Monday, December 12, 2016

Sex and violence, stupidity and artificial intelligence: the beautiful numbness of Westworld

Visitors to Westworld were
allowed to dress up as Abba
The geeks, we know, shall inherit the earth. When they do, it will surely look a lot like Westworld (Sky On Demand/Now TV). That’s not to say that dystopian science fiction is created to a formula, but if you mix sex and violence, stupidity and artificial intelligence, and pack a riddle inside a fortune cookie inside an enigma, you’d have a useful template. Westworld is big and bold and beautiful, and it succeeds in its most important challenge - creating its own reality, albeit a reality in which the true and the false are different modes of fancy dress. The show’s setting is a theme park in which the guests are allowed to act out their fantasies in order to liberate their suppressed urges. It is a place where, ultimately, the viewing audience is invited to identify with the robots who are attempting to unlock the compromises of consciousness; rather than the humans, who are, by and large, locked in an embrace with exploitation, conscious cruelty, and the cheap titillation of their basest instincts. You on the couch admiring Armistice, the naked snake tatooo girl (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal)! That means you too. 
Westworld is something else. It is a story about storytelling - a curiously popular trick in these post-modern times, where the only way to understand a plot is to arrange Post-its on your fridge, or to wallpaper your brain with photos of the characters and draw Sharpie lines between them, like a bipolar detective doodling on the walls of a serial killer’s subterranean nest. 
Westworld was designed to baffle, but - being a long-form serial with the potential to roll on for aeons - the whys and wherefores were never going to be entirely clear by the end of the first series. Still - no spoilers - the final episode delivered. There was, as there had to be, an explosive conclusion, choreographed by Ford (Anthony Hopkins), the park’s director of production line fantasies. The action unspooled like a shoot-em-up, the gratuitous violence made more palatable by arriving in disguise as that popular geek fantasy, feminist revenge, a practise which can also be understood as Hot Chicks With Big Guns. The actual puzzle, the maze that Ed Harris’s prune-faced cowboy was trying too solve, was revealed as a kind of gameboy’s Rosebud, and Bernard, that most human of androids, was programmed to deliver the big line: “Consciousness isn’t a journey upward, but a journey inward, on a pyramid.” Which made sense at the time, but doesn’t now. 
And that’s the problem, really. Westworld is so self-conscious about its self-consciousness, and so dedicated in its pursuit of sensation that it forgets to deliver the thing its characters seek. Empathy. Without that, what you have is loops and levels and cheap thrills, and a different calibre of existential question. Not ‘who feels?’ but ‘who cares?’
There are timeshifts and peculiar coincidences in the attractive US drama This Is Us (All 4) in which three people who share the same birthday are invited to explore the horror of being aged 36. Created by Dan Fogelman (who wrote Tangled and Crazy, Stupid, Love) the first episode is elaborately choreographed, and though it sometimes feels like a collage of emotional cliches, there is a satisfying plot twist, after which everything makes slightly more sense.  “It’s like a bad sitcom,” says one of the characters, comparing the action to the show in which another of the 36 year-olds reluctantly stars. It’s another story about a story, but an elegantly soapy one in which lessons about life, lemons and lemonade are painlessly juiced. 

Serial Box 
Things were never going to turn cheerful in Rillington Place (BBC iPlayer), but the quiet creepiness of Tim Roth’s murderous Reg came fully into view in an episode focused on his young lodgers. Actually, fully into view is an exaggeration. The lighting is never more than 40 watt, and the worst of the bad things happen in the shadows of rooms which are decorated in forty shades of brown. Is Reg charismatic enough to embroil others in his terrible plans? Possibly not. Roth relies on the character’s good manners, nice cups of tea, and his murmured curse, “Oh dear, dear, dear.” In Plain Sight (ITV Player) is set in 1955 and explores a true life murder in Uddingston. The cop is Douglas Henshall, a linear plod with red hair. 
(As published in the London Evening Standard, 9 December, 2016)

Rillington Place: Tim Roth plays Reg Christie as a cross between Alan Bennett and Mr Benn

Alan Bennett (left)
How do you like your serial killers? In Britain, while the crimes are being committed, or prosecuted, we like them with a dose of old testament horror, bordering on titillation. In retrospect, the sensations are numbed, and vile evil is portrayed, often, as a morbidly fascinating puzzle. Rillington Place (BBC iPlayer), is based on the real case of the notorious serial killer John “Reg” Christie, and was immortalised in a film starring Richard Attenborough in 1971. So what’s new? 
Mostly, the innovations are matters of mood and angle. This series presents the events from three different perspectives, starting with his long-suffering wife, Ethel, played as a fearful, passive spouse by Samantha Morton. It takes place in a grimly recognisable post-war London, a place where all the colours are shades of grey and blue, where tablecloths are waxed, and intimate conversations struggle to stretch beyond a dutiful murmur. “Still one sugar?” says Reg (Tim Roth, on returning home after a nine year absence. Reg and Ethel have moved into a miserable looking house, with ominous trains rattling the walls, and a grim garden. It “needs a bit of love and care,” Reg notes quietly. “Spot of elbow grease. We’ll do our own planting. If there’s enough light.” 
Roth’s Reg is a shadow of a man, his face shaded by his hat, his legs foreshortened by a raincoat, his expression masked by serious spectacles. Roth plays him as cross between Alan Bennett and Mr Benn, so everything is understated and polite and logical. At first, the restraint seems strange, as Roth is an actor known for easy violence. With time, the sense of menace builds. It’s a little bit League of Gentlemen. “Do you fancy the pictures?” he says in 1944. “Is that the door? Not expecting anyone?” He would, you think, be hard to love. But Morton portrays Ethel as a woman from a more dutiful age, her morals slowly melting as the horror unfolds. “Be nice to get things back to normal,” says Reg. “Ship shape. Nice cup of tea?” 
The second series of The Missing (BBC iPlayer) ended, as it had to, with a question, and a flash of psychological manipulation. This series has been as hard to love as it has been to understand, though most of the questions were answered in the end, with a suitably tense showdown in the woods in Switzerland. There was a shoot-out, a chase, a cliff-edge; every kind of jeopardy except the plausible sort. As a story, it was perhaps too rich. Mixing the horrors of the Iraq war with a cross-border tale of child abduction might seem like a good idea, but it doesn't leave a lot of room for emotional engagement. It works, when it works, because of the character of the detective Julien Baptiste (Tchéky Karyo), who is like Inspector Morse played as a limping Frenchman by Harvey Keitel. 
Similarly, as Westworld (Sky On Demand/Now TV) draws towards the end of its first season, a hierarchy of characters has been established, with the broader existential questions pushed aside in favour of ultraviolence; a carved midriff here, a bit of gunplay there, a surprising head-butt for Ed Harris, who’s had it coming. Still, there is some nagging intelligence at play. The most sympathetic character is Thandie Newton’s vengeful robo-madam, Maeve, while Anthony Hopkins’ Dr Ford is now established as a fully-blown Dr Frankenstein. But then, why did Bernard - newly revealed as a murderous lump of artificial intelligence - say to Ford, “Arnold built us, didn’t he?” He’s probably right. But who’s Arnold? 

Serial Box 
Oh, look, a sexy French cop. In The Passenger (All 4), the latest European import in Channel 4’s Walter Presents strand, the lovely Raphaëlle Agogué plays Bordeaux policier, Captain Anais Chatelet, whose misfortune it is to be in charge of a murder investigation in which the victim is discovered naked in a pit with a bull’s head on his shoulders. Chatelet, as well as being tough and lovely and flawed - she has scars on her arms - is clever, and quite capable of Googling “minotaur”. There is a suspect, and a lot of evidence, but an annoying doctor gets in the way with his diagnosis of “trouble de la personnalité” and other maladies mentales. All is stylish and generic and forgivable, because Agogué has French hair and walks like a cowgirl. 
(As published in London Evening Standard, 2 December, 2016)