Westworld: An Essay on Jonathan Nolan

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Sportello: 7.5/10; Vulture 8/10; Rogerebert 8/10; New Yorker 7/10; New York Times: 6/10

HBO’s Westworld gives credit to 10 writers/co-writers. Many have only contributed to a single episode with a handful of exceptions, namely Michael Crichton, Lisa Joy & Jonathan Nolan who have worked on the entire show. The latter two are credited as the main writers.

Lisa Joy is a relative new-comer, previously involved in TV shows ‘Burn Notice’ and ‘Pushing Daisies’. Michael Crichton was an incredibly talented American writer responsible most famously for all the scripts behind the ‘Jurassic Park’ franchise as well as TV show ‘ER’. One can actually notice bits and pieces of Westworld in both of the aforementioned Crichton titles, as well as the other way around.

A lesser known fact perhaps is that Michael Crichton has already written & directed Westworld, back in 1973. It was very well received publicly and critically, with the synopsis reading:

“An amusement park for rich vacationers. The park provides its customers a way to live out their fantasies through the use of robots that provide anything they want. Two of the vacationers choose a wild west adventure. However, after a computer breakdown, they find that they are now being stalked by a rogue robot gun-slinger.”

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As a consequence, the 2016 Westworld represents Crichton’s work as a foundation that has been expanded by Lisa Joy, but most importantly and noticeably, by Jonathan Nolan. Nolan has worked with his brother Christopher on the majority of his pictures, including being a co-writer on ‘Memento’, ‘The Prestige’, ‘Interstellar’ & ‘The Dark Knight’ trilogy. When watching Westworld one can catch many elements that are ‘Nolanesque’ in their editing, pace & writing.

David Bordwell has written many pieces on Christopher Nolan as well as the films he had co-written with his brother. While David’s observations have mainly been around Chris Nolan, many of them are directly attributable to Jonathan Nolan as well, specifically with regards to the themes played out in ‘Westworld’.

David Bordwell in his essay titled Nolan vs Nolan talks about 4 ways a filmmaker can innovate:

  • You can innovate by tackling new subject matter.
  • You can also innovate by developing new themes. Science fiction films were once dominated by conceptions of future technology as sleek and clean, but after Alien, we saw that the future might be just as dilapidated as the present.
  •   Apart from subject or theme, you can innovate by trying out new formal strategies. This option is evident in fictional narrative cinema, where plot structure or narration can be treated in fresh ways.
  • Finally, you can innovate at the level of style—the patterning of film technique, the audiovisual texture of the movie.

Given the premise of Westworld as well as the involvement of Jonathan Nolan, it would be interesting to analyze it through this prism of innovation as well as project the similarities in the brothers’ cinematic styles.

The formal strategy that the writers utilized to tell the narrative behind Westworld, the one that relies almost solely on continuous exposition, is something Nolan fans will appreciate, while others will undoubtedly hate. It’s a technique Chris Nolan has been deploying since ‘Memento’,  and can be seen at it’s peak in ‘Inception’ and ‘Interstellar’ where exposition becomes the ‘meat of it’, as Chris Nolan once said. Nolan also comments on this idea of the audience being active through exposition, saying that he wanted to involve viewers alongside the characters:

Exposition is such a massive demand,” he admits.” It’s something you have to just try and imbue in the relationships of the characters. You never want to find yourself in a scene where characters are passively receiving information in some way, because you don’t want the audience passively receiving information. You want them engaged with that dramatization.

Westworld provides that continuos exposition whereby we are always learning new things about the hosts abilities, their creators, the park itself as well as the true ambitions of it’s stakeholders. We become involved with a plot not through learning about characters background and traits, but rather through learning the information along with the characters, while they work through the mechanics. This technique comes out naturally in Westworld, where everything is shredded in mystery. It’s characters are on the path to self-discovery meaning any revelation is important. The use of exposition helps maintain constant ‘engagement’ that Nolan had talked about.

In Kristin Thompson’s article Revisiting Inception, which I have quoted earlier, Nolan’s exposition techniques are analyzed at length and are incredibly relevant here:

Yet we are not entirely with the characters in their achievement of the mission, because we move back and forth… as none of them does. Thus we may be attached to the characters in the parceling-out of exposition, but we know much more than they do at any given moment …

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While Westworld’s style might seem simple, it echoes the efficiency and consistency that can be seen in Nolans’ work. Westworld employs mainly mid-range shots to establish scenes while the dialogues and action packed sequences are dominated by rapid, shoulder to shoulder closeups. There is nothing highly original in these techniques as many will be overly used to them from shows like ‘Game of Thrones’ or ‘Ray Donovan’, which employ some of the same cinematographers. What separates Westworld is that it’s seemingly simplistic style is overarched with an original subject matter fueled by exposition and continuos crosscutting, while it’s plot is dominated by a long time favorite theme of the Nolan brothers – character subjectivity.

Westworld’s style therefore is ingrained in this subjectivity, it’s dependent on it. Here an attempt is made to tell a story through a character’s point of view. Often we see only what certain characters can see, emphasizing their subjective views & agendas, like in many scenes involving Dolores, Ford, Bernard or Maeve. As can be seen in ‘Memento’, The Batman trilogy or ‘The Prestige’ , amongst others, both brothers are fascinated by unusual storytelling strategies. Their efforts often times attempt to ‘reconcile character subjectivity with large-scale cross-cutting’. This unusual narrative form prospers in Westworld where the story is told in a non-linear fashion and heavily utilizes cross-cutting.

As a result the viewer is constantly shifted from person to person, past to present, place to place. David Bordwell mentioned that in theory combining crosscutting and subjectivity might seem contrary, “One is intensive, the other expansive; one is a local effect, the other becomes the basis of the film’s enveloping architecture.”

Westworld tackles this by establishing a handful of key protagonists and confining the majority of it’s scenes to them. The sheer volume of these protagonists however, coupled with such dynamic style makes it incredibly hard to fully convey that subjectivity. This is where Westworld might lose some of it’s viewers. While Nolan’s techniques might flourish in the cinema, in a 10 episode TV show, they are confusing. And not confusing in the show’s ability to answer the questions it raised, but in how it got to these answers. While the first & final acts are truly ambitious and excellently executed, the ‘middle act’ is uninspiring and uneventful.

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Thus when the fascination for the subject matter fades and one adjusts to the innovations Westworld has to offer, it becomes monotonous and dare I say unimaginative. Attempts to tackle this through extensive cross-cutting, wonderful acting and a unique score give the show a unique flare, however not for long, since the substance quickly disappears; attempts to reward our efforts with a remarkable, brain-teasing finale also work, yet somehow feel unsatisfying. Westworld initially lays down the necessary foundation to address the questions it had raised in a truly unique fashion, yet ends up being too indulgent in it’s form while delivering the answers. As such, what seemingly starts as a science fiction narrative at it’s core, sadly transgresses into a sort of a ‘sci-fi psychological thriller’, where the answers lay not within a mystical or futuristic form but are rather deep-rooted in the subjectivity of the characters.

 

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