From the rousing critical support and social attention it’s already receiving, it’s not entirely our optimism that says “Westworld” is already living up to its hype. The show’s challenging, moody pilot is being called one of the best in television history, and after several viewings we can say that its expertise — world building, character development and plot all balanced remarkably — it’s understandable that so many are rushing to applaud.
The 1973 film of the same name was written and directed by Michael Crichton, who casts a long enough shadow that the pilot needed to establish right away that it wouldn’t be beholden to that source material. Soon enough, fans were shown just how far the story would go, when it introduced Ed Harris’s “Man in Black” — someone hungry fans had assumed, from the promotional materials, would be a stand-in for Yul Brynner’s Gunslinger in the original: A park android in the film, who was created to challenge guests to staged duels that he’d always lose.
The film was both of its time and easy to guess at, for anyone familiar with Crichton: Brynner’s Gunslinger eventually malfunctions, along with the rest of the park’s androids, and spends the rest of the film like a proto-Terminator, villainous and murderous, unstoppable, like a robotic Michael Myers.
By focusing equally on its park’s staff, guests and “hosts,” the modern “Westworld” gives us multiple viewpoints and angles on the concept — the case could even be made that showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy may (much like Anthony Hopkins’ Dr Ford seems to) side more with the android hosts than anyone else.
Enter Harris as The Man in Black: Not a robot gunslinger for the park, now, but a veteran guest, who tells us he’s been visiting “Westworld” for 30 years. He’s no less murderous or dangerous than Brynner’s original incarnation, but by making him the story’s main antagonist — human, rather than host; looking for hidden depths in his favorite pastime — the show creates even more mystery around him, while adding another level to the series’ themes of art, science, creation, self-determination and playing God.
Harris’ Man in Black adds to these complex questions, and their outcomes, with an apparent awareness — preparedness, even — for the possible ramifications and dangers he may unleash with his investigations. It’s one thing for a dangerous android to malfunction and target the people he was meant to entertain, but another entirely for an old and knowledgeable park visitor to be the one causing all the trouble.
Aside from all the possible-to-insane fan theories already proliferating about the Man in Black, we take him as a sign that “Westworld” aims to transcend its “remake” roots. While the property it’s based upon is more obscure than a lot of the reboots we’re seeing on the big and small screens, there is something admirable about its attention to detail: To making it feel related to the original film, but also something entirely new, for fans and newcomers alike — like going back to your favorite amusement park after decades, perhaps, and realizing how much of it you’ve never seen before.
“Westworld” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.