Posted in Television

“Westworld Pilot Review”

Note: Originally written in the fall of 2016

HBO’s new series raises profound and unsettling questions about humanity.

The pilot episode of HBO’s new series Westworld starts off with the spoken words: “Bring her back online.”

The first image is of a naked woman (Rachel Evan Wood) who sits limply in a chair, hidden by shadows. This is Dolores. She is perfectly still. Frozen. A fly crawls over her blank and glassy eyes.

This is not a human. This is an android.

“Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?” an omnipresent voice off-screen asks.

We cut to Dolores lying in bed, slowly awakening as she narrates about how she chooses to see the beauty in the world. She follows her usual routine: she gets up, dresses, greets her father, then quickly stops by the nearby town where she runs in to Teddy (James Marsden), her secret lover. They hug, kiss, and ride off in to the sunset until their romantic interlude is disturbed by the sound of a gunshot. When she arrives home, Dolores is horrified to find that her parents have been murdered at the hands of a wanted fugitive. Another shot rings out and this time fugitive falls to the ground, dead. A lone gunman dressed in black approaches Dolores, but he is not her hero. This mysterious man, known as The Man in Black (played by a menacing Ed Harris) slaps Dolores across the face. They’ve met many times before, but she can’t seem to remember him. When Teddy tries to stop the familiar stranger from presumably raping his lover, the young man finds that the gunman is impervious to bullets. The Man in Black chuckles and taunts the two. “I want you to fight,” he says. Teddy tries once again to kill the dangerous man, but can’t. He is not the golden hero riding to the rescue. Instead he is quickly shot and falls to the ground, his last moments spent listening to Dolores’s painful screams.

And then we see Dolores lying in bed once more. Another day is dawning. No, it’s the exact same day as before, playing out in the exact same order beat for beat. You see, Dolores’s world is a simulation and she is merely a tourist attraction.

Westworld is the name of a park where visitors (or “guests” as they are called), can visit and interact with androids posing as characters from the Wild West. Dolores is just another android “host,” catered to the whims of the “guests” who use and often abuse her, especially Ed Harris, another “guest” who takes “the game” (as he calls it) way too seriously.

For many years the simulation has gone off without a hitch. Until now, of course.

Several hundred “hosts” have been re-coded, which causes them to have new, nearly human-like movements. Soon the androids will become more and more lifelike, more than their creators and programmers could ever imagine. You see, there is a bug in their system, represented onscreen by the presence of a literal bug: a fly.

We are introduced to the staff of Westworld. There’s the programmer Bernard Lowe, Theresa Cullen, the operation’s leader that frequently clashes with Lowe, the English writer, Lee Sizemore, and the park’s director, Dr. Robert Ford (played by Anthony Hopkins). Ford used to be an artistic genius, but now he has fallen victim to his own creations. His beautiful androids are slowly turning in to a robotic form of Frankenstein’s Monster.

Ford reminds me of Jurassic Park’s John Hammond and that comes as no surprise given the fact that Michael Crichton, who wrote the script and novel Jurassic Park, also directed the film that Westworld is based off of. The original film, also named Westworld was released in 1973 and starred Yul Brynner as the Gunslinger, who is reimagined as Ed Harris’s character in the HBO series.

The pilot episode to HBO’s Westworld perfectly sets up both worlds—the real one and the fake on. Yet the androids seem much more life-like and are certainly more engaging to follow than the programmers and park employees.

The gorgeous cinematography is matched with brutal violence. One scene in particular stands out: there is a gunfight at a saloon with various characters cruelly riddled with bullets as a haunting instrumental version of The Rolling Stone’s “Paint it Black” plays in the background. Actors portraying the androids brilliantly capture the stunted movement and far away look of characters that aren’t quite human, while also making these inhuman characters sympathetic and likeable, despite the fact that they are indeed androids that do not truly feel any emotions. Or do they?

While watching the pilot, I couldn’t help but be reminded of popular first-person shooter games, which have drawn controversy. Westworld replaces video game characters with androids and somehow manages to draw an emotional response from the audience more than any video game ever could. Westworld makes us question what it means to be human, our treatment of others and even every-day objects, and our own ideas of humanity.

The series is off to an excellent start with this pilot and I for one cannot wait to watch the entire season in full. Perhaps this will be a worthy successor to HBO’s mega-hit Game of Thrones, which is slowly entering the homestretch. Westworld is an expertly crafted piece of television that will quickly draw viewers in to an uncomfortable world where fiction and reality start to cross in disturbing ways.

Posted in Television, Uncategorized

American Horror Story Delivers Scares, Shocks, and Talent

Context: This is a review and brief look at the FX original series American Horror Story. At the time this review was written only five seasons had been released, while the series is currently about to wrap its sixth season.

For five years the FX original series American Horror Story, created by Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy, has gotten under viewer’s skin in a way that few recent horror films have. The series itself is a mixture of scares, snappy dialogue, memorable characters, and even as outlandish as some scenarios are, the show still keeps a lot of its most terrifying moments grounded in reality. The show finds a way to turn our favorite characters’ continuing nightmarish misery into an entertaining, self-aware, and thoughtful piece of entertainment, instead of simple torture porn.

Critics and audiences have responded very favorably to the series over the last five years. I think a large part of this show’s appeal comes from the writing, acting, and the likeability, or “watchability”, of the characters. The characters, though involved in typical horror movie situations, feel more like typical people as opposed to the self-obsessed idiots that usually dominate horror flicks these days. Plus a scene-stealing Jessica Lange doesn’t hurt the series either.

Another part of the show’s appeal is how it smartly references and changes the typical tropes found in horror films, while also connecting these tropes with aspects of life your average viewer would recognize and relate to.

The first season is spent with a troubled family stuck in a haunted house while attempting to fix a broken marriage, dodging ghosts, psychotic former flames, and a nosy neighbor along the way. Smart viewers could easily draw parallels between the increasingly dangerous house and the increasingly bitter family that pulls them further apart from each other. As the ghosts in the house threaten the lives of each of the family members, their own personal metaphorical demons come back to haunt them. For example, the husband was caught having an adulterous affair by his wife a few months after she suffered a miscarriage. While staying in the haunted house he has to own up to his mistakes as his wife finds she has become pregnant, a fact that scares her, but terrifies the audience more since we know something is deeply wrong with the house and it won’t stop until it’s destroyed everyone around it.

The second season, labeled American Horror Story: Asylum, takes place in (you guessed it) an asylum for the mentally insane. This story covers a wide variety of subject matters from mental illness, race, religion, and even alien abductions.

The third season draws parallels between a coven of witches in New Orleans and the South’s history of racial discrimination and violence. A coven of teenage witches is paralleled with a raunchy fraternity, typical high school cliques, and even the KKK (don’t dwell on this metaphor too long, it’ll only confuse you).

Each season is basically a self-contained mini-series with its large number of characters played by a typically reoccurring cast, so the characters in each season aren’t related, but the show cleverly acknowledges each actor’s past roles on the series (for example, one actor’s character is a psychiatrist in one season, but then he plays a dangerous patient in another season with several shots composed to replicate and mirror those from another season.)

The fourth season revolved around a freak show in the fifties with such colorful characters like a bearded lady, a young man with crab-like hands, a three-breasted woman, a pair of conjoined twins, and a killer clown.

The fifth season, American Horror Story: Hotel, took place in (you guessed it) a hotel, loosely based off of the real life Cecil Hotel near Skid Row. The stylish season featured sex addicted and drug addled vampires, ghosts, serial killers, and lots of shots of Lady Gaga pandering to the audience with a deadly stare.

If you can handle the terror, be sure to watch this series on Netflix or other platforms.

The sixth season premiers Wednesday, September 14th on FX.