A sequel of sorts but definitely inspired by Michael Crichton’s 1973 film of the same name, Westworld was a smashing success in its first season on HBO, and becomes the first television series released on 4K UHD Blu-ray.
The Production: 4.5/5
To write a spoiler-free review of the first season of HBO’s Westworld is nearly impossible. There are so many twists and turns and [SPOILER ALERT] shifting timelines that the viewer is not entirely aware of, that to reveal them here would possibly ruin one’s enjoyment. Anthony Hopkins leads an all-star cast as Dr. Robert Ford, who runs and creates many of the “hosts” that populate the high-end theme park where adults can live out their fantasies in a western setting. These hosts are not simply mechanical robots, as they were when the park first opened nearly 30 years ago, Ford has refined them to be more organic, fashioning them on giant 3D printers with advanced servos and adaptive brains that have the ability to improvise ever so slightly from their programmed script, making them almost indistinguishable from the human guests. This being an HBO series, the hosts are used more for target practice and prostitution than anything else. Ford is assisted by Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), who heads up the Host Programming Division, and his assistant, Elsie Hughes (Shannon Woodward). The two are fascinated by the robotics and programming that Ford has been slowly introducing to the hosts, but become alarmed when they begin to see some idiosyncrasies as some hosts go way off their scripted program. This fuels the political games being played by Ford and Operations leader Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen), who has been sent to the park by the board of directors to keep tabs on Ford and lock down any Quality Assurance breaches. One of those breaches that is becoming common among the hosts is their retention of previous events and former lives, which begin to haunt rancher’s daughter Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood) and madam of the town’s brothel, Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton), which leads the two women along separate paths as they try to make sense of their memories and the feeling of déjà vu.
Ed Harris plays The Man In Black, a sadistic long-term guest who intertwines with many of the other guests’ storylines as he tries to find the center of The Maze. Jimmi Simpson plays William, a young man who accompanies his future brother in-law Logan (Ben Barnes), who feels very much out of his element until events lead him to find his true self. As much as I enjoyed the performances, storylines, and the twists and turns that take the viewer on a mind-bending journey, part of me wishes the series was not aimed at a more mature audience, as it was my father who introduced me to the original Westworld movie when I was ten years old and found it fascinating. The series has been rated TV-MA, and contains more F-bombs, nudity, and violence than just about any season of Game of Thrones up to this point. Don’t get me wrong, this is a very well-conceived series with some very mature subject matter that pays off considerably in the last few episodes, but is most certainly not suitable for anyone under 18.
3D Rating: NA
Westworld was shot on 35mm film, but completed, per IMDB, as a 2K digital intermediate. If that is true (and it very likely is), this UHD release is another 2160p upscale, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. With the addition of HDR (although not listed anywhere on the packaging, word on the ‘net is that this is Warner’s first Dolby Vision release), the UHD version has vastly improved fine detail and contrast. Chapter 5 of Episode One is a prime example – the rock formations and layers of colors in the cliffs are much more pronounced, as are the clouds back lit by the setting sun behind the actors. The wisps of very fine blonde facial hair on actress Sidse Babett Knudsen are also more noticeable, as are the textures of her black blouse, which is much softer and less defined on the included 1080p Blu-ray. Contrast is also better controlled on the UHD version, providing deeper blacks that retain distinct shadow details that often show up as crushed blacks on the Blu-ray.
In a surprising move, only the UHD version contains a Dolby Atmos soundtrack that also includes a Dolby TrueHD 7.1 compatible core. The Blu-ray, unfortunately, contains a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that still sounds very good, but this is not typical of other Warner releases that have duplicated the Atmos track on both UHD and Blu-ray. The Dolby Atmos, when played back in a 5.1.2 configuration, offers a more pronounced low end while opening up the soundstage with additional height channels that allow for more precise placement of audio, such as snapping twigs or gun clicks and various instruments in the shows’ score.
Special Features: 3.5/5
Another first, I believe, for Warner, is the inclusion of all special features on the UHD discs as well as the included Blu-rays.
About the Series (1080p; 2:11): Executive producers J.J. Abrams, Jonathan Nolan, and Lisa Joy, along with cast members Thandie Newton, Evan Rachel Wood, and James Marsden discuss the possibility of a Westworld theme park.
An Invitation to the Set (1080p; 2:14): Duplicates much of the same material presented in the previous featurette.
The Big Moment (1080p): A look at two pivotal reveals in the episodes on this disc – Teddy Versus the Man In Black (1:56) and A Host Self-Sabatoges (1:53). For some odd reason, and this follows through on all of The Big Moment segments spread across all six discs (both UHD and Blu-ray), the video tends to stutter, as if the clips from the show have dropped frames.
Welcome to Westworld (1080p; 7:41): A more extensive look at the series, with more behind the scenes footage.
Realizing the Dream: First Week on the Set of Westworld (1080p; 11:20): A look at the many sets and locations in Utah.
Imagining the Main Title (1080p; 14:06): A rather in-depth look at the creation of the opening title sequence.
Reality of A.I.: Westworld (4:29): A discussion on the reality of robotics.
The Big Moment (1080p): A look at three pivotal reveals in the episodes on this disc – Maeve Gets an Answer (1:36), Bernard Faces an Unlikely Saboteur (1:21), and Dr. Ford’s Blood Sacrifice (1:36).
Gag Reel (1080p; 1:38): Goofs and flubs on the set.
The Big Moment (1080p): A look at two pivotal reveals in the episodes on this disc – The Truth About Bernard (2:21) and Dr. Ford’s New Narrative (3:51).
The Key to the Chords (1080p; 8:03): A look at the role the player piano plays in the series.
Crafting the Narrative (1080p; 29:15): Excerpts from the season finale with commentary by Executive Producers Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy.
Episode Guide: A six-page color foldout that includes episode summaries, lists of special features, and a cast list.
Corporate Guidebook: Handbook for New Employees: A 24-page color booklet on working at Westworld.
Digital HD Copy: An insert contains a code to redeem digital copies of the first season on Vudu.
A mind-bending series full of twists, turns, violence, sex, and nudity, Warner/HBO’s Westworld is an exciting first season of ten episodes, with ten more set to air on the pay channel early next year. Video and Audio are a definite improvement over the Blu-ray edition, and it is nice to see Warner include the special features on the UHD discs.