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The new HBO series "Westworld," a remake of Michael Crichton's 1973 film, has just premiered. HBO is hoping that this new series will fill the void soon to be left by "Game of Thrones" once it ends in just over two years, and time will tell if it'll become an honest to gosh phenomenon.

But for science fiction fans, this could turn out to be a genuinely big deal. Like you, I've only seen the first episode, essentially one tenth of one fifth of a supposedly five-year story arc, and while there are a few minor causes for concern, I'm generally excited by the possibilities.

Crichton's original came out in 1973, and there's a good reason why the film is still considered a pulpy sci-fi classic. Quite a few science fiction movies from the early 70's are to this day lauded as some of the best ever made, including THX 1138, Rollerball, Soylent Green, Silent Running, and Crichton's own theatrical debut, a quasi-satirical thriller about robots run amok in a state of the art amusement park.

The two leads played by Richard Benjamin and James Brolin are wealthy, jaded professionals who travel to Delos, the theme park of the future, which consists of three parts, Westworld, Medieval World and Roman World. They've paid big money ($1,000 dollars a day!) to get the kinds of kicks they simply can't get anywhere else in the Western theme park, a fully immersive frontier town where guests can indulge in bank robberies, be the sheriff, sleep with whores and wantonly murder the lifelike robots that populate the park, with no fear of repercussion, harm, or STD's. When an anomalous glitch infects the automatons, they begin killing the human guests, and Benjamin's Peter Martin finds himself running for his life from a robotic gunslinger, played by Yul Brynner, who knows how to hold a serious grudge.

While most will probably remember it for its premise and the chief bad guy, there's a lot more going on than you may recall. The story is an obvious influence on The Terminator, Blade Runner, and Crichton's own "Jurassic Park", and was one of the first major motion pictures to address the concept of computer viruses in complex automated systems. On the surface it's a cautionary tale about out-of-control technology, of course, but it's also about the death of the Western itself as a cinematic art form. Crichton intentionally aped the shooting style and tone of multiple westerns, from the films of John Ford to The Apple Dumpling Gang, in a thinly-veiled jab at the very cliches that were causing the genre to fade away. James Brolin's John Blane (get it?) is named for one classic actor and looks like another, Clint Eastwood (at one point a jailhouse sheriff makes a reference to a judge who likes to "hang 'em high").

And for all the goofy banjo music and mugging from comic relief Dick Van Patten as a schlubby banker on holiday, it's a surprisingly brutal film in places. A malfunctioning wench in Medieval World refuses a guest's sexual advances, and in the next scene the Delos engineers are performing surgery on the circuitry in her crotch. The guests themselves, Martin and Blane included, are prime examples of the Ugly American, but instead of abroad they're wreaking havoc in a different albeit simulated era.

The only reason the park becomes deadly in the first place is because it's a given that the guests won't be happy with simply riding horses and enjoying the scenery. They'd rather indulge in their most bloodthirsty fantasies including murder, adultery and even suggested rape, and their robotic killers, programmed to emulate their masters' traits, use their own sins against them. And by the third act, an almost dialogue-free chase scene, the freewheelin' cowboy soundtrack deteriorates into a blend of harsh guitar and electronic pulses that keep pace with Brynner's mechanical gait. Brynner himself is fantastic as the nameless gunslinger (with silver pupils that clearly influenced Blade Runner's replicants, no less), and his performance as a single-minded killing machine, while spawning decades of robotic imitators, is full of little details that get better with each viewing, like the tiny crack of a smile as he closes in on the hapless Martin, or his subtle, snakelike body language as he does a killer robot's best impersonation of a human sadist.

The most iconic imagery in the film revolves around the gunslinger, and he comes off as suitably demonic. When Martin douses him with acid and his face smokes and melts, it's chillingly effective even by modern standards. The original Westworld is a high water mark for killer robot movies, techno-satire, and socially-relevant science fiction.

And now, in 2016, creators Jonathan and Lisa Joy Nolan have updated the story for modern audiences. The year in which the new series is set isn't specified in the pilot, but this is clearly a future in which robotics has advanced to casually godlike heights. Much like the original, the first episode opens with a group of travelers headed to Westworld, some returning, some visiting for the first time. The denizens of this simulated frontier region include Teddy Flood (James Marsden), who just wants to be with Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), a fresh-faced, dutiful daughter who refuses to see the world as it really is; Maeve (Thandie Newton), head lady at the local brothel; and The Man in Black (Ed Harris), who is on a much deeper quest for meaning, and is thoroughly unscrupulous in going about it.

I won't spoil which are "guests" and which are "hosts" (robots), since part of the fun is the way the pilot plays around with our initial conceptions, with one exception: Harris' Man in Black, an obvious update of Brynner's gunslinger who this time is human, and an even nastier piece of work. The scenes in Westworld's theme park, full of stunning locations and a post-"Deadwood" sense of detail, are contrasted with the cold, gorgeously sterile labs of the creators themselves, including Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) and the mastermind behind the park Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins). Here we see the politics play out as Ford and Lowe detect the first signs of a programming anomaly that could have dire implications, while fending off next-generation bureaucrats and bean counters who may not exactly know how to best manage the first and only theme park of its kind.

There are a few echoes of the original in the first episode's plot, notably a scene where a batch of defective hosts are taken offline in an inventive way, and like the original film the scenes of lush scenery and period detail are frequently contrasted with the more technical workings behind the scenes at the lab. But it's been forty years since the original came out, and a lot has changed, and this new version predictably injects quite a few elements that are very much of this era. For one, the "hosts" are much more sophisticated, and are depicted as the clear underdogs, a recurring theme in a lot of science fiction but with the potential here to be an analogy for the modern notion of "otherizing." It's too soon to know for sure, of course, but this could be either very good, a la the modern retakes on "Planet of the Apes," or very, very bad, a la a much larger portion of politically correct, pandering Hollywood garbage, and I hope that everyone is taking the high road that the best science fiction proudly travels.

Jonathan Nolan, who also headed up "Person of Interest," a show that started off as a somewhat clever procedural and evolved into one of the best cyberpunk TV shows ever made, knows his way around the fantastic, having also co-written several scripts with his brother Christopher. He plants some heady seeds in this first hour, and quickly erases a lot of the doubts that one might have about remaking such a well-established story. So far, this is one of those remakes that does immense service to its source material, and takes the most interesting themes and builds solidly upon them.

Halfway through the next episode this remake will already be longer than its forebear, so every tiny bit of food for thought in the original can be expanded upon and evolved beyond. And there's a clearly obvious interest in exploring themes and concepts in this new version that the original never even touched upon, either for the sake of runtime or because those concepts weren't even around yet, and the setup suggests that subsequent episodes will deal with issues of artificial sentience, memory as a qualifier for the definition of being, the potential artificiality of emotion, and the madness that results when playing God.

We don't get nearly enough sci-fi shows that exploit the rich potential that their concepts allow, but so far, this one seems to be going for broke.




Recommended Release: Westworld








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