Review: ‘Westworld’ has entered a new, better sci-fi frontier

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When it premiered six years ago, Westworld the epitome of prestigious sci-fi at its peak. The expensive HBO series with Michael Crichton’s vintage pedigree featured an all-star cast and a mind-boggling premise: What if all the sentient robots, or “hosts,” in a Western theme park decide they’ve had enough of being kicked and dragged around? Subsequent seasons revealed the impact of artificial intelligence and reached far beyond the appeal of Westworld, a global mess of money, corruption and mind-tampering that was nightmare fuel for viewers watching at home while scrolling through Twitter. It was a hit – albeit a modest one.

But as many popular series do as they sail past their second season, it went off the rails a bit. By Season 3, Westworld became exhausting – a play with perhaps also lots of good ideas and not enough space to put them. As host Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) emerged from Westworld and attempted to destroy and/or save the humanity that enslaved her, she inspired a revolution that led to the destruction of the reality-manipulating artificial intelligence known as Roboam. The Man in Black is revealed to be William, son-in-law of the founder of Delos, who built Westworld. Everyone had a role to play, a lot of people (and androids) died, and eventually tracking all or any of them felt like a chore.

For the first two episodes of Season 4, which began on June 26, things have changed — and for the better. Caleb (Aaron Paul), once a soldier of the resistance against the machines, now has a family and a steady job, and although he has PTSD, he is not as prone to histrionics as before. He’s once again invited to join Maeve (Thandie Newton) as they’re both once again haunted by dark hosts, but now their quest has the feel of a character drama rather than a third-act scene in Terminator movie. Maybe Westworld going for a slow burn in the first half of his current season. Regardless, it seems like creators Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan got the hint that with modern sci-fi, less is sometimes more.

The best shows and movies are often character dramas at heart; even Westworld was in its first season. But as we enter whatever new golden age of television this is, the show’s more focused direction signals a shift that’s been blessedly in the works for a long time. Instead of science fiction with interesting characters, now the best series are thrillers or political dramas with a science fiction background. It is For all mankind playing as Crazy man in space. Or After Yang‘s family drama about the persistence of memory wrapped in the story of a dead droid.

Or, in perhaps its best current incarnation, Northerners. The Apple TV+ breakout hit primarily functions as a workplace thriller about dealing with loss, but it’s built around genre premises like “Should We Split Our Brains?” and “What if you lived in a company town where the company was extremely dark and maybe cult? Futuristic sci-fi can often come across as cold, which it does when the dystopian vibe is brought in, but it can also be uncomfortable. What shows do they look like Northerners and Westworld what they do is bury philosophical dilemmas beneath that elegant veneer. The internal world building is as strong as the external. It’s an ideal that’s been at the heart of science fiction for decades, but one that can get lost in the pursuit of ratings and dazzle.

For Westworld, the move paid off. In the weeks since the show’s new season premiered, Vanity Fair he wrote that the latest installments are an “upgraded model”. The Daily Beast said it was “worth re-watching”. And this is correct. Genre franchises often lose their way and then right themselves. WestworldThe latest season needs a reboot.

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