Friday, October 21, 2022

The Peripheral, on Prime

Flynne Fisher neither lives nor travels into the Matrix. She is in the real world when she puts on an experimental headset and she still is when it digitally transmits her nearly seventy years into the future. When she gets there, she is not remotely controlling an avatar. She has a physically constructed peripheral. She thought she was testing a game, but the story she is playing will actually happen IRL. It will also reach back into the past (from the future’s perspective, or the very-near future to us) to target her and her family in creator Scott B. Smith’s The Peripheral, based on William Gibson’s novel, which premieres today on Prime Video.

Fisher is a gifted gamer, but she is too grounded in her day-to-day reality to retreat into cyberspace. However, she often ghost-games on her brother Burton’s behalf, when he has high-paying gigs. Technically, he was the one hired by a mysterious start-up to test-drive what the Burtons assume is a new VR headset, but she is the one who ventures into the “game.”

It feels really real in this somewhat-far future London, because it is. Initially, she enjoys the intrigue instigated by her in-world guide, Aelita West, but it takes a dark turn during her second visit—very dark. Fisher vows never to return, until she starts getting ominous warnings from Wilf Netherton, who claims to be from the future London she visited. It is a lot to swallow, but the hit squad that comes after her is pretty convincing. Fortunately, Burton and his veteran drinking buddies can protect her and their ailing mother in the short term, but she will have to work with Netherton in her future peripheral to figure out who is trying to kill them and why.

The broad strokes of
Peripheral might sound like cyberpunk in a familiar Matrix/World on a Wire kind of vein, but the details are very different. For one thing, there is sort of a time travel element. It is also weirdly timely, because the Russian oligarchs (“the Klept”) are one of the major factions vying for dominance in future London. That might be somewhat less likely now, after they were targeted with sanctions for supporting Putin’s war in Ukraine, but it was pretty darned insightful when Gibson’s novel was published in 2014.

The future London Fisher visits also looks really cool, in a way that is not a carbon copy of previous
Blade Runner-esque dystopian mega-cities. Smith and the rest of the writing staff also depict Burton Fisher and his fellow veterans with unusual sensitivity and empathy, particularly Conner Penske, a triple amputee, who is still a formidable foe to fight. Understandably, the potential of peripherals will hold interest for him.

Still, the foundation of the series is the central sibling relationship, which Chloe Grace Moretz and Jack Reynor develop quite compellingly. They truly could pass for siblings and both convincingly sound and carry themselves like natives of border state hill country. Neither is a dumb hillbilly—quite the contrary, but they are definitely the products of their hardscrabble environment.

Moretz has immediate sibling rapport with Reynor, but she develops some intriguingly ambiguous, potentially romantic chemistry with Gary Carr’s Netherton over the course of the first six episodes (out of eight) provided for review. Carr definitely follows in the tradition of hardboiled dystopian anti-heroes (starting with Lemme Caution in
Alphaville), but his Dickensian backstory adds a lot of complexity to the character, while illuminating the social divisions of future London.

The entire ensemble is quite strong, including J.J. Field, who chews the scenery with panache, as Russian oligarch Lev Zubov. Eli Goree takes Penske to some dark places, but it is far from a one-note performance. He also shows off some very satisfying action chops (especially given his character’s circumstances). Plus, T’Nia Miller gives viewers quite an intriguing puppet-master villainess, as Cherise Nuland, the director of “The Institute,” one of the other major competing powers in 2099 London.

So far,
Peripheral is one of the more successful cyberpunk productions since maybe Polder, which very few people saw—and it must be the best Gibson adaptation to date. It is a great showcase for Moretz, but it also surrounds her with interesting supporting players. Enthusiastically recommended, The Peripheral starts streaming today (10/21) on Prime.