In the last few years the ambition level of television shows has been on a steady rise thanks to the growth of premium models such as HBO, Netflix, Showtime, and Amazon. With the overwhelming success of Game of Thrones, HBO decided to gamble again with another high-concept show, Westworld. Based off of the 1973 film of the same name, WestWorld’s first season cost HBO $100 million, while the pilot alone was $25 million. With so much money at stake, Westworld’s pilot last week was under a great deal of pressure to make sure the network did not lose out on their investment. Consequently, HBO proved again, why they are one of the better producers of television content, as the pilot paved the road to turn Westworld into a profit.
For those unfamiliar with the plot of Westworld, the story centers on a virtual-reality western themed amusement park where guests can live out their dreams of the Wild West with robots that do not know they are not human. Since the virtual reality world is as integral to the story as the real world, it is crucial that the audience is able to understand the rules of the world quickly, or the plot may become difficult to follow. Usually in a story with such a complicated plot device, the creators chose to make the story grind to a halt and spend time having characters directly explain the rules of the world. While this typically solves many of the narrative issues quickly and without errors, it is not creative, and because of how unorganic it feels it can disrupt the tone of the episode as a whole. Instead of going this route, Westworld takes the risk of leaving viewers a bit confused for the first part of the episode, which admittedly may turn some viewers off, but those that stick around eventually do get their questions answered. In skipping the straightforward explanation, the writers of the pilot instead use the plot of the pilot to help explain to the audience how the virtual reality world works. With this method small pieces of information are delivered throughout the course of the show’s narrative to help explain something that the audience saw earlier on, and in some cases a character in the real world will explain a concept and then the following scene will show this concept in action. Overall, this inflicts the feeling onto the audience that they too are exploring the virtual reality world and figuring it out as they journey further into it.
Normally, if a television show’s narrative is strong enough the audience can suspend its disbelief on the visuals if they do not quite hold up to the scope of the show. Inversely, with Westworld’s central story relying on the virtual reality world to look just as authentic as the real world, the show’s visuals are just as important as the story. This is in large part why the pilot cost $25 million. The visual effects for the show alone are almost enough to keep the audience entrenched throughout the entire episode, as the way in which CGI was blended with actor performances to make characters appear as animatronic was astounding. In addition to the visual effects, the sets of the show themselves are just as interesting. While the Wild West set alone was engrossing and added to the feel of the virtual world, the real highlight was the building that housed the amusement park. Between the control rooms, test rooms, and basement storage every space was believable in the sense that one could believe how each of these facilities are advanced enough to sustain a completely lifelike world. If the sets in the show were not up to par they easily would be crushed by the weight of the show’s ambition.
After the first episode of Westworld, it appears that HBO is off to a good start on reclaiming their $100 million investment. On paper the show should not succeed as the scope is as large as anything on television before, yet based off of HBO’s track record and their commitment to spend the necessary money for the show to be successful the planned five seasons of Westworld may actually happen according to plan. Regardless it will be interesting to see where the story goes from here but for the time being Celluloid Cinema wards Westworld 4 out of 5 Reels.
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