WELL, THAT HAPPENED: Where the West Begins Anew

By on October 11, 2016

HBO transforms ho-hum Western stereotypes into a dense sci-fi yarn in Westworld.

James Marsden and Evan Rachel Wood play hosts in Westworld. (Photo: HBO)

James Marsden and Evan Rachel Wood play hosts in Westworld. (Photo: HBO)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – The camera pans over an expansive deserted valley. Treeless mesas tower in the distance as the sun begins its slow descent toward the horizon. Off in the sky somewhere, an eagle’s screech echoes through the vista. Oh, and look! A trailing dust cloud stretches across the prairie. We zoom in. Our hero, mounted atop his trusty steed, gallops fervently, as though chasing someone… or being chased himself. Cue the swelling orchestra music, maybe add a streak of headdress-wearing Indian chiefs up on the ridge line, stick a struggling widow on her front porch as she shields the sun from her delicate eyes, toss in a stick or two of dynamite, and boom! Ye got yerself the set-up for 80 percent of every darn Western film ever made, and that there’s the truth, son.

I took my mom to see The Magnificent Seven remake last week and, hoo-wee, was it underwhelming. Unlike Quentin Tarantino, director Antoine Fuqua figured the 21st century Western needs no doctoring, no exciting new ideas, no new twists, and instead delivered the most mind-numbingly tedious cowboy movie in recent history. Not even Denzel Washington or Chris Pratt could breathe some enthusiasm into this film. I get that it’s a remake, but could we at least surprise our audiences for once? Can we take a different path instead of featuring the same villainous prospector, the young rifle-toating waif who wants to avenge her dead husband, the rambunctious womanizer, etc.?

I guess it is unique, having a black stranger offer to save an entire town of white folk, but if that’s the best Hollywood can come up with, I fear the Western will never live up to its ultimate potential. For me, The Missing (2003), The Assassination of Jesse James (2007) and The Revenant (2015) are some of the most interesting takes on the genre because they stray far from the age-old “white hat rides into town” trope, and deliver unique stories in a familiar setting.

But our dwindling faith in Hollywood is nothing new, especially as we transition to trusting our streaming services more than our movie theaters. I’ve been eagerly anticipating HBO’s new original series, Westworld for months. Based off the 1973 film of the same name, starring Yul Brenner and written and directed by author Michael Crichton, the series, produced by J.J. Abrams, throws us directly into the fray without any back story. This allows for the show to unravel with every episode rather than setting up a season of origin stories before anything exciting happens (ahem… LOST).

What we do know is that Westworld is a sci-fi-flavored virtual reality in which any average Joe or Jane can sink $40,000 to spend a single day in a seemingly flawless Western existence. Much like a video game, the guest is able to interact with hosts—artificial human characters that are programmed with linear personalities—in any way they dream up. Whether the guests (known as newcomers) kill the hosts, play cards with them, rape them, or simply strike up a conversation is left completely to the guest’s imagination. Once the guest leaves Westworld, the world is reset, the hosts are revived and wiped clean, and all is well in the kingdom.

But as with the film, this amusement park of sorts is not as perfect as it appears to be. For one, Ed Harris’ character, an unnamed “black hat,” has been a newcomer for quite a while, and is on a rogue mission to find the “deeper game” in Westworld. This involves him murdering, decapitating and breaking open skulls to find whatever meaning he’s seeking. The show’s main character, a host named Dolores (played exquisitely by Evan Rachel Wood), also seems to be malfunctioning in some capacity, but the truth has yet to be revealed. And behind the scenes, Anthony Hopkins and Jeffrey Wright act as the lever-pullers of Westworld, and soon have disagreements on exactly how human the hosts need to act.

Ultimately, it’s a badass show that is injecting adrenaline into the dying Western genre. While Westworld does contain all the typical Western stereotypes I’ve mentioned, it manages to be self-aware of them, delivering a heart-pounding theme park malfunction adventure, while honoring both the source material and the spirit of the West. If the Western’s becoming trendy again and we’re paving a new era of cowboy tales, I’m hitchin’ my wagon to Westworld. PJH

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