Westworld Season 1 Review

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For those of you haven’t seen Westworld, there are two things that you should know. The first thing is that the first half of this review is spoiler-free, and the second thing is that I would definitely recommend checking out the show. What Westworld does best is comprehensive storytelling. The first season runs at a perfect length and executes its story beats with precision. Unlike other science fiction shows like Lost where the end of each season leaves you with more questions instead of answers, Westworld concludes with just the right amount of new questions. The few unanswered plot threads don’t detract from the overall experience.

The only downside to Westworld’s brilliant first season is how they plan on upping the ante for the second season. The first season, in being so comprehensive, felt like a ten-hour movie with a solid introduction, middle and conclusion. The way the show ended, it didn’t seem to need a sequel. Regardless, without going too much into where the series is headed, I’d like to discuss the show as it stands.

 

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The show is based on a 1973 film by Michael Chrichton

Based off of a 1973 film written and directed by Michael Crichton (Author of Jurassic Park), Westworld aired on HBO in the fall of 2016. I hate to have to give away the premise because I watched the show without knowing a single thing about it, but the story features a Western-style theme park where rich patrons called “guests” can interact with life-like androids called “hosts”. As I said, I didn’t know anything about the show, so when I realized the characters we were following around were androids, it blew my mind. Essentially, the guests come to Westworld to engage in whatever fantasies they like with the hosts, mainly sex and murder. The android hosts repeat each day with specific routines that can be influenced or changed by interacting with the guests. Anytime a host is killed, they are patched back up and rebooted to continue the next day as if nothing had ever happened. It’s a torturous cycle, and it is brought up several times that if the hosts were ever to remember these experiences it would surely wrack their “brains”. The guests go about committing what would be deemed violent atrocities in the real world, however the fact that the hosts aren’t real makes the guests justify their actions.

 

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Video games like Call of Duty have been stigmatized as gateways to real-world violence

This concept of fantasy vs reality is paralleled much in today’s world to video games. Violent video games in modern society have often been stigmatized and believed to be a causation of real-world violence. The counterargument is that a game is a game, and the players are able to understand the distinction between fantasy and reality. When someone presses a button to kill someone else in a video game, it is not the same as physically pulling the trigger or making the fatal blow. Even in games like Grand Theft Auto where you can kill or harm anyone you like, the act of playing the game is far from actually going out and committing the crimes themselves. The argument that games train shooters is also preposterous. Shooting virtual guns from a PS4 or Xbox controller doesn’t prepare someone for actually holding and discharging a firearm. That being said, perhaps there is a line where fantasy and reality get too intertwined, and where the actions in the fantasy world reflect one’s character in reality. I believe that Westworld shows what happens when that line is crossed. The world itself, unlike a video game, is not virtual. The actions that are carried out by the guests are being done with their own two hands. The concept that Westworld explores here is becoming increasingly relevant, as virtual reality in games becomes more and more immersive. What’s to say that as VR gets more and more realistic, our actions in the game world become indistinguishable from what reality looks like? Are we still morally righteous individuals if we enter a virtual game world and slaughter people?

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One of the creators of the show, Jonathon Nolan, was heavily inspired by video games such as Red Dead Redemption, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and my personal favorite game of all time, BioShock. In fact, the elements of choice vs obedience and revolutionary new systems in exotic locations are clearly influenced by BioShock. Despite the facts surrounding Westworld’s immersive experience, many would still not consider Westworld to be crossing the line. A lot of you may think, if the hosts aren’t real, what does it matter? That is where Westworld’s true philosophical themes lie. Are the hosts real? Do they think? Feel? Experience pain? And if what the hosts experience is a series of programmed responses to external stimuli with some improvisational response built off of previously programmed responses, what makes them any different from us? I believe that this leads us to the fundamental question that Westworld explores: What is reality? Is our existence a result of calculated physiological structuring from a natural or divine source? Our brain consists of neurons firing, telling us what to do in which situation. What’s to say that what we experience isn’t the same as what the hosts in Westworld experience?

 

*************SPOILERS AHEAD!!!!!!!!!!*************************

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The show begins with Bernard Lowe, played by Jeffrey Wright, asking the host Dolores, played by Evan Rachel Wood, a question: “Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?”. Dolores and the other hosts always say no, but the fact that hosts have to be programmed not to question their existence says something. The showrunners like to engage in misdirection, such as having the host Teddy, played by James Marsden, shown on camera when the off-screen monologue begins talking about the “newcomers”. It’s only later when Teddy’s bullets don’t harm the mysterious Man in Black, that we realize what Westworld is and who the “newcomers” really are. However, as much as the show loves to misdirect, it loves leaving clues even more. Lingering camera angles on the expressionless host’s faces seem to hint that the hosts have a greater awareness than the guests may think. Another way of being self-referential is in the music. Composed by Raman Djawadi of Game of Thrones fame, the music in Westworld combines traditional Western-themed tracks with anachronistic rock anthems like “Paint it Black” or “Black Hole Sun”. The player piano is constantly used as a source of diegetic music, and as a symbolic prop. The mechanical player piano reinforces the programmed vs improvisational themes in the narrative. Now, the two big twists in the show are the dual timelines and the fact that Bernard Lowe is actually a host recreation of one of the hosts’ original creators, Arnold. While the twists became apparent to me at a certain point in the show, the overall execution of these moments was so elegantly crafted that the obviousness didn’t detract from the experience. Especially if you look back, the clues were right in your face the whole time. Arnold and Bernard clearly dress differently, and the park is less ironed out and detailed in the older timeline.

 

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Anthony Hopkins as Robert Ford, one of the creators of the hosts.

The show is not without its faults, specifically in regards to suspension of disbelief. How do the guns work? How come they can hurt hosts but can’t hurt guests? Where do the guests go at night? How do the guests tell each other apart from the hosts? When Ben Barnes’s character stabs a host with a fork, what was to stop him from doing that to a guest? It doesn’t seem like they all know who they are before and are told to watch out for each other. Lots of things realistically about the park don’t make sense but the story is so interesting you aren’t super concerned about it. The dialogue is well written, and tends to tease and reference the idea of loops with lines like “There’s a path for everyone”, “Are you saying I’m repetitive”, and “Are you real? If you can’t tell, does it matter?”. Rewatching the show has been wonderful since I can now see the hints and references to future events, as well as see the story from a new perspective. I now know which timeline we are watching, and can observe the differences between the two timelines and how the park evolved.

 

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Evan Rachel Wood as the host Dolores

Westworld poses a brilliant philosophical question; when do the lines between reality and fantasy blur? Arnold wanted to create consciousness and replicate the human mind while the other creator, Robert Ford, played by Anthony Hopkins, believed the hosts were something purer than humans. Ford wanted to subject the hosts to the experiences of the park because he believed they had the capacity to take it because they were not, in fact, imperfect humans but instead perfect androids. Yet, in the end, Ford realizes his mistake and agrees with Arnold that the hosts were conscious. Eventually, he sets the hosts free of their programming that allows them to harm the hosts. It’s a perfect ending to a mostly perfectly crafted season of television. Yet, the series provides just enough opportunity for speculation and philosophical ponderings Ford definitely anticipated his death by Dolores, so was it his own code telling her to kill him or did he convince her as a sentient being without having to program her code? What separates humans and robots in free will? As Ford said, even we may not have free will as we still follow a serious of loops in our lives. One thing is certain, machine learning exists. Repetitions can slightly alter each time and become something new. As we gear up for Season 2, I think it’s crucial to assess the show’s first season as its own entity. As it stands, the first season of Westworld is pretty damn good, and once Game of Thrones finally ends, it should prove as a serviceable replacement for what to look forward to from HBO.

 

 

Justice League Review

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This is going to be a personal, informal review for a very personal topic. I have not been a fan of the DC Extended Universe movies. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a massive fan of DC Comics. Batman is my favorite superhero; Superman is a close second. I grew up watching the Justice League cartoon and Batman: The Animated Series. Not to mention, I’ve read basically everything when it comes to comic books featuring the Justice League. I’ve been reading everything from the Golden Age Comics, to the Grant Morrison Era, to the New 52. I’ve read Death of Superman, All-Star Superman, Golden Age Superman, Birthright, For All Seasons. I’ve read Golden Age Batman, The Dark Knight Returns, Death in the Family, Knightfall, No Man’s Land, Court of Owls, and a bunch of other comics that nobody’s ever heard of. I dedicated most of my early teen years scrubbing through the comic book histories of each character of the Justice League. DC comics were vital to my defining years, and I attribute them to defining much of my moral center. They taught me the importance of virtue and compassion, they were everything to me. Then the movies came.

I was actually very excited for Man of Steel. I was right in the middle of binge-watching all ten seasons of Smallville leading up to its release. At the time when I watched Man of Steel, I loved it but now after reflection and further viewings, it’s not bad but not great. Then Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice came and well…I hated it. It featured a mopey underutilized Superman, a psychotic murderous Batman, and an inconsistent and uneven plot. It was an overall mess of a movie. Then Suicide Squad was right around the corner, so that had to be good right? It was even worse. In my opinion Suicide Squad is garbage. I can understand if others enjoy it for its entertaining moments but for me, it’s a disaster. Then Wonder Women followed a little while later, and it got rave reviews from the whole world so I was hyped. It was decent, but in my opinion, it wasn’t as good as everyone claimed. I enjoyed the movie but I wouldn’t consider it to be in the upper echelon of top 10 superhero movies. So finally, the moment everyone was waiting for…Justice League was coming, and I wasn’t all that hyped. I had been fooled too many times to get excited, and even though Wonder Woman was good, I couldn’t trust the trailers or the fact that Zack Snyder had picked up right where he left off from Batman V. Superman. I didn’t see Justice League when it opened, and when I heard about its lackluster box office I thought “Good, their failures finally caught up with them”. It wasn’t until today that I actually decided to sit down and check out the movie.

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After finally watching Justice League, which I viewed with low expectations, I can say this: Justice League has awful CGI, some really bad dialogue, bad editing, its characters don’t feel established in their world, the humor doesn’t always work, the story is derivative, and…… it’s actually not that bad of a movie. Yeah, I actually really liked Justice League.  It was wildly entertaining and for the first time, I recognized some of the DC universe that I grew up with.

Since I went into this film with a negative view (being honest, I wasn’t objective), I started finding faults early. The dialogue was sooooooo bad. None of the jokes were funny early on, and there was a constant usage of generic superhero catchphrases and dialogue (“together we can save the world” “I’m putting together a team”). I’m not actually quoting dialogue from the movie, I’m just giving my representation of what it was. The special effects were literally horrendous. When the villain Steppenwolf first appears, a CGI fight scene happens that looks about as real as a 17th-century stage play. Steppenwolf himself looks ridiculously fake, and I’ve seen World of Warcraft cutscenes from 2013 that had better effects than the fight scene. The only recognizable superhero characters from previous films are Batman and Wonder Woman, and they feel disconnected in their effect on the outside world. The majority of the superheroes are introduced for the first time in this film, meaning without many characters to latch on to, the world doesn’t feel identifiable or established. The story is straightforward and borrows a few elements here and there from The Avengers and The Lord of the Rings.

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The turning point for me was when all of the characters came together. First off, I want to say that Cyborg, played by Ray Fisher, is awesome. He has this great intensity, and whatever origin he should have been given is summed up by his penetrating stare that indicates he suffered an unwanted accident that made him the way he is. Ezra Miller is also surprisingly relatable as The Flash. There is a standout scene early in the film where he is reluctant to fight, admitting that he’s never done battle before and in the moment is scared. Gal Gadot, in my opinion, is better in Justice League than she was in her own feature film (in which I thought she was serviceable but not remarkable). As Wonder Woman, she conveys a certain strength that holds the group together. I also finally got behind Ben Affleck as Batman. His murderous escapades in Batman V. Superman really deterred me from seeing what I see now, which is a great Batman. Batman and Wonder Woman play off of each other really well and serve as motivators for the rest of the group. The chemistry between the entire cast is a total success. Jason Momoa as Aquaman, though he is the least developed character in the league, has some of the best moments.

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Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

Now, minor spoiler warning, I’m going to talk about Superman. I hesitate to call this a spoiler though, since, unless you’ve never heard of the Justice League or have been living in a cave, you’ll know that Superman is bound to show up. When he does, it’s great, but he’s not in the movie all too much. Poor Henry Cavill always gets the short end of the stick as Superman. In Justice League, he yet again gets pushed aside when he should have had a much bigger role.  There’s also been some controversy about Cavill’s CGI face since his real-life mustache had to be digitally removed. Honestly, it’s one of the least relevant criticisms I’ve heard and it’s really not that bad. I’m surprised that critics had a hard time getting over Superman’s fake upper lip more than they did getting over half of the other ridiculously bad CGI (I’m looking at you Steppenwolf). The upper lip was a little wonky at times but it was something I could easily get over.

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Ciarán Hinds as the villain Steppenwolf

The height of the film, as most people would expect, was the climax, and it was glorious. The action throughout the film but particularly in the climactic battle was fantastic. It’s everything you would want to see in a blockbuster superhero movie. The league functions as a unit, strategically approaching Steppenwolf and talking down his Parademons. The only real issue with the end is Steppenwolf himself, who is simply a weak villain. He isn’t terrible, but he doesn’t offer anything other than the usual bad guy dialogue and agenda. It’s a shame that he was chosen as the villain instead of Darkseid. He did the exact same things that Darkseid would have been doing, so why didn’t they just have Darkseid instead? The final battle could have also been on a larger scale and could have shown a larger impact on the global population.

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Darkseid, ruler of the planet Apokolips

The ending of the film was actually kind of touching, having finally set up the potential for a larger DC universe. The film itself does feel like a righting of the ship. Keep in mind, I went in with an already negative perspective and was instead won over by the movie. The team works well together, and there’s even a decent end message about returning to the world and taking initiative. None of the characters fell flat, and despite there not being a lot of humor that works, the scenes in which it does is a nice touch. Though some of the early dialogue is bad, it greatly improves as the film progress until the dialogue is great in the end. There are some cool Easter eggs and it might just feature the two best end credits scenes ever. It makes me kind of sad that we may not see a continuation of this universe due to its low box office. I wouldn’t have minded if the DC movie universe kept going from Justice League. I finally saw flashes of the DC that I loved and wanted. It does feel like The Avengers in some sense, which can’t be avoided because, in the end, it’s a fun and generic blockbuster action film. Justice League gave me the DC feeling that Batman V. Superman, Suicide Squad, and even Wonder Woman couldn’t give. Wonder Woman is still a better overall film, but Justice League, in my opinion, is more entertaining, and my personal favorite DCEU film.

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The first comic book appearance of the Justice League in The Brave and the Bold Issue No. 28