I fell in love with the science-fiction genre when my parents took me to watch Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park.” I probably made them exit the theater with my crying because I got scared by the dinosaurs. Later on, I began to obsess over those scientifically inaccurate creatures and tried to learn all about their historically accurate counterparts. But I don’t think the creature design and the CGI were the only reasons why I got scared or became obsessed with those prehistoric creatures. In my opinion, it was actually because of the amazing writing and character work done by Spielberg, Michael Crichton, David Koepp, Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, and Richard Attenborough. Hence, as the years went by and the genre exploded, I gravitated towards movies and shows that managed to marry spectacle with substance while staying away from those that looked like expensive light shows. The topic of today’s discussion, “The Peripheral,” is ambitious, dense, and heady. But is it filled with substance?
Disclaimer: This review of “The Peripheral” is based on the six episodes that have been provided to the press by Prime Video.
Produced and created by Scott Smith and based on the book of the same name by William Gibson, “The Peripheral” starts off in London in 2099, where a man named Wilf Netherton (Gary Carr) is looking for a woman named Aelita West (Charlotte Riley). In the Blue Ridge Mountains in 2032, there’s the brother-sister duo of Flynne Fisher (Chloë Grace Moretz) and Burton Fisher (Jack Reynor), who live with their ailing mother, Ella Fisher (Melinda Page Hamilton), in a remote home. Flynne pays the bills by working at a local 3D printing shop. Burton, who has sustained some kind of brain trauma from cybernetic implants that were installed in him during his U.S. Marine Corps days, does the same by playing VR video games. Since Flynne is better at said gaming than Burton, he asks her to break in a new VR headset that’s supposed to be the next level of gaming. But it turns out to be a window 70 years into the future, thereby putting the Fishers in the crosshairs of Wilf and the show’s apparent villain, Cherise (T’Nia Miller).
As mentioned in the title itself, the VFX, CGI, and SFX of “The Peripheral” are truly mind-blowing. The lengths that the artists, along with the creator, the production designer, art directors, and cinematographers, have gone to in order to truly make a futuristic London (that’s recuperating from an apocalypse) and an almost futuristic rural American town (that’s heading towards the apocalypse) is jaw-dropping. The quality of the robots with puzzle-shaped heads (or smooth with reflective surfaces), the gigantic statues piercing the cityscape, the reflective roads with directional pointers on them, the camouflaged cars, and basically every unrealistic thing you see on-screen seems very, very real. The sound design for every single device activating or deactivating is brilliant so that you have the full immersive experience of being in two kinds of futures. The score is alright. Not too exceptional and not too distracting. The costume design is alien but functional. You’ll probably need some time to get used to the unusually heavy color grading. Apart from that, this is an impeccably produced show.
However, the production value of a show doesn’t exactly guarantee good storytelling, does it? No, not at all. Credit where credit is due, “The Peripheral” tries to tackle a lot of topics. There’s healthcare, financial issues, the ethics of emotional manipulation via artificially installed cybernetic gizmos (which did remind me of “Spiderhead“), the complicated time-traveling shenanigans (it’s kind of like “Assassin’s Creed” but the characters go into the future instead of the past), and the question of whether humans are playing God by making androids and putting the souls of humans inside them (a little shade of “Blade Runner” there as well). And I won’t say they are being derivative exactly. Because originality is dead, and everything is a remix of a remix of a remix. But the problem arises when the characters become vessels for exposition or badly choreographed and horribly edited action sequences. There’s a sincere effort to focus on the relationship between the Fishers, the weird but endearing dynamic amongst Burton’s army friends, Flynne’s inner turmoil, Wilf’s search for Aelita, and the villains’ motivations. However, since nothing complements nothing, you’re left staring at the screen, hoping for something engaging to happen. Spoiler alert: nothing of that nature or magnitude happens.
Although the writing and character work are pretty bland in “The Peripheral,” the fact that its lead is Chloë Grace Moretz doesn’t help at all. Chloe has been in the business since 2005 and has worked with industry greats such as Ryan Reynolds, Marc Webb, Matthew Vaughn, Matt Reeves, Martin Scorsese, Tim Burton, and Antoine Fuqua. But despite having all this experience in the bag, she fails to be an impressionable protagonist. And it’s only amplified by the fact that actors like Carr, Reynor, Eli Goree, Charlotte Riley, JJ Feild, Adelind Horan, Alex Hernandez, Julian Moore-Cook, Katie Leung, Louis Herthum, and the great T’Nia Miller are knocking it out of the park in every single scene. At the cost of sounding repetitive, there’s no telling what someone would’ve brought to the table in Moretz’s place because the writing is of no help. However, telling the story from the perspective of any of the other protagonists or antagonists would have definitely made a huge difference because they are far more fascinating than Flynne or Moretz.
In conclusion, “The Peripheral” is a semi-decent watch. If you have any awareness about the state of VFX artists in the entertainment industry and you want to support what they’ve achieved here, you should watch the show. Stick through the opening and the end credits and give those people a shoutout so that they get more work in the future, along with better pay and residuals. The story, the cautionary tales, and the twists in this show won’t blow you away if you have seen a healthy number of sci-fi movies and shows. If you haven’t and you want to dip your toes into the genre, then this show isn’t a bad place to start. But please do some research about its influences and watch them as well to understand how spectacle and substance can be balanced. Because that’s certainly not something that’s happening in the first season of “The Peripheral.” If it gets a season 2, we can only hope that things go uphill from this point onwards.