Westworld: Restoring my love for cinema

For a few years, my movie-watching routine has been just that: routine. I’ll find a movie or TV show from an ongoing list of recommendations. I’ll watch it on my computer, side-by-side with a mental puzzle like sudoku. That way, I get a general sense of the film without completely turning my brain off. If I don’t like the movie, I’ll stop and watch another. If I do like it, I’ll finish it and add it to my personal catalog (yes, I have a running spreadsheet of movies I’ve watched).

If this sounds boring to you, let me assure you, it usually is. Watching a movie in a theater is a touch more interesting, but even then, I find it rare for something to really pique my interest. Every now and then I’ll find a story that makes me laugh, or cry, or that genuinely surprises me. Within my catalog, I have a much smaller list of my top movies. But those are few and far between, and discovering them is relatively mundane.

I say ‘relatively mundane’, because I’ve now seen the first season of Westworld. I can safely say that I can’t think of a movie or TV show that has utterly captivated, immersed, enthralled, and overwhelmed me in the same way. Within minutes, I closed out my sudoku and glued my eyes to the screen. At no point did I consider multi-tasking, which is a first. Even if I got a notification on my phone, I would pause the show rather than text-and-watch. I’m only taking a quick break to write this review, then it’s on to the second season.

I know I’m a few years late to the Westworld party, so this review will no doubt seem dated. But the show is phenomenal in every sense, so I want to give it every recommendation I can. I’ll do my best to break down why I think it’s such a success without getting into spoiler territory.

1) It’s an immaculate feat of world-building. Most movies and TV shows claim to be world-building, when in fact they’re merely world-detailing. Two examples come to mind: Game of Thrones and Blade Runner 2049. The level of detail, the weapons, the costumes, the sense of  being lived-in – they’re both stunning in their own right. But let’s be realistic – the texture of each of those worlds is saturated with detail, but the mechanics are commonplace. Game of Thrones is a medieval fantasy power struggle; Blade Runner 2049 is sci-fi noir. These are tried and true styles that both stories have enriched and elevated above being cliche.

Westworld is its own animal. Its closest predecessors would be The Truman Show, Jurassic Park, or even Cabin in the Woods (and of course, the original 1973 film). But it creates its own rich original world in both appearance and structure. A dual world of a robotic cowboy adult theme park, and an intricate behind-the-scenes control complex. The series uses a great deal of special effects, not just to enhance the deliberately gratuitous violence, but also to add nuance to its animatronic ‘hosts’. It’s a vast landscape that is truly new, not just a new take on an old idea.

2) It doesn’t rely on the gimmick of “is this character a human or a robot???” Rather, the show establishes early on which characters are robot and which are human, then builds the story from there. It doesn’t use ambiguity to keep you hooked for another episode – the hook is the story itself. And the well-defined characters. And the world. And most notably…

3) The internal logic. Because the story centers on robots, the writers take time to carefully establish the rules of the game. A lesser sci-fi would have robots acting unpredictably for dramatic effect. Westworld is just as dramatic, but there’s an explanation for everything. Every robot’s motivation is logical, programmed, and predictable, and the underlying algorithms are both intuitive and creative.

Yet for all its deliberate pacing and careful setup, I was never once bored. When the narrative slows down, there’s worldbuilding to be done. Once a new set of rules or world attributes have been established, it’s back to the story. And so it continues for all 10 episodes at a compelling, logical, and engaging pace.

4) The themes of humanity as it relates to AI are first-rate. Admittedly, there have been some excellent offerings in the last decade (again, Blade Runner 2049 is a prime example). And admittedly, Westworld can explore themes more comprehensively by virtue of having ten-hour seasons. But its analysis of what makes humans unique, what allows robots to evolve, what robots are actually thinking vs. how we program them, the social pressures that drive AI research… it doesn’t leave any stone unturned as it explores the future of robotics.

To put it another way, Westworld pulls off the extraordinary feat of being both thought-provoking and wildly entertaining. Not in a Christopher Nolan ‘this movie is smaaaaaart’ way, but in a way that makes you pause and reconsider what it truly means to have consciousness.

(As a quick aside, it’s refreshing to see the thought that went into establishing safeguards for the robots, something that most sci-fi films sacrifice for the sake of story. Westworld proves that the best stories are not those that sacrifice logic, but those that integrate it. Shocking, right?)

5) Speaking of shocking, some of the plot twists are brilliant, on the level of Arrival or The Sixth Sense. And when I say twists, I mean believably beautiful twists – not just one or two a-ha moments added for ratings. Westworld, like the theme park itself, is a web of logical stories, a maze of secrets, which in retrospect makes perfect sense. Following the narrative is like riding in a Ferrari with a Nascar driver – as intense and unexpected as it seems at times, you know you’re in good hands, and that it’s leading to an ending that’s satisfying and exhilarating.

I could go on preaching the gospel of Westworld, but it just has to be seen to be believed. Plus I really want to watch season two before my free trial expires.