Doomed Robots of 'Westworld' Make New HBO Show Come Alive

James Marsden and Evan Rachel Wood star in HBO's 'Westworld.' John P. Johnson/HBO

In HBO's Westworld, Evan Rachel Wood plays Dolores Abernathy, a farm girl living on her father's cattle ranch amid canyons and clifftops on the Western frontier. She lives a simple life, alive to the beauty that surrounds her yet restless for the world beyond her own. A good-looking local occasionally rolls up on his horse to whisper gallant nothings into her ear, like "I'm gonna come back for you some day," but he has an inconvenient habit of dying.

One day he is shot through the heart on Dolores's ranch; on another he is riddled with bullets outside a saloon; and on yet another he is left to rot in the sun. But there he is again the following day, bright-eyed and full of promises to take her away from all this, someday. "'Someday' sounds like the thing people say when they actually mean 'never,'" says Dolores.

Give the girl full marks. Dolores is actually a robot constructed by the makers of a giant park that exists solely for the gratification of the "guests"—human customers who roam the park inserting themselves into scripted storylines to rape, kill and then walk away without a scratch. As one satisfied customer says, "Came alone. Went straight evil. The best two weeks of my life."

This unnerving idea is all that survives of a bad Michael Crichton movie of the same name from 1973, starring Richard Benjamin and James Brolin as two guests scrambling for their lives after one of the robots, played by Yul Brynner in silver contact lenses, goes on the rampage: an early tryout for the malfunctioning theme-park idea that Crichton would recycle for Jurassic Park. Poorly paced and badly shot, as if assembled by one of the robots, the movie summoned zero sympathy for its human protagonists: You couldn't wait for the robots to start opening them up like soup cans.

This new version on cable—written by Jonathan Nolan, who co-wrote Memento, The Dark Knight and Interstellar with his director brother, Christopher is almost embarrassingly better than Crichton's film, unfurling a beautifully detailed and inviting world from a simple inversion: It doesn't even try to make the humans sympathetic. Led by a craggy Ed Harris, a guest whose lust for sadism has pushed him ever deeper into the park (and who wears the same black Stetson sported by Brynner in the film), the humans, with a few exceptions, are hyuk-hyukking thrill-seekers who find pleasure in rape and murder. Instead, it is the robots—doomed to die a thousand deaths, their memory wiped clean every day—that inspire all the show's pathos and poetry. They're like a cross between the replicants in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and the hero of Memento, whose world works perfectly well as long as he doesn't remember a single thing that has happened to him.

As always with the Nolans, the Borgesian levels of self-consciousness work to thin out the show's thematic impact: At times, Westworld resembles less the new blockbuster show from HBO and more a cunning metafiction deconstructing the inner workings of HBO blockbusterhood. "It's not about giving the guests what you think they want," says the park's creator, Dr. Robert Ford, a sinister, soft-voiced Prometheus played by Anthony Hopkins in Lecterish slow-blink mode, playing with his vowels like a cat with a mouse. Ford is rather like the ultimate showrunner, tinkering with the entertainment to keep his thrill-hungry guests happy. "The guests don't return for the obvious things we do, the garish things. They come back because of the subtleties, the details." It sounds suspiciously like Nolan's pitch for the series.

The series scores most highly when it draws near to a theme Crichton barely touched: the relationship between the robots and their makers. One of the head engineers, played with twitchy intelligence by Jeffrey Wright, has a few bad memories of his own—the show's knowingness about backstories doesn't seem to preclude it from using them—and is drawn into a series of off-script therapy sessions with Dolores in which he seems to be nudging her toward an awakening. The show's details summon a svelte malevolence: the milky vats of latex in which the robots are dunked, their sinews spun by giant looms; or the fly that wanders across Dolores's unblinking face, as soft and beautiful as a charcoal sketch by Ingres. She's like a cyborg Dietrich.

There's always been something spooky about Wood's mixture of emotional facility and enameled poise. Her entire career seems to have been heading toward the scene in which she is allowed to loose full floods of grief, only to be told "Limit your emotional affect" by Wright. Her face drains instantly of all emotion. What volume control. It's the acting equivalent of a Kurt Cobain power chord—thrilling, thrilling stuff.

Westworld begins on HBO on October 2.