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Westworld: H.B.O’s Spectacular Art Film Series

 

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               WESTWORLD When entertainment engages the mind.

There is a conceit that small independent films are the exclusive sanctuary for cinema as an art form. H.B.O.’s ambitious new series, Westworld, almost defiantly asserts that art and big budget productions are not mutually exclusive. The motto “It’s not television, it’s H.B.O.” has a new resonance.

The old fashioned edict in television has been to play to the lowest common denominator. Free of the constraints of network T.V., premium channels have the luxury to explore adventuresome material without the meddling of censors. However, as the need for new material rises, so do the demands. At this point, H.B.O. has a great deal at stake.

Producing intriguing programing like The Sopranos, Sex and the City and the epic Game of Thrones, which is coming to a close, H.B.O is now in need of a hit. As is the case with anything, when you take risks there is the chance for failure. Case in point, Vinyl, the peak inside the ugly side of the music industry in the 60’s was bold, but brittle. It was a mixture of manic moments that was ultimately alienating and not very interesting, despite good direction and excellent performances.

At what price such fantasies cost in one’s humanity?

H.B.O. has thrown the dice high regarding Westworld. Too often reboots are rehashes that add little next to nothing to the original concept. Way too often they are only redundant. This time out, H.B.O. has taken a film with an interesting concept and reworked it in such a way that it bears little resemblance to its predecessor. This retelling of Westworld feels new, innovative and possess something often missing from entertainment, profundity.

In the original film, the story line was about an amusement park that featured replicas of three historic periods, the American West, Classical Rome, and Medieval Europe. Androids, machines that are identical to humans to the last detail, were employed to offer a wide spectrum of experiences from gun fights, jousts and the decadence of Pompeii. It was the ultimate virtual reality.

Westworld was interesting as a concept, but the execution was weak. It felt like a good premise had been turned into just an average science fiction movie. It was simply put good guys versus bad guys.

This time around, Westworld is far more interesting, and it is not only because of improved visual effects. Clearly, there has been some serious money spent. It shows. Interestingly enough they are just effective backdrops for the real star of the series: high minded ideas, pitch perfect direction, seamless editing and brilliant acting.

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   Delores, a first generation “Host” that blurs the line between being Human and being a machine

 

While naturalistic androids identical to humans is interesting, this series is really about the bigger questions humanity has always asked. It even addresses the weaknesses within mankind that prevent us from not repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

The first Westworld took its theme as a given. An amusement park for adults where anything is possible, including the forbidden. It never asked one pressing question. At what price such fantasies in and of themselves cost in one’s humanity?

It is one thing to play a game when it is obviously a fantasy. When the fantasies are identical to the physical world and entertainment takes the form of destruction, rape, theft and cold blooded murder, what does this say about us? Throw in androids so close to being human that they nearly are, to what end can this come?

It also begs another question. In a world where technology is this advanced, the best we could do with it is make a virtual realty Sodom and Gomorrah?

This sparkling fresh Westworld takes nothing for granted. It leaps into the kind of depth that is usually reserved for in indie productions. Questions of death, morality and even the purpose of being are gently woven into to the story line.

The series becomes more than just an adventure, but a real examination of values and meaning. Although it is set in a distant unspecified future, the real story addresses us when our entertainments become more and more violent and the depth of our thoughts become shallower and shallower. It also brings in the just how ethical it is to create beings that may be so self-ware that they gain true consciousness.

Even this early on in the series, it is the Androids that area becoming more human as the guests and scientist who conjured this world become less and less so. The twist is a noticeable one, and it hints at something darker to come.

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  Are we playing games, or playing God?  Prometheus rises, and Frankenstein is still relevant.

 

The trend in Science Fiction, and Fantasy films has been to jettison the whimsical and aim for the juggler. A kind of gravitas has entered into the stories. Characters cope with loss, grief and ambiguity in a way that is far from removed from the idea of a dialectical world of good and bad. Now, everything is in shades of grey. Nuance is dominating. Even the most slightly drawn characters have back stories.

H.B.O.’s revisionist Westworld takes aim at the darker side of the human experience and does so in a visceral, but interestingly enough, poetic manner. Few television series offer blood, gore, sex, nudity and adventure while referencing Shakespeare and Gertrude Stein.

Free of the censorship that hamstrings network television, H.B.O has always taken full advantage of its liberty. Nudity, adult situations and language are selling points. However, Westworld uses its nudity and violence in a way that is far from gratuitous. They are used metaphorically, and this has escaped some who see the undraped androids and simulated sex as gratuitous.

Episode one treats the viewer to metaphors and symbolism that may take a viewer repeated viewings to get. The points are not “banged” into your head. You have to observer and consider what you see and hear to get the full effect. This is not passive T.V. Easter eggs are present.

The huge, and I do mean huge, ambitious nature of Westworld is such that it may be off putting for viewers not accustomed to programming that ventures into such deep terrain. The loftiness of Westworld could prevent it from being fully appreciated by some.

As deep as this series is, it is not without flaws. But, the small and insignificant criticisms pale in comparison to the grand sweep that this series is shaping for itself. It is admirable H.B.O. is taking the high road, not the cheap one.

From pitch perfect casting, to incredibly rich production values, Westworld has made a grand debut. Closing its first season, with plans for a second to come, this is Science Fiction of the most refined kind.

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