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HBO premiers ‘Westworld’ with guns blazing 10.03.16 at 12:46 pm ET
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Westworld (HBO)

James Marsden and Evan Rachel Wood star in “Westworld.” (HBO)

My favorite video game of all time is “Red Dead Redemption,” a 2010 PS3 game overlaid “open world” gameplay onto a cowboy movie. When it came time to upgrade to a PS4, I held off for six months longer than I should have largely in part because PS4 can’t play PS3 games and I wasn’t ready to hang up my digital spurs yet.

As “Red Dead Redemption” was an open world concept, you could go anywhere and do anything. It featured hundreds of extra missions you could play based on the characters you interacted with. You couldn’t help but wonder what happened to the storylines you didn’t engage in or the missions you chose to skip. “Westworld” answered that question in its premiere and the answer is when “newcomers” (real people) don’t engage the “hosts” (robots/AI/characters at the theme park), they get woke.

Based on the 1970s movie written and directed by “Jurassic Park” author Michael Crichton, “Westworld” arrives on HBO just as the endgame has been announced for “Game of Thrones.” Whether “Westworld” is the successor to Westeros remains to be seen. If not, it won’t be for lack of trying. This world is HUGE. The possibilities extend as far as the eye can see, or at least as far as the meticulously crafted landscape have been designed to go.

Despite being a high-concept sci-fi show, “Westworld” opens — not surprisingly — like a western. The first 15 minutes of the show looks like an homage to John Ford’s technicolor classic “The Searchers” right down to the do-gooder audience proxy, Teddy (James Marsden) and wide-eyed, optimistic, dusty rose of the old West, Delores (Evan Rachel Wood). It’s obvious we’re watching a fantasy be played out in front of us in all of its classic Western trope gloriousness, but it isn’t until the end of the first act that we’re sure whose fantasy it is. What is set up to be a completely immersive experience for some guests is a chance for others to explore the darkest fantasies they can dream up. Regardless of which camp is occupying “Westworld,” our “hosts” deal with the consequences. It’s a real TV funhouse mirror type of realization once we meet the other half of the cast, lead by Jeffrey Wright and Anthony Hopkins, as we watch them reset all of their walking, talking set pieces for another day of making the dreams of “newcomers” come true.

“Westworld” feels more realized and cinematic than its HBO contemporaries, and maybe that’s because there is just so much history and recognizable stereotypes to pull from given the genres on display. The performances — specifically by Marsden and Wood — are so good, but given that we know we’re watching a play-within-a-play, they seem almost over the top. This is no mistake, either; it’s a genre-bending gift. It’s a very clear signal for the audience to look for glitches in the matrix and to start to wonder just how deep in trouble the creators and patrons of this park will be when the programs they have designed start to do their job too well.

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