Creators Jonathan Nolan, who co-wrote the screenplay for The Dark Night and Interstellar, and Lisa Joy, who worked on Burn Notice, combine their artistic skills with a crew of producers, including J.J Abrahms of Force Awakens fame, to breathe fresh new life into this franchise.
Westworld is a sci-fi thriller, which is based on the 1973 blockbuster hit directed by Michael Crichton. It centres on an amusement park designed by founder Robert Ford who created near-sentient androids to populate a scripted world with the sole purpose of providing the public an area to live out their deepest desires and thirst for adventure.
In the age of the remake, where even popular movies like Lord of the Rings and the Twilight series were speculated as being lined up for the remake production train before they’ve wrapped up filming, I at first delayed watching Westworld. I grew up having watched the original on late night reruns, so I couldn’t imagine anyone else recreating the pleasure paradise amusement park nor top Yul Brunner’s sinister performance as the unstoppable Gunslinger. But then I heard a name drop which would mark the start of my shifting of opinions. Sir Anthony Hopkins was slated to appear in the 10 episode-long first season.
Being a fan of his erudite and captivating turns in roles ranging from a British officer in the star-studded war epic A Bridge Too Far, an old dying man challenged with guiding a physically embodiment of Death in Meet Joe Black to his thrilling dramatic portrayal of an imprisoned anthropologist in Instinct, the fact that an actor of his calibre was part of the cast piqued my interest. Perhaps I should have considered that the show could be ground breaking even with new or unknown talent which has proved successful in other new shows such as the epic Da Vinci’s Demons.
Still not thoroughly convinced, I delved further into the cast line up. That is where I learned that there was more than one major Hollywood heavyweight appearing among the main character actors. I couldn’t believe it. I remember thinking incredulously just what on earth a bunch of film actors where doing in a small-time television run. Not only did cast members include James Marsden, who portrayed Cyclops in the first X-men films back in the early 2000s, and Ed Harris, who co-starred with Viggo Mortenson in another popular western, Appaloosa, but there was another familiar face in Jeffrey Wright, who played both Felix in Casino Royale and Beetee in the Hunger Games film adaptions.
It was about that time that I realised that the big names lent weight to what I was learning was a serious, superbly crafted production. I scoured online for production stills and was staggered by stunning visuals of Castle Valley and Arches National Park in Utah, impressive sets built on ranch location in California and a host of dramatic costumed characters including Dolores Abernathy, the park’s oldest apndroid ‘host,’ gun slinger-newcomer, Teddy Flood, and outlaw Hector Escaton. Armed with this newfound knowledge, I took the plunge and watched the first episode.
Post back-to-back episode binge, I discovered a rich, character driven multiple story line that threaded together a semblance of worlds: the world of the living human characters, the world of the Westworld experience and the world of the creators. Well thought-out plot twists had shock quality that could have been ghost written by the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson. I remember thinking, after my recent reading of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, that readers of his time would have been astounded as they were the first to learn at the end of one of his famous tales that upstanding citizen, Jekyll, was, in fact, the hideous criminal, Hyde!
I got the same impression when watching suspenseful scenes where viewers are slowly fed realisations that everyone and everything is not exactly what it seems, which is a fragmented mystery that reaches all the way to the top surrounding founder Robert Ford and the genesis of his world-building pioneering creation. But there is one character that ended up being a key pivotal reason that led me to continue watching the series, and in a surprise turn of events, it is a minor character who only appears in a few episodes.
The supporting character is none other than Peter Abernathy, landowner and father of Dolores Abernathy, and though his appearance in the story is brief, he is part of one of the greatest and most mesmerising scenes in modern television. Louis Herthum, who portrays Peter Abernathy, gives a moving performance that lends real credence to the pilot episode, ‘The Original.’ Confounded by a buried, mysterious photograph from the past, android host Peter Abernathy falls out of his pre-programmed story routine as he contemplates an artefact belonging to a world beyond his understanding.
Louis Herthum goes so far as to challenge Anthony Hopkins’ own subtle performance to his character as his own suffers a cataclysmic existential breakdown. It is the depth of emotion that he endures as the ‘father-scripted program’ is maligned by the repercussions and meanings surrounding his encounter with the other-worldly foreign object which sparks off a degenerative effect in the animated synthetic that brings a richer depth to his android presence. As he is questioned back in the maintenance facility of the park, his very desperate insistence that there is a lurking danger and that something is so infinitely wrong with the nature of his reality brings life to the rest of his android counterparts.
This happens in the brooding, omniscient notion that, if artificial life can walk the road of apparent self-discovery and meaning, there comes to light the innate potential and the frightening prospect that they may ‘awaken’ and realise there is an order to their days. To think that Peter Abernathy’s program failure begins with a question, one that unravels his manufactured mind. Bare witness to the dramatic scene for yourself as Peter utters the chilling words amidst the fringes of his failing sensibility:
I had a question, a question you’re not s’pposed to ask. Which gave me an answer I’m not supposed to know. Would you like to know the question?