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HBO’s New Westworld Wants To Be More Than Just Another Gunfight At The AI Corral

But whether the ambitious show transcends its early fixations on hollow violence is still TBD

If there’s one thing we already know about the future, it’s that there will be sexbots. And if our replicant technology becomes advanced enough for us to fuck them, why not extend our high by killing them too? “Guns and tits” are the two main attractions at Westworld, a futuristic theme park aimed primarily at “rich assholes who want to play cowboy.” Set in the Old West, it’s an id-scape where visitors are allowed (though not necessarily encouraged) to be their worst selves with little to no consequence. The robots, or “hosts,” absorb rapes, shootings, massacres, and other traumas, and have their memories wiped clean at the end of the night — until they start to remember.

Premiering on Sunday, October 2, Westworld (HBO) largely takes place in the kind of mythic deserts the word “vista” was coined for. But showrunner Jonathan Nolan’s sci-fi drama begins in a dark, empty hall that looks like the inside of a giant, hollowed-out computer shell. A fly crawls over the naked, seated, utterly still body of Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) as she’s interrogated, “Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?” The chilly practicality of the theme park’s R&D/maintenance center — and the way employees can rejigger or switch on and off the ultrarealistic androids’ feelings, personalities, and consciousnesses — is the series’s first marvelously creepy detail.

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Like its namesake, the show offers a world to get lost in. The first four hours introduce a scramble of characters and motivations that intrigue, if at a measured pace. Westworld’s inventor, Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins), clearly has a loftier idea of what the park can be than what we see. When the park’s bloodthirsty story line writer (Simon Quarterman) promises new horror-movie scenarios that make The Human Centipede look tame by comparison, Dr. Ford rejects them, explaining that guests return not for the thrills and chills, but for “a glimpse of who they could be.” It’s hard to see how cowboy cosplaying is an Eat Pray Love experience for douches, especially since the two visitors we follow, veteran player Logan (Ben Barnes) and first-timer William (Jimmi Simpson), spend more time passing judgment on each other’s desires than enjoying themselves.

Lost yet? Because we’ve also got to keep track of a pair of Westworld prostitutes (Thandie Newton and Angela Sarafyan), a mysterious gunslinger (James Marsden), a sadistic gamer (Ed Harris) attempting a new play, and a trio of programmers and managers (Jeffrey Wright, Sidse Babett Knudsen, and Shannon Woodward) attempting to keep the park functional as several of the hosts start acting erratically. It’s a labyrinthine setup obviously meant to reverse engineer the TV powerhouse Westworld is trying to replace: Game of Thrones. But as Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse — a recent series with a similar premise — proved, it’s hard to get too invested in characters designed to be blankly two-dimensional. And, yeah, Westworld (the place) is mostly meant to be enjoyed by the kind of guys who inspire misandry, but the literal division of the female androids into virgins and whores who primarily exist to be raped or screwed or killed at varying levels of undress doesn’t exactly feel new for the network’s dramas.

Dolores isn’t the first — and possibly won’t be the second — to wake up to her reality and see that she was created to suffer. We see the horror of the robots’ existence through their eyes, but Westworld will need to flesh out its robots beyond victimhood. Nolan teases that he has much to say about pain, identity, consciousness, and the costs of entertainment. Let’s hope he does it soon, because if you take away the swashbuckling action and Tron-like sets, the shoot-’em-up violence feels an awful lot like just another night on TV.