Sunday, October 9, 2016

The new Westworld is an entertainment about entertainment, a shoot-’em-up about shoot-’em-ups, an artificial intelligence about Artificial Intelligence

Ooh er: Thandie Newton
You might think that the first episode the handsome android theme park drama Westworld (Sky On Demand/Now TV) would be about the scenery, or the sex, or the stylised violence. Or perhaps you’re more into logic, the intelligence rather than the artifice, so you’d care to venture beyond the saloon, over the gorgeous horizons of Moab, and into the stuff about existence, and consciousness, and narratives, to a place where it’s possible to appreciate that when the computerised humanoids start to have odd thoughts, and one of them says, “These violent delights have violent ends,” it’s a nod to Romeo and Juliet, and not a pull-quote from the cover of a video nasty. 
All of these vistas are on view, and all are enticing in their way. But in the end, after the scalping and the stabbing and the hanging and the rutting and the boozing and the endless cycle of pianola tunes soundtracking the witless paintball hedonism of the rich and idiotic in some near-future dystopia, the point of Westworld can be located in the death of a fly. To be fair, the fly makes several entrances, so it’s not exactly a shock when it makes an exit, particularly when it looks so out of place in such a manicured environment. (Michael Crichton, the creator of Westworld, wasn’t keen on people messing with nature). And then at the end, Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), a pretty robot who is starting to develop glitches in her software, swats and kills it. And Dolores, like the rest of the “hosts” in Westworld, is meant to be incapable of causing harm. The violent end signals the deepening of the violent delight.
As well as being a story about stories, an entertainment about entertainment, a shoot-’em-up about shoot-’em-ups, Westworld is an upgrade of Crichton’s 1973 film, in which Yul Brynner, with a black hat on his billiard-bald head and Alka-Seltzer fizzing on his beautiful hard face, went a bit funny. The reboot, by (Christopher’s screenwriting brother) Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, tilts its sympathies more towards the androids, known as “hosts”, who have the benefit of misunderstood machines. The humans, known as “Guests”, are merely spoilt thrill-seekers. And between these two groups there is a third category - the theme park workers, who get to set the narratives and play God. Any similarity to filmmakers is entirely deliberate, and forgivably indulgent, though it is noticeable that the show is at its most entertaining when it is trading in crude fantasy, and at its most artificial when it tries to evinced the intrigue of futuristic office politics. Anthony Hopkins is a fine Dr Frankenstein, and Ed Harris is the psycho in the black hat whose stylised brutality takes things to another level. Harris is a fabulous monster, but the design of the show places audience sympathies on Thandie Newton’s robot tart, who seems intent on acquiring a heart. 
Fans of 24 will be alarmed to discover that Keifer Sutherland has been reinvented as a fading politician with an interest in affordable homes. Happily, in the admirably schlocky Designated Survivor (Netflix), the President is wiped out in a terrorist attack, so Keifer has to evolve from a busy dad who cooks bad eggs and makes weary parent eyes at Natascha McElhone, into the leader of the free world. The transformation is easier than you might think. First he takes off his hoody and borrows a suit. Then he stares down the camera. But something’s wrong. “Mr President,” says a flunkey, “your glasses. They’re not very presidential.” 

Serial Box 
The emotional manipulation continues in the post-Savile celebrity abuser drama National Treasure (All 4). It’s clear now, that Paul (Robbie Coltrane) is guilty of many things, though not necessarily the thing he is accused of. His wife, Marie (Julie Walters) - whose marital status comes with the prefix “long-suffering” permanently attached - has started to remember uncomfortable things, and Paul is certainly guilty of emotionally abusing his addict daughter Dee (Andrea Riseborough), regaling her with a tale of his own childhood abuse in order to win her sympathies. It’s self-serving, but that doesn’t mean it’s untrue. And what of Paul’s comic sidekick Karl (Tim McInnerny) who keeps flirting with Marie, while hinting of the things he could have told the police? He looks a punchline in search of a joke. 
(Published in London Evening Standard, Friday 7 October, 2016)