Aaron Yap examines how cyber thriller Mr. Robot manages to balance captivating storytelling with authentic tech-geekery, and give us a new breed of shuffling television superhero.
Blackhat almost got it right. Released earlier this year, Michael Mann’s moody techno-thriller sought to provide as realistic a portrayal of cyber-terrorism and hacking as possible and proved to be accurate enough that Google’s Security Princess endorsed it.
So while it might not qualify to join the company of those goofy, derided relics of the genre – The Net, Hackers, Swordfish are but a few of Hollywood’s hacking movie embarrassments – the film nevertheless failed to meet the basic requirements of narrative engagement. At worse, it was dull and overly studied, emanating the unmistakable stink of an old man labouring to keep up with the times.
Achieving this balance of captivating storytelling and authentic tech-geekery is an on-going issue with screen hacking which Mr. Robot seems to have – to quote the show itself – successfully “de-bugged”. Developed by Sam Esmail from a script intended for a feature, Mr. Robot has the smarts to appeal beyond the limited spectacle of hacking, that is to say, the inherent visual flatness of the act: a character typing furiously on a computer, us watching on as a bunch of code appear on screen.
Mr Robot. avoids a gimmick that Blackhat is definitely guilty of: virtually transporting us into a computer’s hard-drive, and funneling our perspective through a neon-lit maze of wiring and circuitry, because apparently, this is what happens when hacking occurs. Can anyone relate to that? What this mostly reinforces is that for all the powerful tech savvy that hacking represents, its visual analogs have progressed little since the days of Tron and WarGames.
Mr. Robot realises the key isn’t so much visually representing hacking – that’s not to say the show isn’t visually arresting, it definitely is – but examining what exactly is ticking behind the tech. As a character says, “Our encryption is the real world”. Throughout this stunningly assured first season, the show constantly frames its jargon-heavy dialogue – maybe the most techno-babbly on TV since the underrated data-sifting spy drama Rubicon – against populist themes and an eerily current setting that references everything from Occupy Wall Street to the Ashley Madison hack.
It’s a story about our collective enslavement to social media and capitalist systems. It’s a story about challenging notions of normalcy. It’s a story about a son haunted by the death of his father. It’s a story about the underdog rising up to the untouchable one percenters. In effect, it’s the true 21st century superhero saga that we need more than anything from the Marvel stable.
Funnily enough, Mr. Robot’s primary superpower is extracted from the same age-old, very tech-free source that con artists have always exploited: ourselves. By cultivating an online persona where we willingly share personal data, we invariably place our lives in the crosshairs of someone like the show’s protagonist, New Yorker Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) –meek cybersecurity engineer by day, vigilante hacker by night – who’s able to scrutinise our behaviour in such minutiae that it could be processed into fodder for extortion.
Mr. Robot posits that hacking isn’t just how well you can write code, but also judge character. “I see the worst in people”, says Elliot, whose thorough combing of Facebook for character flaws, like his psychiatrist’s dating history or a dim-witted co-worker’s musical tastes, gives the show a psychological kick that thrills like the prep stages of any caper.
Elliot has bigger fish to fry though. Spurred on by the slippery appearances of the titular character (Christian Slater), the scruffy leader of hacker group fsociety, he’s enmeshed in a season-long plot to cripple the largest conglomerate in the world, E-Corp (or “Evil Corp” as everyone calls it).
Perhaps the aspect that strikes me most about Mr. Robot is how unafraid it is to completely plunge into Elliot’s unreliable, morphine-addled psyche. His near-constant voice-over plays a predominant role, linking his socially inept, barely articulate external self with a busy, frantic, misanthropically ranting mind that’s somewhere on the autistic spectrum.
Malek’s casting is perfect, a crucial element in making the show as intriguing and watchable as it is. His bug-like, hoodie-obscured features suggests a shifty, calculating nocturnal reptile waiting to attack from its underground lair when you least expect (one has to wonder what exactly Mann saw in Thor that screamed “hacker”). Camping in his head for ten episodes may not be for everyone, but Malek delivers one of those great, out-of-nowhere-Tatiana Maslany-type TV performances.
For a novice showrunner, Esmail demonstrates a meticulous, consistent vision that’s similarly impressive. Though he only wrote and directed a portion of the first season, and has openly cited influences (Taxi Driver, Fight Club, Stanley Kubrick), the entire thing looks and feels like it’s unadulterated nerd-fantasy puree freshly poured out of his brain.
It’s one of the more unusual-looking shows out there, featuring often-static, off-kilter compositions that tend to position the characters at the bottom edge of the frame to heighten unease and paranoia. The soundtrack is killer too, able to accommodate Tangerine Dream-like synth noodling, Beethoven and Len’s ‘Steal My Sunshine’ in a single episode without seeming ostentatious or arch.
Mr. Robot is essentially a descendant of the slow-burn conspiracy thrillers of the ‘70s, but rewired with the pitch-black future-is-now satire of Black Mirror into one wild, brilliant, exhilarating trip. Plug_in.dat.
Currently enjoying anti-rom-com You’re the Worst… Described as an adult version of hide and seek, Channel 4’s real-life fugitive reality series Hunted sounds incredible, challenging 14 contestants to disappear while a team of detectives are tasked to find them… The A-Team is getting remade at Fox… Lost co-showrunner Carlton Cuse is working on a series for Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan… up next for Steven Soderbergh is an experimental, interactive choose-your-own-adventure HBO project called Mosaic, can’t wait…
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