Reviews, Screen, TV

Mr Robot TV review: A Fight Club lookalike that’s creepy, techy and visually audacious

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Among the most hyped television programs of the year is creator Sam Esmail’s jittery hacker drama Mr Robot, which casts a bug-eyed computer genius (Rami Malek) opposite a mysterious leader of a band of keyboard-wielding warriors — the titular character, played by Christian Slater. The entire 10-part series is available to stream in Australia on Presto.
What’s the bet Esmail has watched Fight Club? Or read the book? His show, championed by critics and adored by fans online, owes so much to David Fincher’s film and author Chuck Palahniuk’s novel I checked the credits for a mention (but didn’t find one).
The likeness Mr Robot shares with Palahniuk’s take-the-power-back doomsday anthem — which skewers Gen Y as a generation solely defined by consumerism — is remarkable. The show takes so many cues from Fight Club that it seems like a stretched-out remake; Tyler Durden’s fist-throwing thugs swapped out for a crew of geeks who bang keyboards instead of throwing around their fists.
Any serious critical consideration of Mr Robot needs to exist in this context, so let’s get the similarities out of the way first (more exist in spoiler land — these are ones that the show loads up front). Mr Robot and Fight Club share:
* A mentally unwell protagonist whose condition may jeopardise his comprehension of reality
Extensive voice over narration from said protagonist who speaks in an icy drawl, asks the audience rhetorical questions and contemplates his own sanity — aka an unreliable narrator
* A major supporting character who goads the lead, grousing about the evils of consumerism and demanding a call to arms
* Much talk of revolution and class disparity
* A plan to attack big corporations (here an evil conglomerate is simply referred to as ‘Evil Corp’)
* An erratic potential love interest who is dark-eyed and alternatively dressed (Carly Chaikin, playing Darlene, looks like she raided Helena Bonham Carter’s wardrobe)
 
I don’t think Mr Robot has any claim, in a narrative sense, to innovation or originality, but its story of morphine addict and crack hacker Elliot (Malek) does have a lot going for it.
On a purely visual level it is one of the most interesting television productions for some time. While the series was episodically directed (with seven directors) its distinct visual makeup is strikingly consistent — largely the work of cinematographer Tod Campbell, who shot eight out of ten episodes.
The actors are positioned in extreme vertical and horizontal positions on screen, often near the top or bottom or on either side. When plenty of space is left around them this has a hollowing effect, implying a world that is anything but theirs: they are isolated and vulnerable.
The technique is also used to create “shortsighting”, which refers to a minimal distance between the actors’ eyes and the edge of the frame. Mr Robot uses shortsighting a lot — even for shot-reverse-shots. This means conversations take place between two psychologically isolated frames of mind. Dialogue exchanges if structured in this way will never feel intimate. Closer than ever, the characters are speaking into a void.
The peak of the show’s prowess in terms of single images is probably a scene in the third episode (the eps are titled in the manner of file names; this one “eps1.3_da3m0ns.mp4”). It consists of a three minute shot matched to a throbbing techno soundtrack and coloured damply, with dark and musty grading.
Mr Robot drops Elliot off at a drug house. The camera follows him inside, where violent altercation switches from a blurry flash in the background to direct attack in the foreground. Studying the scene closely, it’s possible there are two cleverly camouflaged surreptitious edits. Not that it matters: this is interesting and audacious cinematography, more like something we associate with an experimental indie – an early-career Darren Aronofsky joint, perhaps – than a hit TV show.
It has become virtually a cliché to point out that much of the most interesting screen work these days is on television but there are still signs the wider industry hasn’t caught up. In an article published in July in Filmmaker Magazine, titled ‘TV is Not the New Film‘, writer Mike S. Ryan argued that telling a whole story from the point of view of an unreliable narrator “would be way too complicated to be carried through multiple TV episodes.”
Mr Robot demonstrates the extent to which that argument is tantamount to a lotta baloney. While the show’s storyline hardly breaks new ground, its enduring qualities almost certainly lie elsewhere. High-end television programs in the era of the new golden age are often most respected for their writing. Esmail’s creepy, techy mind-bender is memorable for form rather than content.

[box]Mr Robot is available on Presto in Australia[/box]

2 responses to “Mr Robot TV review: A Fight Club lookalike that’s creepy, techy and visually audacious

  1. I really tried to like I Robot but it just didn’t work for me. There is too much other good stuff available at the moment and not enough time to watch it all.

  2. Mr Robot was the Summers hot show .why are you critiquing about the show when the season is over ? You obviously didn’t watch the whole season or payed attention to the characters or show. If you did you would know Elliot is a morphine addict not crack addict. And Darlene was NOT a romantic prospect for Elliot far from it.( If you watched the whole season you would know she’s someone important in his life) I enjoyed this show immensely. this is coming from someone who thinks television has become a wasteland .the creator said all the fight club and breaking bad references is his way of tipping his hat to them for inspiration. I’m looking forward to 2nd season of Mr Robot .it’s the first time I’m looking forward to watch a television show..to bad it doesn’t come back to summer .

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