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Westworld’ explores heady themes in a sci-fi setting

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James Marsden and Evan Rachel Wood in HBO’s “Westworld.”
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Three stars

Westworld Sundays, 9 p.m., HBO. Premieres October 2.

The 1973 sci-fi movie Westworld, written and directed by Michael Crichton, is not the most obvious source material for a serious HBO drama. A precursor of sorts to Crichton’s Jurassic Park, Westworld was set in an amusement park where lifelike robots turned against the guests, causing chaos and death in themed areas replicating the Old West, medieval Europe and ancient Rome. From those pulpy origins, co-creators Jonathan Nolan (Person of Interest) and Lisa Joy and executive producer J.J. Abrams have come up with a somber, thoughtful and sometimes pretentious meditation on the nature of consciousness, along with Wild West gunfights.

In the HBO version of Westworld, there’s only one theme in the park, a massive, completely immersive landscape in some unspecified location. There, incredibly lifelike cyborgs with adaptive artificial intelligence play hundreds of different Old West characters, with whom guests pay thousands of dollars a day to interact. Mainly those interactions involve killing and/or screwing the “hosts,” as the park’s powers-that-be refer to the cyborgs. Since this is an ongoing series and not a feature film, the hosts can’t go crazy and kill everyone, so instead there’s a slow process as some of them start recalling their past interactions with guests and staffers, in which they might have been programmed to play different characters and quite possibly have been brutally murdered.

As the hosts experience glitches, the staffers try to get them back on track—or at least some of them do. The most promising aspect of the show is the way that some of the human characters, both park employees and guests, encourage and explore the hosts’ emerging consciousness, for reasons that aren’t always clear. The dynamic between lead scientist Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) and one of the hosts, melancholy rancher’s daughter Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood), grows more intriguing with each episode, and Anthony Hopkins brings a creepy quality to the enigmatic park director, Dr. Ford, and his mysterious projects with various hosts.

Much less interesting are the slowly doled-out hints about a larger mythology, investigated by Ed Harris’ one-note sadistic villain, a nameless guest with apparently unlimited funds and a single-minded quest to uncover the supposed secrets of Westworld. The show doesn’t need to be one of Abrams’ mystery boxes in order to succeed, and the focus on revealing answers could end up derailing the more nuanced (and rewarding) character and thematic development. From a plotting standpoint, the show doesn’t always make logical sense, but it looks amazing (every penny of the huge budget is evident onscreen) and features multiple strong performances (Thandie Newton and Shannon Woodward are additional standouts). Like most prestige dramas these days, it’s slow to get started, but its world should be worth exploring.

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