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'Westworld' saddles up with six-shooters and existential angst

HBO's remake of the 1973 sci-fi/Western mashup sees emotional robots in an existential shootout with the darkest of human desires.

HBO

Evan Rachel Wood leads a cast of robots more human than the humans who mistreat them.

HBO

There's a moment early in "Westworld", a new HBO series about a Wild West theme park staffed by robots, where a guest is asked to complete his cowboy outfit by choosing a hat. The choice, obviously, is between a white hat and a black one.

That's one of the major themes running through the heavyweight drama. If you can do anything you want, what do you do?

Big questions about artificial intelligence, free will and consciousness are fired off like bullets from a six-shooter in this sci-fi/Western mashup. It plays out like "Deadwood" mixed with "Blade Runner".

The series is a remake of the 1973 "Westworld" movie written and directed by Michael Crichton in which a futuristic theme park's robots rebel in bloody fashion.

This new version was developed by Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan, co-writer with his brother Christopher of the "Dark Knight" films and "Interstellar". It features a heavyweight cast led by Evan Rachel Wood and Thandie Newton as lifelike "hosts", 3D-printed robots repeating preprogrammed actions so human guests can enjoy and abuse their company.

Among those behind the scenes of the park is Jeffrey Wright, who plays a technician more interested in hosts than in people. Casting a steely eye over everything is Anthony Hopkins as the enigmatic founder of the park.

Stalking the park is Ed Harris as a black-clad gunslinger, stepping into the gunbelt worn by Yul Brynner in the original movie. Jimmi Simpson plays a guest, but one uncomfortable with the excesses available to him.

Those excesses make the hosts, prisoners of their programming and subject to the base whims of the guests, more sympathetic than many of the real humans around them. It's certainly a bleak view of humanity: the staff of the park display less emotion than the synthetic hosts they casually throw into piles and hose down at the end of another day of mistreatment. Given the freedom to do whatever they want, guests and staff rush straight to sex, violence and, more often than not, sexual violence.

By showing us the people behind the scenes who engineer the action in the theme park, "Westworld" comments on the way entertainment caters to our baser desires. It also perpetuates that darkness, with farm girls dragged into barns and prostitutes gunned down, over and over, night after night.

This is HBO, after all.

Anthony Hopkins is the chilling founder of Westworld, while Jeffrey Wright's scientist has secrets of his own.

HBO

"Westworld" works when it's throwing in plot twists that keep you guessing, particularly when we're following the machinations of the chilling Harris and Hopkins. The rest of the time the series has a big problem: we know the hosts are robots.

The hosts begin to question their existence as memories of their treatment at the hands of debauched and violent guests breaks through their programming. Wood and Newton give sympathetic performances, but the slow-burn of their emotional awakening is undercut by the fact we already know the answer they're striving for. If you have a passing familiarity with the source material, you also know where the story is going (or where you think it's going, at least).

Judging from the first four episodes, the show is heading in some interesting and unexpected directions. But whenever the pace slows or the subplots meander, I find myself wondering when the robots are going to get on with it. Just start murdering people already, pardners.

"Westworld" is on HBO in the US and Sky Atlantic in the UK from Sunday 2 October. For more rootin'-tootin' action, check out what we learned from the original movie.