Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Go West

Game Of Thrones won't be around much longer, so HBO has a much-needed hit in Westworld to anchor their schedule and burnish their brand.  But is it any good? (Spoilers ahead.)

After watching the first season, I've got a lot of problems with the show.  Above all, it's slow going.  We know the robots (they're called hosts and guests on the show, but I'm going to call them robots and people) are going to rise up.  That's the whole point of the thing.  That it took ten hours when it could have been accomplished in two doesn't speak well for the show. I know they want to set up the basic situation (before blowing it up), but we get a ton of repetition, in both action and theme.

Most of the subplots along the way don't really work, or make much sense.  Take Maeve, a favorite of the audience.  She's a robot brothel madam who becomes aware of her situation and plots to get out of Westworld.  Hers is a necessary character arc, but every step of the way is ridiculous.  First, to help her along, are two bumbling lab technicians, essentially Laurel and Hardy, who screw up numerous times.  That Westworld doesn't have basic lab protocols, not to mention basic security surveillance, to prevent guys like this from messing around, is absurd. (It turns out there's someone who programmed Maeve to behave this way--very possibly Ford, who created the park--but even so, there is presumably free will on the part of the humans, who behave with continual stupidity.)

As Maeve starts figuring out her situation and wants to do something about it, one of the lab boys supports her--another necessary plot development which I didn't like--while the other has misgivings.  It would have been easy for the latter to stop Maeve along the way (without endangering his job) but he blows every chance he gets. For instance, Maeve's intelligence is set at 14--as high as any robot in the park.  She asks this guy to raise it up to 20, which he does.  Wouldn't this have been a good time to lower it to 1, so she'd be manageable, and he could figure out what to do with her?  In any case, since no one wants any robot to be smarter than 14, why is it even possible to set their intelligence higher?

Another part of Maeve's strategy has her shutting down programmer Bernard by voice command.  We first thought Bernard was a human, but he turned out to be a robot created by Ford.  But Bernard is a secret creation whom everyone else thinks is human.  We've seen other such robots, and Ford makes sure they only respond to his voice.  One would assume he built Bernard this way--it would be pretty embarrassing if someone told a different robot to cease all motor functions and suddenly their good friend Bernard shuts down.  But nope, this is Westworld, where the plot is as dumb as needed for the scene.

By the end, Maeve, with some robot compatriots, shoots her way out of the tech area.  The lack of competence in the security staff is stunning.  The robots should never have gotten so far to begin with, but once you've got three of them armed with machine guns, that's when you should really swing into action.  You cordon off the area and encircle them. Instead, in Westworld, every security guard works alone so he can be picked off, as one after another they run right into the line of fire, even after they've seen others killed this way.

Then there's the story of William and the Man In Black.  I didn't bother to read much theorizing about the show, but even I heard about how these two characters were the same person, just in different timelines.  This was confirmed in the finale. I wish I hadn't heard about it, since I could have had the pleasure of figuring it out, or the pleasure of being surprised.  But once you think about it, their story makes no sense.

William, the young man, went to Westworld thirty years ago or so.  He meets Dolores, a robot, and they fall in love.  In the real world, he's set to marry into a rich family and become an important player in Delos, the corporation that will buy Westworld, but he finds his true self in the park.  However, his journey, in addition to being dull, isn't buyable.  Okay, having a fling with a beautiful young woman is what you do in the park.  But after falling in love too fast, he turns into a bloody killer even more quickly, ready to do anything to find Dolores after she's taken away.

This is bad enough, but when we discover he turned into the nasty Man In Black years later, it doesn't seem earned.  The transition is hinted at, but it doesn't make much sense--so you lost Dolores, snap out of it.  Making even less sense is why William--a rich philanthropist back in the real world--would come back regularly to Westworld on a quest.  I can see him coming back every year to sate his bloodlust, but he's searching for the "maze" he's heard about to help him understand the place. Why?  What's to understand? What can he possibly think he's going to find?  He already knows Ford.  There's no special mystery.  The park is what it is.

He'd also like the stakes to be higher, because he knows the robots aren't allowed to kill him. Okay, no big deal, just create robots who can kill you--though I don't think that would be a popular attraction at Westworld--or, for that matter, go out into the real world and do dangerous things.  The rules in Westworld, I should add, aren't that clear.  The humans can rape and pillage all they want while the robots have to put up with it, but we see William (and others) getting bashed around pretty bad.  Perhaps at the edges of the park life gets tougher, but we see humans cut (creating permanent scars, one assumes), almost hanged, and beaten within an inch of their life. Dolores delivers this particularly rough beatdown to the Man In Black.  Which raises a couple questions:  We just assume the robots are stronger than humans (though why should they be)?  And no matter how expert the robots are in human anatomy, how does Dolores know how far to go without killing William?  The stuff she does to him sure looks like it would cause serious, perhaps permanent, injury.

(Speaking of this violence against the humans, I don't see how the park stays open.  The insurance alone must kill them.  People pay $40,000 a day for the privilege of going there, but isn't the park too dangerous--even beyond the savage beatings which, apparently, are considered acceptable?  How do people know if others are robots or humans--you start a knife fight with a real person, someone can get hurt.  And with all the action around, don't guests get hurt, just by, say, falling and hitting their head on something?  I know they'd have to sign waivers, but if enough people got hurt, wouldn't the authorities shut the place down?)

Anyway, despite all the nonsense of the William/MIB plot, at least, at its heart, it matters.  There's a whole lot of people just playing cowboy throughout the first season, and none of it makes any difference. It's all a game, so it's hard to get involved in this side of the story.  Remove this pointless stuff and the season has two or three less hours.

Then there's Dolores, a robot who's been at the park from the beginning.  Evan Rachel Wood does a fine job with the character, but her new direction in the finale, that points to next season, doesn't bode well.

Dolores is troubled from the start.  Her character starts each day fresh and full of hope, but lives through tragedy--her family is killed, she's abducted, etc.  But she can't shake these memories--in fact, she's got to work them out.  It's part of her going through the "maze," which leads, through suffering, to Dolores confronting herself.  This allows her, allegedly, to gain consciousness.  She merges with a new villain, Wyatt, and becomes a killer.

This is all Ford's plan (which makes you wonder if there's consciousness, or free will, involved).  In the end, she shoots Ford, and the robots are ready to go on a rampage against all the upper class people invited there.

There are two problems with this.  We're supposed to be on the side of the robots, who are treated terribly by the humans, but this is horrifying.  If the robots don't have any consciousness, or self-awareness, what happens to them is no big deal.  And even if some of them have achieved some level of consciousness, after they're struck down, they can still be brought back to life and their memory wiped, so it's not quite a complete tragedy. But the humans they're killing?  They're gone permanently.  Why should anyone support the robots, even if the humans aren't so nice?

Second, I just don't see where this can lead, unless the humans who live outside Westworld are as stupid as the ones who live inside it.  If any of the humans escape the finale's rampage, they'll report to the authorities what's going on in Westworld and have it shut down. (This is assuming there's a real world out there that we would recognize--we see nothing in the first season outside Westworld, except a glimpse of Samurai World, meant to whet our appetite for the next season.)  And even if no one survives (or some ridiculous plot development like Delos tries to cover it up), a lot of rich people not returning from Westworld would be noticed.  The authorities would investigate and, finding the park full of killer robots, shut it down.

I guess the question is will I return to Westworld? On the positive side, there's some fine acting and a well-done (and expensive) look.  In addition, I'm a sucker for sci-fi, and robots on the verge of consciousness.  So I guess I'll keep watching.  But I wish they'd up their game to a 20, or at least a 14, since right now it feels like it's about a 3.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Denver Guy said...

I have really enjoyed Westworld, though you have ruined a lot of it for me - thanks). Kidding aside, you point to the biggest flaw in my opinion, the Mutt and Jeff technicians. I think Jonathon Nolan tried to explain their utter stupidity by indicating that 1) nothing has gone wrong for 30 years, and 2) the work is so routine at this point that the technicians they hire are not very advanced scientists by the standards o fthe future. I mean they are having sex with the down robots left and right (it is HBO, after all). The one who sides with Maeve is shown tring to improve his skills (get a robot bird to work), but this is apparently unheard of.

The second problem I had is Ford was shaping up to be the sympathetic Frankenstein. But then he has the security chief flat out killed - brutally in fact by his robot Bernard. There really is no walking that back. So then I thought he was the villain, creating a murderous robot army. That would have been an okay story line too. But no, at the end we are supposed to see him sympathetically again. Why does he want to give Dolores the option of killing him? Why in fact does she choose to kill him?

I'll be back for season 2 to see if Nolan can write himself out of the holes he created for himself.

5:07 PM, December 07, 2016  

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