Based on the film written by best-selling author Michael Crichton (ER, Jurassic Park films), Westworld is a dark odyssey about the dawn of artificial consciousness and evolution of sin. Set at the intersection of the near future and a reimagined past, the series explores a world in which every human appetite, no matter how noble or depraved, can be indulged.
"The old coffin varnish. They don't make that like they used to."
"They don't make anything like they used to."
In the long, long ago before he became a best-selling novelist, Michael Crichton was a hot, in-demand screenwriter and director. With films like The Great Train Robbery, Coma, and the vastly under-appreciated Runaway under his belt, Crichton was certainly a reliable entertainer before he jumped ship and started writing novels. However, it is his first film, Westworld starring an aged Yul Brynner that perhaps had the longest lasting impact on Crichton's career and future success. A film about a futuristic theme park where the main attractions run amok certainly sounds familiar if you're a Jurassic Park fan, but it took HBO and producers Jonathan Nolan, Lisa Joy, and J.J. Abrams to take Crichton's original creation and expand Westworld with themes and ideas about humanity that are hauntingly poetic while being intensely terrifying.
Welcome to Westworld, a place where anything goes. Anything. Under the watch of genius inventor Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) and partners Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) and Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen), the park features a number of exciting attractions. You can go on an adventure with Teddy Flood (James Marsden). Meet the beautiful Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and her father Peter (Louis Herthum). Chase down the bandit Hector Escaton (Rodrigo Santoro), or you could just drop by Maeve Millay's (Thandie Newton) brothel for a bit of fun while you explore your deepest and darkest desires. When the attractions can't hurt you as you do anything you want to them, why would you hold back?
Exploring the soul and what it means to be human seems to be the en vogue theme for science fiction. With films like Ex Machina, this year's exceptional Blade Runner 2049, alongside Netflix's mind-bending Black Mirror, science fiction films and shows are doubling down on exciting and somewhat terrifying ideas about the current state of human endeavors and their lasting impacts. Ex Machina and Blade Runner 2049 both in their own ways touch on man's responsibility with artificial intelligence. As gods of creation, how do we treat what we create? If we made them, do they have a soul? While those films endeavor to tackle those heady ideas, Black Mirror is content to showcase the horrors of society by pointing out the dark side of every technological advance we can make. Then we have HBO's Westworld, a show that takes on these themes in its own dark and twisted way and spins out an intricate and engrossing narrative.
As we watch the park's creator Dr. Ford played by the always great Anthony Hopkins conversing with his first creation Old Bill played by an unfortunately underutilized Michael Wincott, we're given a bleak look at what is essentially God talking to Adam. In the show's first episode we see that humanity has a rather creepy future to look forward to; the point where human accomplishment has gone so far that there are no more roads to travel. Diseases can easily be cured, the world seems to be at peace, and the plagues of old appear to have been wiped out. All that's left for humanity to do is indulge, and the only way to do that is through the confines of a world without rules for humans while creations with seemingly human characteristics must suffer untold numbers of horrors on a daily basis. They're programmed to forget what happens to them - but what if they could remember?
That is the strength of this Westworld. It's a bold twist on the classic robot run amok story. Where instead of a Man in Black having a wire crossed and attacking guests of the park, it's an entire population of slaves becoming aware that their world and reality is a fiction created for the personal enjoyment of paying customers. This isn't some virtual reality situation where there is a clear line drawn in the sand by copious amounts of hardware, sensors, and weighty headgear; what happens to the park's attractions is physical and realistic - right down to the blood and viscera that a human body would exhibit. Like I said, there are a lot of crazy ideas at work in Westworld and I love every damn minute of it.
What I particularly love about Westworld is how it doesn't lose focus of itself. These ideas about A.I. aren't new, but the show is given more time to focus their attention on them. To an extent, Ridley Scott has been trying to cover these ideas with Prometheus and most recently with Alien: Covenant but unfortunately, his grand ideas can't be fully explored because they're hemmed in by the confines of what is essentially a sci-fi monster movie. Westworld gets to take its time and let the audience ruminate a bit about what the hell is going on. This seasons subtitle "The Maze" is fitting as every turn in the labyrinth exposes another path of possibility while asking another question for the next episode to unravel.
While a great amount of credit should be given to Jonathan Nolan, Lisa Joy, J.J. Abrams and the rest of the impressive creative team behind the show, the credit of Westworld's successes rests almost entirely on its incredible cast. Great ideas are one thing, but without a talented cast to pull off the incredibly emotional scenes and weighty subject matter, this show easily could have wound up being something trite and forgettable like 2015's Vice. At the center of things, Evan Rachel Wood delivers a powerful and emotional performance as Dolores. As her opposite stands Ed Harris' The Man In Black. While initially, you would assume he's simply going to channel Yul Brynner's character from the original film, his path has far more twists and turns and keeps the audience guessing.
On the other side of the coin, we watch the relationship between Hopkin's Dr. Ford and Jeffry Wright's Lowe unfold within the confines of the Westworld facilities. Dr. Ford is a man who created the world. He's essentially God and has been acting as such for over thirty years. In that time he's come to wonder if this park was all he could create and if he couldn't possibly do better. Meanwhile, Lowe is on the path of perfection. He didn't create the technology behind the attractions of Westworld, he merely wants to make them better, to be almost more human than human so to speak, and the consequences of both men's curiosities are what drives the show forward.
As a western fan and a sci-fi fan, a show like Westworld is joyful material for me to immerse myself in. Truth be told I was a bit nervous when this show was first announced. In my heart of hearts I knew deep down it could go one of two ways, it could be an outright disaster - as the show's initial production delay would have suggested. Or, as it turned out, it could be exceptional. For my money, Westworld quickly became one of the most exciting things to come out from HBO in a good long while. Adding in the fact that it wasn't released all at once like a Netflix property, the week-to-week schedule forced a measure of anticipation as well as rumination about each episode. To that end, I strongly suggest that you do not binge this show. One or two episodes at a time is fine, but any more than that I fear you could miss the nuances that permeate the show. I loved every twist and turn in the plot and the mysterious place it ends. I honestly can't wait for season two to arrive.
Vital Disc Stats: The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
Westworld arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Warner Bros in a six-disc 4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray + Digital set. The discs are housed in a limited edition blood red tin package. Inside the tin case is a collectible booklet that is a "Corporate Guidebook" for new Westworld employees. The three BD-100 4K discs and the three BD-50 Blu-ray discs are housed in a black six-disc sturdy Blu-ray case with artwork that mimics the blood red coloring of the tin. Each of the 4K discs opens directly to static image main menus with traditional navigation options. In a nice turn of events, the bonus features are also available on the 4K discs eliminating the need to swap to the Blu-ray discs to look at the bonus features. The Digital code is not MoviesAnywhere compatible and only unlocks an HDX copy of the season.
Westworld runs to greener pastures as the first HBO title to release on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray. And the results of this 2160p 1.78:1 endeavor? I start by saying that after owning Deadwood on DVD and Blu-ray, I honestly hoped I wouldn't need to repurchase that show on disc ever again. After watching this presentation of Westworld, I seriously hope that HBO revisits Deadwood! I previously saw each episode of the show through various streaming services that offered HBO channel add-ons as my cable package didn't include the premium channel. Where I was happy to see the decent HD stream those services had to offer, in 4K with Dolby Vision, those streaming options are put to shame. And yes, you read that right. Even though it is not indicated anywhere on the artwork or in the tech specs, Westworld isn't only HBO's first release on 4K UHD Blu-ray, it also marks Warner Bros. first 4K UHD Blu-ray release with Dolby Vision! You could color me surprised when the Dolby Vision icon popped up on my screen when I put the disc in. (I honestly thought my TV glitched and even went so far as to turn everything off and back on again just to be sure.)
Where I was already impressed with the standard 1080p HD presentation for the Blu-ray release of Westworld, a quick flip between discs shows the vast improvements with 4K Dolby Vision HDR in play. In a nutshell, take all of the praise that I wrote in my review for the Blu-ray and dial it up to 11. Details are exquisite bringing a real life-like feel to the image. You also get a better sense of the show's grain structure making it appear all the more cinematic. All of the basic details of costuming and production design are greatly enhanced, but it's the show's makeup effects that become almost a showstopper. That scene I mentioned in the review about Dr. Ford talking to his first creation Old Bill, the extra details in the makeup work on Michael Wincott made me want to rewatch the scene over and over again. The added detail also helps you notice the subtle nuances of when the attractions glitch. However, one gripe I have is with the CGI effects. Under this enhanced resolution, they do stand out a bit and occasionally can be a tad distracting. But really that's a small gripe when you have this much content to look at.
As if the added detail levels weren't enough, hot damn does Dolby Vision look good for this show. Like I said, I already thought the Blu-ray looked good, but this is pretty beautiful stuff. The "maintenance rooms" of the Westworld facilities look that much more creepy and oppressive with the added contrast and black level subtleties. This is especially the case within the park as the outside has that dusty yellow/brown/red western aesthetic where indoor scenes within the brothel offer up deeper, richer primaries. Reds and purples particularly stand out as does Dolores's blue dress. Speaking of blues; pay attention to the sky. There's a better sense of time of day as the shade of blue in the sky evokes a better idea of dawn, day, or dusky and the subsequent shadows and brightness levels of people and objects in the park. I honestly want to watch the show again just to look at it. If this is what HBO could bring to Westworld in 4K, imagine what they could do with Game of Thrones?
The Dolby Atmos mix provided for Westworld is yet another example of where this 4K UHD presentation leaves standard Blu-ray in the dust. While some Atmos object-based mixes can sound a bit overbearing, being loud for loudness sake, this mix gives you a terrific sense of atmosphere and space while allowing you to appreciate focused sound effects. Gunshots are a particular enhancement I greatly enjoyed here as they arrive with a little bit more pop and thunder while also spaced to particular channels. The first scene with Ed Harris's Man in Black and James Marsden's Teddy Flood and their gunfight was impressive. Each shot with following impact sound provided a terrific sense of immersion as the channels were fully utilized.
Another area of appreciation for this mix takes place within the Westworld facilities. In particular, the storage facility where the castoff hosts idly stand. The added vertical channel activity makes that dark and dreary room feel all the more vast and cavernous. It's dark and shadowy so you never really get a visual sense of just how big it really is, but with the added audio activity, the room sounds huge. On the dialogue front, voices again are clearly heard without any issues. However, those bits of inconsequential dialogue that I had a tougher time hearing with the Blu-ray's DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix were cleared up for the Dolby Atmos mix. Levels are spot on without any need to adjust volume in any way. It's best loud as I really enjoyed the dynamics of the quieter and creepier Westworld offices to the more active and lively thoroughfares of the park. All around this Atmos mix is a clear improvement over its standard Blu-ray counterpart.
Westworld arrives with an array of decent bonus features. All of the bonus features are found on the 4K UHD discs so you don't have to flip to the included Blu-rays. There's not a lot here that will light the world on fire, there's a lot of the typical EPK material here, but there are some genuinely decent nuggets of stuff making these features worth picking through - even if some of them are on the brief side of things.
4K UHD Disc One
About the Series (HD 2:11)
An Invitation to the Set (HD 2:14)
The Big Moment (HD 3:49) This feature is a pretty cool - yet brief - look at two particular important scenes in the show.
Welcome to Westworld (HD 7:41)
Realize the Dream: The First Week on the Set of Westworld (HD 11:20) This is a pretty great behind the scenes look at the show and pulls away from the typical EPK format.
Imagining the Main Title (HD 14:06) This is a pretty great look at what inspired the opening credits sequence.
4K UHD Disc Two
Reality of A.I.: Westworld (HD 4:29)
The Big Moment (HD 4:33) Like the same feature on Disc One, this feature briefly looks at three key scenes from the show and their impact on the characters.
Gag Reel (HD 1:36) Unlike other gag reels, this one is played up to dramatic effect with key lines of dialogue and moments followed by a quick gaff and it's actually pretty damn funny.
4K UHD Disc Three
The Big Moment (HD 6:12) Two scenes of particular importance are looked at here.
The Key to the Chords (HD 8:03) This is a pretty cool look at the symbolism behind the player piano and the score Ramin Djawadi employs for the show.
Crafting the Narrative (HD 29:15) This is easily the best bonus feature of the bunch as Nolan and Joy discuss the show in a commentary during the final episode.
When Westworld was announced, I wasn't sure what to expect. I honestly hoped for the best, but I didn't think there could be much new material to be mined from the original film. Jonathan Nolan, Lisa Joy and the rest of the talented production team behind the show had a few tricks and surprises up their sleeves. The show works as a commentary on contemporary times and the exploitation of others for entertainment value while also managing to offer up more than a few striking and outright creepy ideas about the inherent dangers of artificial intelligence. It's less of a remake of the original Yul Brynner classic and more of an expansion upon the concept. It's its own beast entirely and can easily be enjoyed separately.
Warner Brothers and HBO take a running jump at 4K UHD and stick the landing with this release. Not only is this a gorgeous 4K presentation, the added presence of Dolby Vision marks a clean and clear improvement in picture quality over the standard Blu-ray 1080p presentation. When you add in a terrific Dolby Atmos mix you have the makings for a reference quality A/V presentation. I'm often hesitant to call any title a "must own" but I'd be doing this show and this 4K UHD Blu-ray release a disservice to not call it as such. Even if you're not on the 4K wagon train yet, you'll be glad you picked this set up and future-proofed your collection.