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Review: HBO Hopes To Fill Sunday Spotlight With 'Westworld' Series


HBO unveils its latest big-budget drama series tonight, a premium cable version of the 1970s sci-fi film "Westworld." NPR TV critic Eric Deggans wonders if the show is a canny exploration of humanity or just a carefully crafted excuse for lots of violence.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: HBO's "Westworld" unfolds like an updated take on an old question - what's the difference between a machine that expertly mimics life and a synthetic person who's actually alive?


EVAN RACHEL WOOD: (As Dolores Abernathy) Some people choose to see the ugliness in this world, the disarray. I choose to see the beauty.

DEGGANS: That's Dolores, a synthetic person played by Evan Rachel Wood. She's among the oldest machines at a high-tech resort called Westworld. Dolores and her fellow androids, called hosts, populate to fake Old West environment that allows humans, called guests, to live out their Western fantasies. Anthony Hopkins plays the Walt Disney of this theme park, Dr. Robert Ford. He lectures his staff on why people come there.


ANTHONY HOPKINS: (As Dr. Robert Ford) They're not looking for a story that tells them who they are. They already know who they are. They're here because they want a glimpse of who they could be.

DEGGANS: Unfortunately, what many of these human guests could be is pretty ugly. There's the gunslinger, a repeat guest played by Ed Harris. He's a human dressed in black with a taste for killing hosts, which makes him look like a psychopath. And he seems to have one thing on his mind when he meets Dolores.


ED HARRIS: (As The Man in Black) Hello again. Your daddy gave it up quickly. I think he's losing his touch.

WOOD: (As Dolores Abernathy) You'll be following right behind him.

HARRIS: (As The Man in Black) Is that any way to treat an old friend? I've been coming here for 30 years, but you still don't remember me, do you? After all we've been through.

DEGGANS: She doesn't remember him because host's memories are erased after they're killed in a scenario. But problems arise when some hosts begin to access old memories anyway, like the android playing Dolores's dad, who confronts Dr. Ford.


LOUIS HERTHUM: (As Peter Abernathy) I have to warn her.

HOPKINS: (As Dr. Robert Ford) Warn who?

HERTHUM: (As Peter Abernathy) Dolores. The things we do to her. The things you do to her. I have to protect her. I have to help her. She's got to get out.

DEGGANS: It all raises compelling questions. If these hosts react to painful memories, have they become a new form of life? Do they have a soul? Does this mean humans ought to treat them humanely? The 1973 movie written and directed by "Jurassic Park" author Michael Crichton was a simpler tale.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) We will soon be landing at Westworld, the ultimate resort.

DEGGANS: The robots ran amok, killing guests in a nightmare story of technology destroying man. But this new "Westworld" asked what might happen if man abuses technology, creating life only to enslave it. After seeing four episodes, I'm still not sure if HBO's "Westworld" is slowly setting up a grand, complex story or artfully going nowhere. Films like "Blade Runner" and "Ex Machina" have already explored the moral questions of man creating and exploiting synthetic life. And it's not yet clear, despite the quality acting and special effects in this "Westworld," that the story offers anything new.

There's lots of troubling violence here, including a scene which implies Dolores is sexually assaulted. There's also lots of impressive small touches like the way hosts, forbidden to harm life, don't react when flies crawl on their faces - until they do. But like the futuristic amusement park it's named for, HBO's "Westworld" perfects the small details only to fall a bit short when it comes to the bigger picture. I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.
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