp Ford) barely gets anything to do.
Westworld is at its best when it uses its lavish production values to immerse us in what is happening within the park, further blurring the line between what is supposed to be artificial and real. (It’s no accident the Western-themed park looks more relatable to us than the dark, foreboding lab where the real humans spend most of their time.) It’s a more effective trick than when the show’s writers keep adding more and more elements to the series in their attempts at world-building.
Simply put, there are too many storylines and characters that inevitably get the short shrift here. A character like Simon Quarterman’s Lee Sizemore (Westworld’s narrative director) is interesting in theory, but is nothing more than a profane gasbag. I personally wouldn’t mind an episode of Westworld that revolved around Lee and his team brainstorming ideas for the park. However, since it appears each season of Westworld will be its own distinct chapter — the mysterious Maze in season 1 directly ties in to the show’s larger themes — I doubt there will be room for episodes like that, which is a shame.
The good news is it also opens up infinite possibilities for future seasons; the Westworld movie had a 1976 sequel called Futureworld and the show’s game-changing season finale/“The Bicameral Mind” strongly hints at a different time period to be explored down the line. Stay tuned.
Westworld: Season One — The Maze is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The Ultra high-definition 2160p image is arrived at by an HEVC codec with an average bitrate of 45 mbps, while the 1080p Blu-ray image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 25 mbps. Westworld is one of the few television shows that is shot entirely on film. The format is a perfect fit for the scenes inside the theme park, many of which were filmed in the same places John Ford used for his classic Westerns. The extra you get in 4K is most pronounced in the wonderful location vistas. You get a nicer sense of depth and richness in the beautiful mesas and landscapes. One of the most impressive contrast moments can be found in a scene where the Dolores character is shown partially finished. The wonderful flesh-tones stand out in stark contrast to the dark mechanical aspects of her make-up.
The Blu-ray image isn’t heavy on filmic grain, but the same Western scenes — whether it’s a panoramic shot of Dolores riding her horse across a great distance or a close-up of Teddy’s immaculate stubble — have a crisp, textured feel that completely engrosses viewers in the same way the park seeks to transport its visitors. Some flashback scenes are intentionally desaturated; the effect is often subtle but very effective considering we’re not always supposed to know that what we’re watching is a flashback. The organic nature of this presentation carries over to the underground scenes in the high-tech bowels of the park, which might otherwise come off as too clinical. Black levels are inky for these sequences, as well as any involving (you guessed it) The Man in Black.
The Dolby Atmos presentation defaults to a 7.1 track. The extra speakers do not provide a lot more than the 5.1 track, which is every bit as immersive (though not quite as impressive) as the visual presentation. Rear speakers provide understated but consistent support during quieter scenes, whether it’s the low hum of the Delos offices or streaming water from a river inside the park. The extra speakers in the Atmos presentation mostly add a little more depth to the bottom end of the surround presentation. On top of that, score elements are enhanced and the realism of the space in which the action plays out is heightened.
That being said, the track giddily gallops into action whenever things pick up on screen. Yes, we get sub activity during sequences with heavy horseplay, but it’s also there to punctuate gunfire (and an automated Delos double door opening) during the tense finale. Ramin Djawadi’s terrific score — which pays homage to Crichton’s movie — and the player piano covers of songs like “Paint It Black” utilize the full breadth of the surround sound field with thrilling results.
All of the bonus material is presented in HD. In addition to the special features, the set comes with a Premium Collectible Booklet in the guise of a Delos corporate guidebook for new employees. It’s a nice addition that helps immerse you in this world
Available on all discs
The Big Moment: These mini featurettes break down a different significant development from the show’s first season, courtesy of cast and crew comments. They include Teddy Versus The Man in Black (1:55), A Host Self-Sabotages (1:55), Maeve Gets an Answer (1:38), Bernard Faces an Unlikely Saboteur (1:23), Dr. Ford’s Blood Sacrifice (1:38), The Truth Behind Bernard (2:23), and Dr. Ford’s Narrative (3:53).
Available on Disc 1
About the Series: (2:13) A glorified trailer with cast and crew discussing the show’s theme of what happens when people want an experience beyond virtual reality.
An Invitation to the Set: (2:16) Instead of a tour of the Westworld set — which is what you’d expect from the title of this mini-doc — this featurette emphasizes the notion that the show is told from the hosts’ perspective, which is a departure from the 1973 film. Totally skippable.
Welcome to Westworld: (7:43) This is a more traditional “Making of” that offers some background on the project and a slightly deeper exploration of the show’s themes. Co-creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy sought to re-create the “What happens in Vegas…” vibe for Westworld and crank it to 11.
Realizing the Dream — First Week on the Set of Westworld: (11:22) Now *this* is the set tour I was hoping for in “An Invitation to the Set.” Nolan, who is as big a proponent of shooting on film as big brother Chris, and the rest of the cast and crew speak lovingly about making portions of the series in the same locations that John Ford used for his classic Western The Searchers. We also get a peek at the show’s underground laboratory sets, which feature less CGI than you might expect.
Imagining the Main Title: (14:08) Fourteen minutes might seem a bit much to dedicate to a show’s opening credits, but I loved this because Westworld‘s main title sequence is exceptional! We get an in-depth glimpse at how certain images from the show directly inspired what we see in the credits sequence. We also learn how composer Ramin Djawadi’s instrumental composition outshone the song that the show’s creators originally had in mind.
Available on Disc 2
Reality of A.I. — Westworld: (4:30) This featurette explores the future of artificial intelligence in real life, and how much of the drama in the show comes from the fact that the hosts are not “in on the joke.”
Gag Reel: (1:40) One of the more amusing gag reels I’ve see in a while. This looks and sounds like a real, dramatic trailer until one of the actors flubs or a line or a horse makes (ahem) an untimely deposit. I also can’t be mad at any gag reel that ends with Sir Anthony Hopkins dancing off-screen.
Available on Disc 3
The Key to the Chords: (8:05) A deep-dive into the inner workings of a player piano and how it can be interpreted as a precursor to the hosts. (Both instruments are incredibly complex and require pinpoint precision.)
Crafting the Narrative: (29:16) Nolan and Joy offer extended background and discussion on the season finale/“The Bicameral Mind.” This set doesn’t include any audio commentaries, so this is as close as we get to that and a fine substitute.
“These violent delights have violent ends.”
Westworld: Season One — The Maze features all 10 episodes on three discs. This is the first television show to earn in 4K UHD release, and Westworld proves to be more than worthy of that distinction thanks to this spectacular Warner Bros. release. (You can be sure other small-screen UHD release are coming.)
It’s already been a long wait for Westworld fans since the end of season 1 a year ago, and it appears we’ll be waiting at least another year for the second season to premiere. This trail-blazing UHD set will help tide you over, but I am more than ready for a return trip to the park.
Parts of this review were written by Gino Sassani.