Westworld is a show that looks good on paper, with an interesting premise, a great cast and a huge budget, but none of that saves it from being one of the most cliched and poorly written shows I’ve seen in recent years.
The show is led by Jonathan Nolan, the brother of Christopher Nolan and writer of most his films, with his wife Lisa Joy. The Nolans have always specialized in dumb movies that pretend to be much smarter than they are, but usually they are quickly paced and packed full of enough action and special effects that they still manage to be enjoyable. But when stretched out to over ten hours (I only watched the first season and don’t plan to watch the second) the shallowness of the characters and plot becomes hard to ignore.
J. J. Abrams also serves as executive producer, which I didn’t notice until midway through the season, and if I did, I never would have bothered with the show to begin with. (If I hadn’t already promised a friend to watch the entire season, I would have dropped it then and there.) Abrams is possibly the worst thing to ever happen to modern cinema, and Westworld is dripping with his signature mystery box BS. Viewers are teased with references to secrets sure to be revealed at a later date, but the characters and plot are so uninteresting, it’s hard to care about the true meaning of “the maze” or the identity of the Man in Black (even when played by an actor as great as Ed Harris).
The Leftovers, a concurrent HBO series produced by Abrams’ Lost partner Damon Lindelof, is also full of mysteries, but is grounded in believable, engaging characters who keep viewers invested while the mysteries slowly unfold. Comparing these two series, I’d be willing to bet that Lindelof was responsible for most of the best parts of Lost while Abrams contributed the factors that made the show so ultimately disappointing.
The dialogue in Westworld is atrocious. I suppose it makes sense for the robot characters to be so cliched and one-dimensional, but the human characters aren’t any better. You can tell a character is cynical and mean because they swear a lot, and that’s about as deep as any of them get. On top of that, the show can’t go more than ten minutes without a character explicitly stating their motivation or one of the show’s themes. One of the character’s mentions the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule at one point, but this is the only evidence anyone of the writing staff had ever heard of it. If I took a shot for every line of cringey dialogue, I’d have died of alcohol poisoning by the end of the first episode. (Given Lisa Joy’s eye-rolling proclamations about the importance of “diversity” and “creating opportunities” in writers’ rooms, it’s not hard to guess why the writing feels so god-awful amateurish. And this coming from a woman whose most notable skill is spreading her legs for the Batman guy’s brother.)
The philosophy of the show is not only spoonfed to the audience at every turn, it does nothing but rehash themes that have been explored by science fiction for decades: corporate greed is bad, modern hedonism leads to spiritual emptiness, and *gasp* what if the robots are more human than us? (Karel Capek called. He said you’re all hacks.) There’s still a lot of rich territory in these themes for ambitious creators, but Westworld doesn’t want to risk alienating or confusing its audience and only gives any of its ideas the most cursory examination. (The Leftovers is much more subtle and experimental in its philosophy, which resulted in the series never gaining a large following.)
Westworld was explicitly created to fill the gap created by the soon to finish Game of Thrones and everything about the show demonstrates its unwillingness to take any chances. The show is beautifully shot and employs great directors like Neil Marshall and Michelle MacLaren, but even at the best of times, it’s as hollow and lifeless as any of the show’s robots. There are some beautiful natural vistas in the Westworld park itself, but the sets for the “real world” behind the scenes of the park all look like a cross between a supervillain’s hideout from a brutalist dystopia and an Apple Store, in other words ugly and generic.
The show does pick up a bit in the final few episodes, where there’s a little more action and the answers to some of the mysteries are revealed, but even then everything still feels very by-the-numbers and it’s certainly not worth enduring the time it takes to get there.
Ultimately, Westworld is schlock with nothing of value to say. It could have been perfectly enjoyable if it toned down the pretension and focused on raw entertaining thrills instead, but like many of its characters, the series doesn’t know what it actually is and plays a role it is wholly unsuited for.
Final Rating: Negative 10 out of 5. What a waste of fucking time.