Friday, December 30, 2016

And in the taste confounds the appetite

"These violent delights have violent ends
 And in their triumph die, like fire and powder
 Which as they kiss consume
 the sweetest honey is loathsome in his own deliciousness
 And in the taste confounds the appetite."
That's Romeo and Juliet, act II, scene VI. The first line was whispered by character Peter Abernathy (Louis Herthum) in the premiere episode of Westworld, which I am only now perusing since I've just recently turned the cable back on. Does that make me a cord rejoiner? I don't know. What it does make me is late to the party, since several people I know and most of the TV critics out there in La La Land (otherwise known as the realm of the ICP: Insane Clown President) think that Westworld is the best thing to hit HBO since the first season of True Detective (We will never speak of the second season again.) After watching the first two episodes, I can't say that I agree.

Westworld is based on the original Michael Crichton film from 1973 which, as an artifact of its era, was decent. Yul Brynner is excellent as the leading unstoppable android and Crichton's misunderstood premise of corporate greed (a theme he would return to, repeatedly) overriding basic morality was lost amidst the general audience perception that technology is evil and, obviously, wears a black hat. And I suppose I'm carrying some degree of bias while I watch the HBO series, because I know how this story plays out, based on what I've been seeing in the first couple episodes. Critics hailed it for its "world-building" but I spent a fair amount of time during both doing the "get on with it, already" wave with my hand. There is a certain amount of time that's necessary to establish the fact that the hosts essentially forget everything with every morning. Visual repetition is the best way to establish that for new viewers, so I get it.

But my problem with said world-building runs deeper than that. Many of the interactions, such as that between Lee, the narrative director (Simon Quarterman), and Theresa, the operations director (Sidse Babett Knudsen) were blatantly staged for the audience's benefit. Instead of appearing as an organic interaction (like, say, between Rust and Marty in True Detective), this was a neon sign blaring: "Here be conflict! Engage it if you dare!" Yes, you have to lay the groundwork and, yes, it's tough to do in a 10 episode series. But it's been done with somewhat more subtlety and which made both characters seem even mildly interesting, which those two do not.

Similarly, Ed Harris as the Man in Black in the world's most obvious homage to Brynner (Can his name be Johnny to make it that much more ham-fisted? He shoots people just to watch them die!) does nothing for me. He's been around awhile and he wants to see what makes the big machine tick. Fair enough. Does he have to be completely amoral in order to do that? Was the semi-gratuitous rape scene necessary to establish the spiel he'd already spoken on the train, about playing the black hat being the best time of his life? And if we were going to have a rape scene to establish an amoral character, was it necessary to close the door so that tender sensibilities somehow aren't bruised by the already-screaming woman? With the amount of nudity and violence already going around in order to establish that this is the point where ordinary people can abuse thinking beings to their heart's content, somehow that moment was deemed over the top and, instead of simply going off camera, Nolan felt that overtly shutting the barn door was how it should work? Get the audience to focus specifically on that act and then shield them from its consequences? Super-meta example of what the park embodies or shying away from what your story is depicting?

Don't get me wrong. It's not awful. It's just not gripping. I can and will watch the next couple episodes, but there's certainly nothing compelling me to do so. As all three of my regular readers know, I regard the director's cut of Blade Runner (no voiceover, ends in the elevator) to be the finest science fiction film ever made and one of the finest, period. That film asked many of the important questions about humanity and consciousness (and conscience) in a far more elegant way than anything I've seen so far on Westworld. Telling me that these are sentient beings locked in an endless loop for the entertainment of others is a good starting point. Expanding into their realization of this indentured servitude is a natural progression. But so far none of the mystery involved (Dolores and Maeve's past memories; the Man in Black's pursuit of the maze; etc.) is interesting enough to get me to want to rush back to the series tomorrow morning.

Also, I certainly respect Jonathan Nolan's (and Lisa Joy's) writing talent. He's been the co-writer on some of his brother, Christopher's, biggest films. But I wonder if he has the vision of his brother to carry a grand concept through to the ends that it requires. Crafting a story about questioning personal, corporate, and societal morality is all well and good. But including the original creator, Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins; is he a coward? Does he have a friend named Jesse?), attempting to try to steer that amorality train back toward something more acceptable by including Christianity is just a step too far down the idiot path for me. Is the assumption that the park, in general, lacks a moral basis because it lacks religion? Do I really need to delve into the history of the church to prick that balloon? Hey, are the hosts like those slaves you can get from surrounding nations, per Leviticus? Or is Dolores like one of the daughters of Lot?

To the show's credit, I did really enjoy Jeffrey Wright's performance as Bernie, mildly conflicted soul designer (I thought he was great in Syriana, too) and the most intriguing moment for me of the whole two-plus hours was when programmer Elsie (Shannon Woodward) kissed host Clementine (Angela Sarafyan.) There was character revelation ("world-building") and mystery in one little motion that had me asking questions that are both intriguing and not obvious. More of that, please, and perhaps less of the grandiose references. I mean, if we're going to go all Shakespearean on everybody, should we be referencing the constant presence of the flies in what seems to otherwise be a fairly sanitized environment?
"As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods
 They kill us for their sport."
That's King Lear, act IV, scene I. Seems almost referential to the overall plot. Or perhaps I'm either overthinking it or asking too much?