About 15 minutes into the Westworld pilot, you’re left with absolutely no doubt that this could be a genuine contender for the HBO’s next smash hit. In one breathless gunfight sequence, show creator and writer/director of the first episode, Jonathan Nolan, manages to nod to Michael Crichton’s original 1973 movie, completely smash your early preconceptions, ask some fairly deep ethical questions, and even court a little controversy.
The Wild West is a truly wonderful setting for this futuristic theme park - raw and sexy; lawless and dangerous, and yet familiar to anyone who’s seen a cowboy movie. It’s already a rich and colourful landscape, and that’s before you add the science fiction elements. For those who haven’t seen the original movie, Westworld is a futuristic theme park populated by ‘hosts' - robots almost indiscernible from humans - who indulge rich guests in any kind of behaviour they desire. You can imagine where it leads.
The first hour audiences spend in this park is, to my mind, one of the finest pilots of the last decade. A stellar cast certainly helps; Evan Rachel Wood is pitch perfect as a guileless host, Ed Harris is menacing, Anthony Hopkins is enigmatic, and Thandie Newton - while having little to do just yet - is magnetic. But it’s veteran TV actor Louis Herthum that shines brightest among the superstars, with a turn as Peter Abernathy that both charms and chills.
The pilot is packed with recurring motifs - watch out for the flies that play a key role - such as the classic black hats vs white hats trope and the ‘narrative loops’ that the hosts live by. Just like Game of Thrones, there’s a lot of nudity, but the vast majority is not titillating, and if you’ve been following the already building controversy surrounding it, there’s hints off offscreen sexual violence that's going to be divisive.
At its heart, Westworld is a very Crichton-esque look at unchecked technology and the hubris of mankind. Given the option to indulge their every whim, the human characters behave as you would expect them to - some wary, some horrifically, and many in obvious joy at this adult’s playground. It’s really the world that’s the biggest star of all - it asks questions of us viewers: how would I behave? When is a robot a person? What hat would I choose? Ultimately it makes us willing voyeurs, taking us along for a challenging ride that feels all the better for its depth. If the first episode is anything to go on, you need to watch this show - it’s the next big thing.
Westworld will premiere on October 2, 2016 on HBO in the US and sometime in October on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV in the UK. Make sure you check back on GamesRadar+ for weekly recaps and reviews.