Because it’s based on a less-than-classic 1973 Michael Crichton movie and had its production shut down six months while they tried to figure it out, expectations weren’t high for “Westworld” (HBO, 9 p.m.) the futuristic series about a Wild West playground populated by robots.
Yet the result, well acted, paced and photographed, is quite enthralling indeed.
Better and more thought-out than its adaptation of “The Leftovers,” the new series is one of the few on TV that trades in ideas: that of the extent of artificial intelligence applications, of course, but also the nature of free time, theme parks, the morality of making a new world as a playground for the wealthy, the idea of actually playing god.
It comes on a handsome and vast Western playground that welcomes visitors and immerses them in complicated “stories,” with a futuristic backlot where they make and retool the remarkably lifelike robots who are there to be “hosts” for the “guests.”
It’s cast very well, with Sir Anthony Hopkins as the not-often-seen mastermind, Evan Rachel Wood as an alluring robot who is beginning to develop her own consciousness, possibly with the help of a scientist well played by Jeffrey Wright. Ed Harris is a badass guest trying to get to the bottom of it all and Thandie Newton as a robot who may be turning as well.
Not everything is answered right away in the series, and that’s intentional. But you get the idea they know where there going, which isn’t always the case with these things. Because of the nature of the playground, there is opportunity for the kind of sex and violence HBO likes to include in its dramas. But its poking around with narratives also is a metaphor for what they’re trying to put to screen: What is it jaded adults want? How can they accomplish it without backfiring?
Against its odds “Westward” seems a thoughtful and stylish addition to the network’s proud roster.
At the TV Critics Association summer press tour, show runner Lisa Joy said a big part of the series is “questioning where does life begin, in essence, and what characterizes the importance of life, whether it is a human who is dictated by biological impulses and neuron synapsing and the double helixes of DNA entwined within our bodies or whether it’s an artificial being that’s coded with zeros and ones, but that is coded in such a way that this AI believes in its reality, feels the things it feels and feels them and as truly as we feel our own feelings.
“It’s the constant examination about that line and where does consciousness begin and end, and what are the differences between an AI and organic human,” she said.
For the actors, preparation involved looking into the technology of the possible as well.
“I tried to really learn about the actual technologies that we’re working on in the inner workings of AI, because now that’s my hard drive. That’s my brain,” said Wood, who plays an artificial character named Dolores. “We tried to figure out how they were going to move, what these transitions were going to look like, how far we were going to take it. And I think we settled on this place of subtlety; those things that made the differences between the hosts and the humans very unsettling, because you can’t really tell them apart until there’s just one slight little movement, or shift, or freeze, that just throws you off completely.
“And those are the moments in the show that made me slightly scared, but really fun to do,” Wood said. “We call them just acting Olympics, because you’re having to shift between a panic attack, into a complete freeze, into character accent mode, into computer analysis mode in a span of about 30 seconds sometimes. So figuring out how to do that and that intense focus that it took was real fun. But we would ask questions, ‘Will the sun blind us? Do we squint in the sun? Do we sweat? Do we breathe?’”
“All these questions coming up,” Newton said. “We had to investigate everything, really, and start from scratch, and build these people up. And I actually found it every time I played the character, it was like a meditation. I felt more perfectly, beautifully human, exquisitely human than I’ve ever felt, just by nature the simplicity and the and how definite these characters had to be, and that was very interesting.”
But the apparently human Harris had his own character and secrets that he couldn’t really discuss.
“There is an awful lot about this man that I’ve been instructed not to discuss, because, as the episodes go along, you learn more about him, who he is on the outside world, and something about his past, and why he is here, and who exactly he is.
“You know, he has been coming here for 30 years,” Harris said. “When he first came, he was not the ‘Man in Black.’ This is a character that he has assumed and developed over many years that he has been coming to this place. And I think initially when he first arrived, he was just really exploring what this place was like, and okay. I can do anything I want? I can, you know, kind of kill people if I need to, or make love to strange robotic prostitutes.
“And I think something happened to him at some point, where this part of him that is very dark, very violent, all of the sudden he recognized that this was a real part of him that he had never really lived with in his life outside, and had obviously repressed in civil society for many years, and realizes that this is a part of myself that I really should check out, and see where this takes me.
“So he embraces that part of him,” Harris said, “where he comes to the park, and does a lot of damage to the AI folks. But there’s also much deeper purpose for him being there by this point. He thinks there’s some deeper level to what’s happening in this park. I’m not sure what it is, why he thinks perhaps Tony’s character is in charge of something that is not really obvious on the surface, and he’s probing. And I think he thinks the more chaos he causes, the more destruction he can create with these with the AI folks. But, you know, it’s not random. He is not just going around killing everybody he sees. There is always some narrative going along that he’s following that somebody gets in his way, and he has to blow them away. So it’s very curious and a very curious and difficult question to answer, because there are a lot of things I can’t discuss.”
Hopkins, for his part, said “I saw the original years ago” but “I have a delete button in my brain. I don’t remember the past very well.”
Even in doing the current “Westworld,” he added, “it’s like I can’t remember. We started two years ago, and I was just watching it now. I had forgotten I was in some of those scenes. “So,” he concluded, “maybe I’m a host.”