Why Mr. Robot Is Fight Club’s Spiritual Successor

Feature Frances Roberts
7/13/2015 at 3:27AM

USA Network’s new series, Mr Robot, takes up Fight Club’s mantle, updating its anti-capitalist ire for the cyber age…

When Chuck Palahniuk was writing Fight Club, Larry Page and Sergey Brin were just PhD students cooking up a promising-looking dissertation project, Steve Jobs was still using a landline, and Mark Zuckerberg and Edward Snowden were swapping Pogs in the school playground. Probably.

Just as Rebel Without A Cause couldn’t have predicted Taxi Driver’s post-Vietnam disillusionment, and Taxi Driver in turn couldn’t have foreseen the ad-led consumerism that Palahniuk savaged in his debut novel, Fight Club had little notion that the world was just years away from a tech revolution that would endow corporations and governments with levels of intrusive power that make its diatribes against IKEA seem quaint by comparison.

Fight Club only had global consumerism and emasculation to rail against. Imagine Tyler Durden’s invective now, after Facebook, the 2008 financial crisis, PRISM…. If society had stripped away authentic experience to the extent that men arbitrarily pummelling each other was the only route back to individual freedom, what would Durden prescribe for a generation who spend their days stroking cartoon candy on tiny screens and communicating via the nuance of a thumbs up and down icons? The things we own ending up owning us? That almost sounds cosy compared to a world where we, and our privacy, are the product.

Had Palahniuk written Fight Club now, its anger would likely be directed somewhere other than Starbucks. Its sedition might aim at wider targets than rich restaurant patrons, unscrupulous car manufacturers and college drop-out store clerks. Project Mayhem wouldn’t just be blowing up credit card companies, it’d be spreading its chaos online.

In short, it might be Mr Robot’s fSociety.

Sam Esmail’s Mr Robot, currently airing on the USA Network, owes a huge debt to Palahniuk’s 1996 novel and moreover, to the David Fincher-directed film that followed. The series’ story of a disaffected cybersecurity technician who becomes involved with an anti-capitalist hacker group picks up where Fight Club left off thematically and stylistically.

There are such obvious points of comparison between the two that Mr Robot could perhaps be thought of as partly an homage to Fincher’s film. Front and centre is the series’ voiceover by lead Elliot (Rami Malek), which captures the same sense of paranoia and sardonicism as Edward Norton’s fast-talking Fight Club narration. Like Fincher’s film, Mr Robot uses its voiceover creatively. This is by no means lazy storytelling. Elliot’s narration is cut between dialogue to highlight irony and hypocrisy, and used as the acerbic punchline to visual jokes. It’s also wholly unreliable for a number of reasons—perhaps the closest Fight Club similarity of all.

Elliot’s narration also functions as a vehicle for lengthy, cynical state-of-society monologues. He castigates modern life for being corrupt and counterfeit, and modern people for “spamming each other with our running commentary of bullshit masquerading as insight, our social media faking as intimacy”. So far in the run, he hasn’t mouthed off about IKEA catalogues, but give the boy time.

That isn’t the only similarity in style either. Mr Robot’s pilot (directed by The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’s Niels Arden Oplev) uses montage, a stylistic choice mirroring James Haygood’s editing in Fight Club. The control exercised over Mr Robot’s framing, too, which plays with audience perspectives on what is and isn’t real, feels inspired in part at least by Jeff Cronenworth’s careful cinematography in Fincher’s film. The influence is by no means overdone—there are none of Fincher’s characteristic camera swoops out of keyholes and behind the back of refrigerators, for instance.

Content-wise, Fight Club’s Project Mayhem finds an equivalent in Mr Robot’s fSociety. Both are vigilante groups led by mysterious and charismatic individuals with the ultimate goal of causing financial chaos by erasing debt. Both seek to free ordinary people from the shackles of corporations and capitalism. The 1999 film used explosives to this end; the 2015 TV series uses coding.

That’s what makes Mr Robot an inheritor and not an imitator of 1999’s Fight Club. It’s a continuation in a very different world, entering areas that the film never could. The landscape for modern rebels and revolutionaries has changed fundamentally since Brad Pitt peed into that fancy soup. The fight against corporations has moved on from tirades against mass-produced coffee tables to battles over big data, surveillance and political freedoms.

After the foreclosures and tumbling economies of the last decade, debt has taken on new significance. As have vigilante collectives, or to give them another name, terrorist groups. From its Paper Street headquarters, Tyler Durden’s Project Mayhem (inspired by Palahniuk’s involvement with real-life pranksters, the Cacophony Society) trained the disaffected and disenfranchised to go forth and spread chaos. That means something different to what it did in 1999. To use a psychobabble term Tyler and Elliot would both almost certainly scoff at, it has more baggage.

Which is why it’s satisfying for Mr Robot to take up select of Fight Club’s themes so they can be examined in light of the last decade and a half. In Elliot, it’s provided us with a new anti-capitalist poster boy. A complicated, damaged figure, one who has no trouble crossing some boundaries but who struggles to engage socially.

This non-franchise, partial reboot of sorts shows us what elements of Fight Club might look like in 2015 without hurting our memory of the original. It also allows us to be told that story over multiple episodes (and seasons—creator Esmail envisages four or five ten-episode runs before Mr Robot reaches its pre-determined endpoint). Instead of a concentrated two hour bullet of sardonic nihilism, Mr Robot has time to show us the state of the world from several angles, playing with our perceptions all the while.

Mr Robot’s cyber-thriller story refreshes parts of a cult classic, blending them with original elements and genre inspirations. It may not overlap with Fight Club’s preoccupation with masculinity, and its hacking content gives it an altogether different identity, but it feels like the spiritual successor to Fincher’s film, fans of which should realise what a recommendation that is.