Chris Schulz is the deputy head of entertainment for the New Zealand Herald.

Welcome to Westworld: It's not just a TV show, it's a revolution

Is the hype real? Chris Schulz enters the warped world of sci-fi western Westworld, a show billed as the next Game of Thrones.
Evan Rachel Wood as Dolores Abernathy in HBO's highly touted new show Westworld.
Evan Rachel Wood as Dolores Abernathy in HBO's highly touted new show Westworld.

Evan Rachel Wood was standing on the set of Westworld when she suddenly felt short of breath.

With the script for an upcoming episode in her hand, the actress was questioning the show's themes, reading between the lines, trying to understand what HBO's mysterious new show - a sci-fi Western set in a futuristic theme park - was all about.

James Marsden and Evan Rachel Wood in a scene from Westworld.
James Marsden and Evan Rachel Wood in a scene from Westworld.

Then it dawned on her. She knew "absolutely nothing".

"I would sit and try and figure it out. It wasn't until episode three or four that I really realised which show I was on. As it started to unfold I realised that this might possibly may be the greatest show of all time, and I almost had a panic attack," she says.

"Suddenly I realised, 'Oh, that's what on my shoulders'. I thought I was on a TV show, not a revolution."

They're big words about a big show, one which Deadline reported comes with 64 main cast members and a whopping 4896 extras with a first-season budget of US$54 million (NZ$75m). With the end of Game of Thrones in sight, there's a lot riding on it.

But when it comes to Westworld, the hype, at least for now, seems real.

That's what happens when you stack your cast full of A-listers, including Sir Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Thandie Newton and Jeffrey Wright, a list of stars, including Wood, who have far more successful movies on their CVs than TV shows.

That's what happens when Jonathan Nolan is involved, the younger brother of Christopher Nolan who helped pen his brother's twisted Batman trilogy and crafted the intricate plots for Interstellar and Memento. Nolan developed Westworld with his wife, Lisa Joy, and J J Abrams is on board as executive producer.

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And that's what happens when your show is set in an immoral playground where wealthy participants can live out their wildest fantasies. It's a show set to ask questions about creationism, existence and the human condition using the dawn of artificial intelligence as a blueprint.

Yes, Westworld is full of robots, ones that may actually be alive.

But Wood, who plays an awakening "host" called Dolores Abernathy working in Westworld, says the show differs markedly from its source material, Michael Crichton's 1973 film of the same name.

"Instead of humans being terrorised by malfunctioning robots in a theme park, it focuses more on the hosts and [it takes] a real look at our humanity and the things we find entertaining," she says.

"If we were given the chance to live in a world where there were no consequences, why is being good boring, and why does everyone have something inside of them that has this curiosity for violence and debauchery?"

Those traits are hallmarks of HBO shows, and they're themes that continue in Westworld. In the first two of the 10-episode first season, the theme park's AI workers are seen being maimed, tortured, shot, murdered and used for sexual purposes, only to have their brains wiped and patched-up bodies put back into action.

At the Television Critics Association Panels in LA, the network came under fire for sexualised violence towards women in many of its shows, including Game of Thrones, The Night Of ... and Westworld.

Thandie Newton as Maeve Millay, a brothel manager in Westworld.
Thandie Newton as Maeve Millay, a brothel manager in Westworld.

Joy says the show's depiction of violence and sexual violence was "heavily discussed and heavily considered".

"Westworld is an examination of human nature, the best parts of human nature - we explore eternal love, romantic love - but also the basest parts of human nature, and that includes violence, that includes sexual violence," she says.

"Sexual violence ... is an issue that we take very seriously and it's extraordinarily disturbing and horrifying. And so in its portrayal we really endeavoured not to fetishise those acts. It is about exploring the crime and establishing the crime and the toll of the characters within this story and exploring their stories, hopefully with dignity and depth."

Joy says the show is very deliberately based around two female characters, Wood's Dolores and Thandie Newton's brothel madame Maeve Millay.

"A lot of this is seen through their eyes. They're our way into it. Even though they're victims of the guests' whims, they never lose their humanity. That's my emotional attachment to the story and that's what I wanted to explore creatively."

Newton admits the show's themes initially shocked her and she balked at the idea of playing a prostitute.

But after discussing her problems with Joy and Nolan, she realised what kind of point Westworld was trying to make.

"The whole point is having this platform to jump from. It's to shock us into the awareness that this is what we actually do to each other. Yet, this is just between humans and robots that can get patched up, reprogrammed, and turned off. Real people can't get patched up and turned off. That puts chills up my arms," she says.

"It's not as violent as it could be, it's not as depraved as it could be, it really isn't. I'm naked almost all the time in the show, but you watch it, I'm completely calm and comfortable with it. Because they don't zoom in on bits and pieces, it's not gratuitous, it's not titillating at all.

"I've been on shows where I wear clothes and I felt more exposed, more exploited, as a women. I've had a producer say to me, 'Kid, Thandie Newton, top off, ratings'."

Ratings are what it's all about. Joy and Nolan say they envisage a multi-season story, and already have an ending in mind. First reviews are promising, with critics saying Westworld is suitably dark and twisted, with enough intricate and disparate plot strands to build into a Game of Thrones-style epic.

And if Wood is to be believed, we're in for a television event like no other. "It just constantly blew my mind. There are so many layers ... I'd have to put the script down and get up, [and yell], 'I don't know anything anymore!'"

Bluster from an overly passionate actress? Or is Westworld the kind of place viewers will never want leave? On Monday, we'll find out.

The men of Westworld

Sir Anthony Hopkins as Dr Robert Ford in a scene from Westworld.
Sir Anthony Hopkins as Dr Robert Ford in a scene from Westworld.

Dr Robert Ford: Sir Anthony Hopkins plays Ford, the park mastermind who watches over things with a masterful, possibly evil, eye. He seems to know what's going on, and could be behind the awakening of some of Westworld's AI bots. Hopkins says the part has been an interesting one to play because Ford is the exact opposite of himself. "For a man who is not about control or certainty, they give me these very controlling parts to play. I guess I know how to look like a control freak. I'm not. I consciously try not to exert control over anything or anyone, especially myself."

Ed Harris as the Gunslinger in Westworld.
Ed Harris as the Gunslinger in Westworld.

The Gunslinger (or The Man In Black): Ed Harris plays the trenchcoat-wearing assassin of Westworld, a long-term resident of the theme park who wears a big hat, rides a big horse, and shoots a very big gun. He believes he's well on his way to solving the park's deepest mysteries. "In the first two episodes, he seems like a villain," says Harris. "He seems to be violent and upset about something." But will Westworld become the next Game of Thrones? "I know HBO hopes so," Harris says. "We will see."

James Marsden as Teddy Flood in Westworld.
James Marsden as Teddy Flood in Westworld.

Teddy Flood: Mystery surrounds the origins of James Marsden's gunslinging character in Westworld. He shows up early and starts chasing Wood's character Dolores like a lovesick puppy. But is he human or a host? Marsden is wary of giving away too many details. "We want you to be fully immersed, much like Westworld. If you saw behind the curtain, it lessens the effect." He hopes the show's secrets aren't spoiled over its 10-episode arc. "I hope people can keep the secrets because this is really special. You really have no idea what's going on ... Just wait."

LOWDOWN:
What: Westworld
Where: SoHo and Neon
When: From Monday at 2pm, screening again at 8.30pm
For fans of: Game of Thrones, Humans, Deadwood

- NZ Herald

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