4K ULTRA HD REVIEW
"WESTWORLD: SEASON ONE: THE MAZE"
4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, DVD and Digital copy; 2016; TV-MA for extreme violence, gore, sexuality, nudity, profanity, drinking and smoking; streaming via Amazon Video, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, Vudu
Best extra: "Crafting the Narrative," but all are first-season package good
THERE'S no hope for humanity in the HBO series from Jonathan Nolan and his wife, Lisa Joy. Nolan and Joy are also executive producers along with Bad Robot's J.J. Abrams and Bryan Burk.
Loosely based on the 1973 film written and directed by Michael Crichton, the new "Westworld" is more a commentary on the dark contemporary times than the original adventure-thriller. Visitors step into a Western theme park to "play" with lifelike androids. In Crichton's film, the droids begin to malfunction and kill the visitors.
In the Nolan-Joy version androids are called "hosts"; they are amazingly lifelike and sentient. Subjected to the worst human nature has to offer – torture, rape, murder – they are returned time and again to the Delos manufacturing hub for repair, until instability causes irreparable breakdown and retirement to the basement.
The hosts have been imbued with memories of past traumas, the cornerstone of their personalities which makes them more lifelike. Still, even after human interactions are wiped, their Artificial Intelligence is able to replay past scenarios. Series' episodes flip between lifetimes to show how events have shaped their lives and the guests as well.
Pretty heady stuff – no pun intended. Nolan is also co-creator of "Person of Interest," which starred Jim Caviezel and Michael Emerson, and ran for five seasons on CBS. It was about a super computer that could predict violent crimes, helping those whose number was literally up ... until that took a dark, depressing dive. In commentary found on Second Season's "God Mode," Nolan and co-creator Greg Plageman talk about how A.I. could overwhelm humanity. The show's second season also introduced intelligent, powerful female characters Root (Amy Acker) and Samantha Shaw (Sarah Shahi), both fashion model beauties and forerunners to "Westworld's" women. Most show no empathy, but as in "PoI," are able to titillate male viewers with a bit of lesbian foreplay.
It didn't take a second season for Nolan to break into A.I. superiority and death-dealing, manipulative beauties. We were also diverted by the new story for Westworld's guests designed by inventor Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), so obviously based on "Bone Tomahawk." The 2015 horror western from writer-director S. Craig Zahler starred Kurt Russell and Patrick Wilson, whose characters set out to rescue captives from a bizarre tribe of cliff dwelling cannibals in white camouflage, sporting unique self-mutilations. In "Westworld," a character named Wyatt leads the near identical Ghost Nation cannibals, in a play on one of Russell's most famous roles, Wyatt Earp in "Tombstone."
Ghost Nation will become the main storyline of "Westworld's" second season. Maybe Zahler will get a credit.
If you haven't seen "Person of Interest" or "Bone Tomahawk," Nolan's "Westworld" has a lot of good plot twists and turns waiting. It opens with Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) interviewing host Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), who plays a rancher's kindly daughter. She's back in maintenance after another brutal slaying. As Bernard quizzes her, it becomes certain his interests are more than simply practical.
Meanwhile, guests Logan (Ben Barnes) and William (Jimmi Simpson) arrive to explore what the theme park has to offer. It's far from William's first visit and he urges his soon to be brother-in-law to go completely evil. William, who becomes interested in Delores, has a white hat personality; he'd like to the good guy. But his good nature is quickly under attack through Logan and the park's offerings. Compassion and ethics are only targets for hate and death.
They're followed by the Man in Black, perfectly portrayed by Ed Harris. In the original "Westworld," the character was a robot gunslinger played by Yul Brynner, who leads the charge against the humans. "Westworld's" character is an enormously wealthy human on a bloody quest to discover the secrets of the Maze, which could contain the secret behind the hosts' creation.
There's much more – many characters and multiple, layered plotlines to keep viewers entertained throughout the 10 episode season.
"Westworld" is available in a red Steelbook package for its 4K combo Blu-ray presentations. The 4K set has six discs; the Blu-ray, three. Each includes a clever 20-page Delos Corporate Guidebook for new employees; a guide for each of the 10 episodes, and a digital code. Count on HBO to provide a superior presentation.
Each disc, 4K and Blu-ray, has a selection of special features, which are, nevertheless, best viewed after watching the entire series. That means a little switching about, but should be no problem. They're all worthwhile.
Disc one begins with the big question: What if Westworld really existed? Nolan, Joy, Abrams and actors discuss it in "About the Series." "An Invitation to the Set" shows the location of old west town Sweetwater, built from Melody Ranch Studios seen in other films and series. It was expanded for "Westworld" to include a train station and track. Many outdoor scenes were filmed in Utah, revisiting land director John Ford used in films like "The Searchers" (1956). Nolan is fascinated by how hard it would be survive in Moab, Utah.
"Imagining the Main Title" provides an in-depth exploration of the show's opening sequence. Also included are "Welcome to "Westworld'" and "Realizing the Dream: First Week on the Set of 'Westworld.'"
Disc Two gives Nolan, Joy, Abrams and cast members an opportunity to explore the "Reality of A.I.: 'Westworld'" and contains the gag reel.
Disc Three explains the significance of the player piano shown in the opening and throughout the episodes. It is fascinating. "The Key to the Chords" is a metaphor, a flashback to early computer programming. Composer Ramin Djawadi ("Game of Thrones," "Iron Man") talks about how he used it to compose or re-create music for the series. Some tunes are pared down versions of classic songs such as "Fade to Black."
Nolan and Joy provide background for the final episode, "The Bicameral Mind" in "Crafting the Narrative."
Each disc has multiple "Big Moment" featurettes showcasing story and character highpoints found in that set of episodes.
Westworld was filmed on 35mm (1.78:1 aspect ratio), but with thousands of computer effects running throughout, mastering and rendering was handled in 2K. So, the presentation is another unconversation to 4K. It's the first TV series in that format excluding the BBC Documentary series "Planet Earth 2." Post-production HDR toning gives imagery an added level of onscreen pop.
Both 4K and Blu-ray showcase a warm palette of gold, rust and brown, with brilliant blue skies, clothing and eyes. The 4K shines in color density and detail, especially if the home setup can handle Dolby Vision metadata coding – a first for Warner Brothers. Facial toning for the multinational cast looks natural, and the red mesas of Monument Valley, Utah, have never looked so real. Night shots show plenty of detail, while keeping the blacks inky. Also note the detail found in black costumes worn by Harris and Rodrigo Santoro, who plays psycho gunslinger Hector Escaton.
The 4K provides a small increase in detail, extracting more natural film grain, but, overall, the clarity between the Blu-ray and 4K are very similar. Both formats provide excellent sharpness with tight facial framing showing skin texture and markings. But, the wide shots are less eye-popping, mostly from the lack of true 4K mastering.
The 4K includes the more aggressive Dolby Atmos soundtrack, with a much deeper bass response, and wider audio soundstage delivering endless gun shots and Djawadi's driving musical score. Like "Game of Thrones," his music is pushed to the Atmos speakers more than what's normally coded for motion pictures.
The Blu-ray only offers a 5.1 DTS-HD soundtrack. It's very good, sound is immersive and dialogue clear. But it's a mystery why a 7.1 track or Dolby Atmos wasn't provided.
HBO has locked "Westworld" Season Two into "The Game of Thrones'" timeslot, while the award-winning fantasy-adventure prepares its final season. Excellent production detail, and interesting characters and plotlines make it a good choice.
Here's hoping it can balance the violence and doom. Sure, we live in tough times with madmen in charge. But the most remarkable thing about recent disasters – mass shootings and storm recoveries – was how ordinary citizens banded together to rescue and help one another. Good people can win, too.
— Kay Reynolds and Bill Kelley III, High-def Watch producer
4K Ultra HD Trailer