Roush Review: Fascinating Westworld, Marveling at Luke Cage, Woody's Creative Crisis

Matt Roush
Westworld, Ed Harris
HBO

Gunsmoke was never like this. And neither was the original 1973 Westworld, a pop movie thriller that only scratched the surface of the existential ramifications of pitting man alongside machine in an elaborate faux-Western theme park populated by lifelike robots.

“There’s a deeper level to this game,” growls the menacing Man in Black (steely-eyed Ed Harris), who’s been coming to Westworld for 30 years, and he’s onto something. Because HBO’s fascinating adaptation, from Person of Interest’s Jonathan Nolan, features a provocative and chillingly disturbing twist: It’s no longer about the robots turning on the human visitors, but about these artificial creations somehow turning more human, as they begin to harbor dark memories from past scenarios, yearning and dreaming of a world beyond.

“I think when I discover who I am, I’ll be free,” confesses the winsome android maiden Dolores (a spectacular Evan Rachel Wood) during an off-script therapy session with human overseer Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), who’s secretly been expanding her horizon with books like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Which is a fitting choice, considering the moralistic rabbit hole Westworld represents.

The park itself is a twisted playground for guests to exploit their most sordid fantasies of violent and sexual debauchery at the expense of their animatronic “hosts,” who suffer and die untold numbers of times. While Westworld’s dense and expansive framework doesn’t shy from this graphic mayhem, it’s much more invested in the relationship between the evolving robots and their makers.

“You can’t play God without being acquainted with the devil,” says park founder Robert Ford (a quietly sinister Anthony Hopkins), who expresses some empathy toward his creations by noting, “The least we can do is make them forget.” But what happens when they remember? This occurs more frequently episode by episode, after a systems upgrade triggers reveries that leave these increasingly sentient machines shaken, perplexed and unraveled.

As Westworld likes to remind and tease us, computers are only human.

THE INCREDIBLE HUNK: On a mission to clean up the crime-infested streets of Harlem, Luke Cage is asked by an admiring citizen (OK, she’s a stripper), “Don’t you need a gun?” His answer: “I am the gun.” He’s more of a tank, actually, a literal human shield able to level a posse of thugs with a swipe of his tree-trunk arm.

First seen having bed-breaking sex in Hell’s Kitchen with another unorthodox superhero in Marvel’s Jessica Jones, Luke moves uptown in Marvel’s Luke Cage to take the spotlight in his own series, though it’s hard to imagine a more reluctant hunk of bulletproof beefcake. With brooding magnetism and quiet intensity, Mike Colter as Luke is a physical marvel and an appealing center of moral gravity in a show that all too often telegraphs its plentiful punches and twists.

Luke Cage, netflix

Netflix

Mike Colter as Luke Cage

For example, if you’re the least bit shocked that it takes a personal tragedy to spur this unassuming urban avenger to action, you’ve probably never been in a comic book store. Luke Cage opens with its title character working menial jobs, keeping his head down and, reflecting the series’ authentic sense of neighborhood culture, arguing the merits of African-American literary heroes (Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins vs. Donald Goines’ Kenyatta) with his cronies in the local barbershop. You know this peace won’t hold.

Not with villains like the flamboyant Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali) and his councilwoman cousin Mariah (the great Alfre Woodard) poisoning a new Harlem Renaissance with political and police corruption. Luke’s dilemma, hardly uncommon to those with powers like his, is that while he may be impervious to whatever carnage is thrown at him—though he does lament the damage often done to his hoodie-and-T-shirt wardrobe—the same can’t be said for those he holds dear.

The epitome of the strong and silent type, Luke is often upstaged by formidable women including Marvel regular Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), who urges him to use his might for good—“Sometimes if you want justice, you have to get it yourself”—and detective Misty Knight (Simone Missick), who’d rather go by the book but has to admit, “There is just something about that dude.” Not gonna argue.

A CRISIS OF CREATIVITY: Remember when a new Woody Allen project used to feel more like an event than a chore? Amazon does, which is why they see it as such a coup to lure him back to the world of (streaming) TV for an original six-episode comedy, Crisis in Six Scenes, though the sad truth is only one of those “scenes” (read: episodes) is even remotely funny.

Set in the late 1960s, when this farce might still have felt topical, the trifling Crisis encourages Allen to mug shamelessly and endlessly as suburban schmendrick Sidney J. Munsinger, a failed novelist and would-be sitcom writer living in a Connecticut cocoon of privilege with wife Kay. The great Elaine May steals every one of her scenes as his tolerant and droll spouse, whether she’s counseling unhappy married couples (which allows for some sharp cameos by the likes of Lewis Black, Becky Ann Baker and Nina Arianda) or hosting a matronly book club (members include Joy Behar, Rebecca Schull, Julie Halston, Marylouise Burke and other scene-stealers).

Crisis in Six Scenes (Woody Allen, Miley Cyrus)

Amazon Studios

Woody Allen and Miley Cyrus

The sketchy premise doesn’t even kick in until after the excruciating first “scene,” with the sudden arrival of activist fugitive Lennie (a shrill Miley Cyrus) in the second half-hour. She breaks into their home, hiding from the “pigs,” and takes refuge with a nervous Sid and a bemused Kay. Not a bit of this feels authentic, and soon Lennie grows as tiresome as Sid, abusing their hospitality while railing against capitalist complacency. And Sid becomes unbearable, flailing and stammering in his anxiety over harboring a criminal. (If I hadn’t felt duty-bound to finish this, I would have stopped watching after Episode 3, when Sid babbles about the prospect of going to jail: “I’m the type that gets sodomized. I’m fair-skinned and rather shapely.”)

The best, maybe only, idea fueling the humor in Crisis is that Lennie somehow becomes a catalyst of social awareness, her presence turning everyone but Sid into a budding militant. Their other houseguest, nerdy student Alan (John Magaro), is instantly smitten and begins dreaming of revolution. Kay’s book club begins quoting Chairman Mao and plotting civil disobedience. And Sid and Kay go on a perilous mission on Lennie’s behalf that spirals into middling slapstick unaided by Allen’s sluggish, static direction.

The comedy finally escalates in the very last episode, as everyone converges on the Munsinger home and it feels more Marx Brothers in its chaos than Karl Marx-lite. But even then, there’s no real payoff. To say this is minor Woody Allen is to give it too much credit. This is the highbrow equivalent of CBS giving Kevin James another sitcom without even worrying about what the show might be or if it’s any good. After a stupendous run this month that includes Transparent, One Mississippi and Fleabag, Amazon stumbles by overvaluing a brand name that no longer lives up to the billing.

Westworld premieres Sunday, Oct. 2, 9/8c, on HBO

Marvel’s Luke Cage premieres Friday, Sept. 30, on Netflix

Crisis in Six Scenes premieres Friday, Sept. 30, on Amazon