This review contains spoilers.
For a cyber-thriller set in 2015 New York, there’s something curiously anachronistic about the first episode of Mr Robot, a promising new ten-part drama starring Rami Malek and Christian Slater.
Unusually for this genre, it’s not the tech that feels as if it belongs to another time, but the ideology. Episode one’s monologues on disaffection, alienation, phoneyism, economic anarchy and evil conglomerates are drenched in Fight Club, The Matrix and American Psycho-era cynicism.
With his raised black hoodie, vacant good looks, withdrawn demeanour and counselling sessions, Mr Robot’s lead Elliot Alderson (Malek) even channels the hero of another turn-of-the-last-century cult favourite: Donnie Darko. Moving even further down the timeline, casting Christian Slater as a co-lead almost certainly knowingly takes the influences back to 1990’s Pump Up The Volume and 1988’s Heathers, and Slater’s anarchic, criminal mischief-makers characters, Hard Harry and J.D.
Mr Robot’s plot points may revolve around post-Millennial smartphones, social media accounts, the One Percent and the 2008 economic crisis, but its heart feels as if it belongs to an earlier time.
What heart, you might ask? This is a cynical piece of work from creator Sam Esmail, channelled through the narrative filter of cybersecurity technician by day, vigilante hacker by night, Elliot.
Elliot views the world as a prison, with corporate consumerism as humanity’s jailer. He’s medicated, socially phobic, paranoid, the product of an abusive childhood and a methadone habit. He’s not on Facebook. He has a goldfish named Qwerty. He says IRL in real life. His favourite film is Back To The Future II. In voiceover, Elliot unironically tells us things like “the world itself is just one big hoax”. Did I call him a Millennial Donnie Darko? Perhaps I meant Holden Caulfield.
If all that sounds unbearably callow to you, a brand of disaffection designed by committee, then Malek’s performance goes a long way to selling it. Elliot’s voiceover (he is Jack’s inflamed sense of rejection) isn’t as stifling as it could be either. Yes, it means that we’re told more than we’re shown—we hear “I’m very different”, “I’m awkward with people” before seeing any such thing—but it’s also used to add a layer of enjoyable satire and narrative uncertainty to the story (“Is this a delusion? Shit. I’m a schizo?”). Mostly it seems to be used for speed. Mr Robot arrives in a hurry to get going, and Elliot’s voiceover has us hit the ground running.
In true cyber-thriller style, actual running is absent from this first episode (which debuted online last month and has been picking up word-of-mouth ever since), with the tension and action coming from fingers rapidly tapping on a keyboard accompanied by a thrumming bassline.
The story combines an ongoing arc about the all-pervasive E-Corp (or Evil Corp, to give it its full satirical title), the target of underground hacking collective to which Elliot is drawn, with a subplot about exposing his psychologist’s boyfriend’s adultery.
The hackers, The F Society, are holed up in a quirky Coney Island headquarters. Other than Slater’s eponymous ‘Mr Robot’—the one who offers Elliot the red pill—the only hacker we meet is acerbic, retro-styled, chain-smoking Marla, oops, Darlene. She’s the yin to Elliot’s preppy co-worker and childhood friend Angela’s yang, a rootkit-coding thrift-store femme.
Prior to meeting The F Society, Elliot’s keyboard vigilantism establishes his moral core. Yes, he has no qualms about routinely invading the personal privacy of those around him (“I’ll hack him eventually, I always do”), giving him the power of information over them, but he mostly uses that power for good, exposing a local businessman as a child pornographer and warning off bad dates to ‘help’, as he sees it. To quote another late-nineties popular classic, it’s not right, but it’s okay.
The result is an intriguing tangle of ethical quandaries about information, power and imprisonment. Who are the bad guys, Mr Robot asks. And who are the really bad guys? Over the course of the next nine episodes (and a second already-confirmed season to reassure premature cancellation-phobics), we’re going to find out.
The chief selling point of Mr Robot is that it has something to say. Just because it’s the same something Fight Club had to say almost twenty years ago doesn’t lessen its attractiveness in an otherwise bland summer TV landscape. I’m going to follow the white rabbit. I hope you’ll join me.
Mr Robot continues on the USA Network next Wednesday at 10pm.
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