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HBO’s Chilling Westworld

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No Spoilers

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Even if you’re familiar with the 1973 film Westworld, written and directed by bestselling Michael Crichton, and starring Yul Brynner as the Man in Black, you’re in for a treat with HBO’s revamp of the Wild West theme park. Like Crichton’s subsequent novel, which was adapted into Spielberg’s classic film Jurassic Park, Westworld is a place where filthy rich tourists — newcomers, in this series — come to spend some time in the Old Wild West, where they can do whatever they want, to whomever they want (as long as they’re not other theme park guests), without any consequences to themselves. In the original film, as in last night’s premiere, something goes wrong. Unlike the 1973 film, however, the surprise is not discovering that most of the major characters are robots or beings with Artificial Intelligence. The message of Westworld, the series, is much more chilling.

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The Premise

Westworld is a theme park, where wealthy guests, i.e., “newcomers,” pay mega-bucks to pretend they’re in the Wild, Wild West. They dress the part, have six-shooters, drink in a saloon, and can do whatever they want to the inhabitants, i.e., “hosts,”  of the theme park, including committing rape and murder. The theme park “hosts” have only one function, whether they know it or not: to make sure the guests have the time of their lives, tell all their friends and acquaintances about the great time they had, and return on a regular basis since each experience in the theme park is unique. The newcomers cannot be hurt, since that would be bad for business, but the newcomers can hurt, savage, and even kill the “hosts,”  but only in theory, since the hosts are rebooted each day to start again.

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The Lovers

“The Original” opens with a reunion between Teddy (James Marsden), who arrives on the train coming into Westworld, and Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), who lives with her parents on their ranch. The two obviously know each other; moreover they seem to care deeply for each other. Pretty quickly, viewers forget about who’s a guest and who’s a robot: instead, they become emotionally connected to the characters, especially to these two lovers.

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The Man in Black

Of course, there has to be a bad guy in Westworld, and that means even in the theme park world. A cadaverous and threatening Ed Harris is the Man with No Name, The Man in Black, the Big Bad Wolf of the Wild Wild West in a place where he’s been coming for 30 years to act out his own sadistic fantasies.

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The Westworld Management Team.

In a twist on the original Westworld, viewers are introduced to the theme park aspect of Westworld relatively quickly. After all, the series is about more than the shock of learning that your favorite character is not even human. It’s about the people who created the hosts, the people who take care of them, the people who write their scripts and manipulate the hosts’ lives.

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Jeffrey Wright plays Bernard, a programmer at Westworld, who reveals that the new computer program for the hosts is allowing them to access “memories” from prior programming.

Yeppers, that means something is bound to go wrong.

And if you still doubt that all is not well in Westworld…

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Enter the “mad scientist” who created it all: Dr Ford (Anthony Hopkins), who seems to like his creations even more than he likes his co-workers, and who tends to get philosophical about the human condition, insisting that humans have reached their apotheosis, which ain’t looking too good since there’s a lot of political maneuvering going on already.

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Throw in one of the Administrators, Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen), who is stressed to the max just anticipating something going wrong in the theme park, if only because nothing has gone wrong for at least 30 years, and who apparently has a lot of power to shut things down, even if all the other administrators do argue with her.

Just for good measure, throw in Sizemore (Simon Quarterman), who probably wanted to be a novelist but wasn’t good enough to get traditionally published: he ends up writing the scripts at Westworld, and some of them are pretty corny. But he has greater ambitions, and he wants to team up with Cullen if there’s a shake-up in management.

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Back at The Theme Park

Throw in a few other characters, like Maeve (Thandie Newton, above), a whore at the local saloon;

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Clementine (Angela Sarafyan), another whore at the saloon, with lips to rival those of Angelina Jolie. Clementine has been updated, so she’s already accessing “memories” of previous incarnations, resulting in more natural “movements” and gestures;

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causing theme park employee Elsie (Shannon Woodward) to be sexually attracted to Clementine.

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Just for fun, let’s add some more baddies to the mix, like Wanted-Dead-Or-Alive-Poster-Boy Hector (Rodrigo Santoro),

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and his tattooed sidekick Armistice (Ingrid Bols Berdal), who have already killed a Marshall and have no problem upping their violence-quotient “on demand.”

Add a few unnamed theme park guests, including a kid who’s downright cruel to the hosts, and you’re in for a thrill ride at Westworld.

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The Themes

Westworld has all the classic themes that have concerned artists for centuries, all handled in a way that is sure to intrigue viewers, rather than have them feel like they’ve been hit over the head with “bigger issues.”

What is the nature of good and evil?
Who or what is God?
Does God have a moral responsibility toward his creations?
Can man become like God?
If man does become like God, in that he can “create” life, albeit artificial life, does man have a moral obligation to his own creations?
Are there then different levels of “god-ness”?
Is God good, evil, or indifferent?
What makes us “human”?
Are humans the top of the evolutionary pyramid?
Do other life forms, even if artificial ones, have moral rights?

And those were the themes I found in “The Original,” which was only the first episode. Whew.

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Last, but not Least

Now throw in sex and violence and (alluded to) violent sexual acts, and what more could any guest at a Wild Wild West fantasy theme park hope for?

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The acting by everyone involved is top-notch, and some of the actors, like Luis Hertham as Dolores’ father Peter Abernathy (below), are downright astounding.

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Writing and pacing are beyond great, and, despite my noting some of the major themes, the symbolism is intricately woven into a fast-paced story. Westworld is chilling and fantastic, scary and fascinating. You’re going to like it, my Lovelies.

Westworld airs Sundays at 9:00p.m. ET on HBO and repeats throughout the week. HBO subscribers can watch the premiere free. Rated Mature for Graphic Violence, Nudity, and Sexual Situations. Even the official trailer is Mature, so be warned.

(all photos & video courtesty HBO)

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