Skip to main content

The world is a dangerous place, Elliot, not because of those who do evil but because of those who look on, and do nothing.

Mr. Robot
Season One

(SPOILERS) With all the accolades proclaiming Mr. Robot the best new show of the year, the tale of a self-styled “vigilante hacker by night and regular cyber security worker by day”, intent on bringing down E/Evil Corp, the largest conglomerate in the world (as opposed to multinational Comcast, the 2014 “worst company in America” which owns the USA Network, home of Mr. Robot), I expected something a little more substantial than a refitted Fight Club, “refreshed” with trendy (well, a few years old) references to Occupy, Anonymous/hacking incidents and a melange of pop cultural signposts from the last fifteen years. There are times when the show feels entirely suffused with its abundant derivations, rather than developing into its own thing, its lead character’s pervasive alienation a direct substitute for Edward Norton’s Narrator. And yet, it has a lot going for it, and the season concludes at a point (creator Sam Esmail’s end of first act) where it has the potential to divest itself of its rather suffocating trappings and strike out as its own thing.


I hope it does. The last three episodes, even though they include the entirely obvious reveal that Mr Robot (Christian Slater), the leader of hacker group F Society, is Elliot (Rami Malek), break some intriguing new ground, pushing to a point past the end of Fight Club (in which Project Mayhem is to eradicate all debt, Elliot’s goal here). Perhaps those who have been able to wholly embrace the show don’t have David Fincher’s movie in their heads as an overpowering cultural signifier, but Esmail feeds off it so overtly (even going so far as to include a version of The Pixies’ Where is My Mind?) that to my mind it ultimately detracts from the material, rather than feeling like playful homage. The elements that strike out on their own come late, that Mr Robot is a simulacrum of Elliot’s father, and more strikingly, that Darlene (Carly Chaikin) is Elliot’s sister.


Outstanding as Malek is as Elliot, his character is something of an indiscriminate catchall for societal woes and pop cultural references, a Morose Paranoid Dream Geek filtered through the undiscerning USA Network strainer. He’s demonstrably socially awkward, definitely on the Asperger’s spectrum, shunning physical contact, but as a TV show here he immediately beds his neighbour (Frankie Shaw’s Shayla, a likeable presence, unfortunately exiting the series too early) at the merest snort of some morphine (Elliot’s equivalent of getting pissed).


The show is very well directed, keenly aware of how much it is presenting subjective states, and includes a fine soundtrack from Mac Quayle, but this mostly amounts to window dressing. Fincher’s movie had subversive intent and became a cult phenomenon following its disappointing cinema run (said adulation was given to frequent misinterpretation and misidentification). Mr. Robot is too studied, too frequently a mash-up of others’ ideas (Esmail name checks Taxi Driver as an inspiration for the narration, but really you need to go back to Fight Club again); the second episode overtly references JFK, early Angelina Jolie crap-but-fun pic Hackers appears in the fourth, Slater says of Pulp Fiction in the ninth “Never heard of it” (‘90s nostalgia, huh?)  and the last episode even pulls a Network


There’s also the obligatory referencing the world as a virtual reality creation (The Matrix, with Mr Robot as Morpheus). Sometimes the show is just trying too hard, or perhaps not hard enough (in 1.7, where Elliot sees his office workers with signs round the necks, expressing their inner truths). It has yet to develop into a show where the references are side salad rather than the main meal (Joss Whedon was successful at this, even if he was and is hostage to over-referencing pop culture, such that all his characters sound the same).


It’s indebtedness to American Psycho (and House of Cards) plays out less overtly and more twistedly than the main plotline, however, with Martin Wallstrom’s Tyrell (Blade Runnner) Wellick’s senior VP of Technology at E Corp a less ruthlessly efficient Patrick Bateman. Wallstrom’s blue-eyed, sculptured veneer quickly proves to be a crumbling façade, as we see him venting his aggression on homeless people for being passed over for promotion (the closest it gets to an actual Fight Club), and his indebtedness to a steely partner (the unreal looking Stephanie Corneliussen,who offers a particularly striking and strange performance; just check out the street scene in the final episode) have a vital spark, and his interactions with co-workers at Evil Corp, particularly Scott Knowles (Brian Stokes Mitchell) the incumbent CTO, are electric. 


The whole plotline leading from the unnerving Knowles dinner date to Tyrell strangling Scott’s wife (Michele Hicks) on the roof of the E building is superbly sustained, keeping the viewer from pinning down just where it is heading. Notably, Tyrell ultimately aids Elliot for reasons of revenge, which is also Elliot’s less than noble principle motivating factor.


While the corporate intrigue intrigues, and Elliot’s enervated episodes are diverting, there’s a lot of padding in these ten episodes. In particular, Angela (Portia Doubleday), Elliot’s best pal never has an arc worth sustaining, be it in respect of her louse of a boy friend Ollie (Ben Rappaport) or her attempt to persuade former CTO Terry Colby (Bruce Altman, an excellent portrayal of executive indifference) to testify in the toxic waste lawsuit that did for her mother and Eilliot’s father.


Likewise, while Frankie Shaw’s presence is winning and Elliot Villar (as Fernando Vera, Shayla’s drug dealer) is suitably unhinged, this side never feels more than sub-Breaking Bad filler (reaching its zenith, or nadir, if you will with 1.6’s prison break). Elliot’s visits to his shrink (Gloria Reuben) serve to emphasise the extent of his behaviour (“Her radar needs fixing” he tells us, deciding it is appropriate for her duplicitous ex to reveal all to her), but do little for her character and prove to be no more instructive than his denigrating the lowly office worker in 1.5 (“The few people who feel obliged to go to your funeral would probably be annoyed and leave as early as possible”).


One area the show might develop is the extent to which Elliot stands in for the surveillance state; the show doesn’t really have much to say of this aspect, but Elliot personifies that force, habitually breaks into the systems of everyone he comes into contact with and snooping on them without restraint (Ed Snowden commented that the tech in the show is “more accurate than what you usually see on TV”). He’s the hero of the piece, who hacks for a better world (pretty much the argument of the NSA), and one with a God complex requiring him to take punitive steps against those who threaten him or his  (pretty much the attitude of the NSA; “He can’t be allowed to exist any more” Elliot says of Fernando).


It’s in the last episode, and more especially the post-credits scene that the most intriguing element of Esmail’s scenario lands. Whiterose (D B Wong) the trans woman representing hacker group The Dark Army, instrumental in bringing off the big E Corp hack, now dressed as a man, meets with E Corp CEO Phillip Price (Michael Christopher, recently very good playing the paedophile priest in Ray Donovan, whose performance here as an unnervingly gracious and upbeat sociopath might be the show’s standout). Price indicates that he knows who is responsible for the hack, and will deal with him, but the darkened, formal setting is suggestive of arcane deeds and general chicanery. Is Whiterose just another face of the Illuminati (The Dark Army, like a true morally compromised corporation, will “hack for anyone”)? Are the apparent opposite poles these two occupy nothing of the sort (following, on a less all-consuming scale, the conspiracy-minded claim that the Cold War was merely a smoke screen and nothing to get worked up about), such that any development is ultimately foreseen and controlled?


After all, if Elliot succeeds and debt is reset who will rise from the ashes with a shiny new system and shiny new (lack of) controls? The same individuals as before, with anarchists merely serving their agenda in the long game. That is, unless an entirely new model can usurp the untouchables’ place and status. Prior to this, Price invokes some of the more out-there aspects of conspiracy lore, dismissing the perpetrators of the hack as not being aliens, Zeus or zombies; “Whoever’s behind this, they’re just people”. It remains to be seen how far down the rabbit hole the show is willing to go, but it could be a lot of fun if it goes for broke.


Of course, that would lead to a very nihilistic text, but it might at least be one that justifies Matt Weiner tag of a TV show with the “first truly contemporary anti-corporate message”. Mr. Robot needs to make that kind of leap if it’s to be more than just another fashionable, zeitgeisty show sprinkled with references to Steve Jobs making billions off the backs of children, election rigging, hating Facebook, how “money hasn’t been real since we got off the gold standard”, and swipes at the bailout (“The White House will protect everyone’s money”) and Ashley Madison, “Is he drinking Starbucks?” A show that has its cake and eats it through being replete with quirky contemporary self-gratifying (essential pro-consumerist) characterisations and foibles, not really following the line through to its conclusion.


It would be a shame if Mr. Robot ended up more like the Darlene character, who can only see the immediate consequence and fireworks, but there’s a tendency for series with subversive potential (Channel 4’s Utopia) to become distracted by their own stylistic idiosyncrasies, rather than furthering the ideas they laid claim to in the first place, the ones that made them so refreshing. Mr. Robot has a chance to hit that ground in its second run; hopefully it will make the most of it.








Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I added sixty on, and now you’re a genius.

The Avengers 4.3: The Master Minds
The Master Minds hitches its wagon to the not uncommon Avengers trope of dark deeds done under the veil of night. We previously encountered it in The Town of No Return, but Robert Banks Stewart (best known for Bergerac, but best known genre-wise for his two Tom Baker Doctor Who stories; likewise, he also penned only two teleplays for The Avengers) makes this episode more distinctive, with its mind control and spycraft, while Peter Graham Scott, in his third contribution to the show on the trot, pulls out all the stops, particularly with a highly creative climactic fight sequence that avoids the usual issue of overly-evident stunt doubles.

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Where is the voice that said altered carbon would free us from the cells of our flesh?

Altered Carbon Season One
(SPOILERS) Well, it looks good, even if the visuals are absurdly indebted to Blade Runner. Ultimately, though, Altered Carbon is a disappointment. The adaption of Richard Morgan’s novel comes armed with a string of well-packaged concepts and futuristic vernacular (sleeves, stacks, cross-sleeves, slagged stacks, Neo-Cs), but there’s a void at its core. It singularly fails use the dependable detective story framework to explore the philosophical ramifications of its universe – except in lip service – a future where death is impermanent, and even botches the essential goal of creating interesting lead characters (the peripheral ones, however, are at least more fortunate).

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

He's a wild creature. We can't ask him to be anything else.

The Shape of Water (2017)
(SPOILERS) The faithful would have you believe it never went away, but it’s been a good decade since Guillermo del Toro’s mojo was in full effect, and his output since (or lack thereof: see the torturous wilderness years of At the Mountains of Madness and The Hobbit), reflected through the prism of his peak work Pan’s Labyrinth, bears the hallmarks of a serious qualitative tumble. He put his name to stinker TV show The Strain, returned to movies with the soulless Pacific Rim and fashioned flashy but empty gothic romance Crimson Peak (together his weakest pictures, and I’m not forgetting Mimic). The Shape of Water only seems to underline what everyone has been saying for years, albeit previously confined to his Spanish language pictures: that the smaller and more personal they are, the better. If his latest is at times a little too wilfully idiosyncratic, it’s also a movie where you can nevertheless witness it’s creator’s creativity flowing untrammelled once mo…

The aliens are not coming, just so you know.

The X-Files 11.1: My Struggle III
(SPOILERS) Good grief. Have things become so terminal for Chris Carter that he has to retcon his own crap from the previous season, rather than the (what he perceived as) crap written by others? Carter, of course, infamously pretended the apocalyptic ending of Millennium Season Two never happened, upset by the path Glen Morgan and James Wong, left to their own devices, took with his baby. Their episode was one of the greats of that often-ho-hum series, so the comedown was all the unkinder as a result. In My Struggle III, at least, Carter’s rewriting something that wasn’t very good in the first place. Only, he replaces it with something that is even worse in the second.

I'm going to open an X-file on this bran muffin.

The X-Files 11.2: This
(SPOILERS) Glen Morgan returns with a really good idea, certainly one with much more potential than his homelessness tract Home Again in Season 10, but seems to give up on its eerier implications, and worse has to bash it round the head to fit the season’s “arc”. Nevertheless, he’s on very comfortable ground with the Mulder-Scully dynamic in This, who get to spend almost the entire episode in each other’s company and might be on the best form here since the show came back, give or take a Darin.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…