Chloe Grace Moretz stars in this SF tale.
Almost a year ago, the big news in my hometown of Marshall was that a production company from Amazon Prime Video was here filming a series. This week The Peripheral, a science fiction thriller based on a 2014 novel by William Gibson, debuted on the streaming service, sending our little town into a legitimate tizzy. Much of the population watched the show just to see familiar locations around town—the music venue known as The Depot turned into a dive bar, an old warehouse turned into a 3D print shop where the heroine works, local roads and the main bridge over the French Broad River as backdrop.
William Gibson, of course, is the author of the groundbreaking Neuromancer (1984). He coined the term "cyberspace" for "widespread, interconnected digital technology" in his short story "Burning Chrome" (1982) and expanded on the concept in award-winning novels in which his protagonists are biologically hard-wired to be connected to (and interacting in) that virtual reality. So, films like THE MATRIX, TRON and so on, all owe their foundational ideas to Gibson.
In The Peripheral, our heroine, Flynne (Chloe Grace Moretz), is working a dead-end job at a 3D print shop in a small town in NC, living with her mother (Melinda Page Hamilton) who is blind and suffering a brain tumor and her military veteran brother, Burton (Irish actor Jack Reynor of MIDSOMER). Her brother supplements their income by competing in virtual reality games, but Flynne is more talented. (In a nod to the recognized misogyny of the gaming world, Flynne never competes under her own name and avatar, but always as Burton’s male avatar.) So, when a Colombian corporation comes calling asking for someone to test their new VR system, it’s Burton they contact, thinking he’s the one who has reached the highest gaming level. They offer big bucks for the trial, so Burton persuades Flynne to step in for him.
When she puts on the headset, she’s transported to the London of 2099. The CGI here is worth watching for, with glittering lights, bright costumes, huge classical statues that at first seem to be projected in holograms across the city (but on closer observation are actually structures suspended in air), and so on. But, of course, neither Flynne nor those of us watching at home can figure out what is going on in this dazzling future, or why it seems so real, or why she’s being asked to do what she’s asked to do without question (kidnap a woman on the orders of one “Aelita” (Charlotte Riley), who then disappears).
Back home in 2032 NC, Burton and Flynne have attracted the malevolent interest of the local bad guy, Corbell Pickett (Louis Herthum) and his gang, for reasons that aren’t yet exactly clear beyond pure meanness. She has to buy her mother’s drugs from them because she can’t afford the local pharmacy, but even their price is too steep until Burton’s disabled military buddy Conner (ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI’s Eli Goree) shows up to threaten a suicidal shoot-out to save her.
After Flynne spends a couple of sessions in future London, most of which is admittedly pretty confusing, a mysterious organization called the Research Institute headed by an exotic Cherise Nuland (T’Nia Miller) puts out a contract on the dark web to eliminate the one person who might know where Aelita is. Don’t ask me how, but this results in a pitched battle at Burton and Flynne’s home in the woods. Fortunately, Burton’s former military buddies are drinking with him around the campfire when it goes down. All are linked via haptic implants a la Neuromancer and manage to protect Flynne and Mom in the house for quite a while but still might lose the battle without the help of Conner who shows up late in the game to save the night.
I will say I was mostly lost during the first episode and distracted by some monumental rookie mistakes on the science fiction tech side. (More on that later.) But by the second episode, the story and characters had started to sort themselves out, and I had begun to be invested in both Flynne and Burton. I’d begun to care about them and what happened to them. Part of this is due to the authenticity of their setting, which is handled with care and respect (which seldom happens with regard to Appalachia), and their accents, which are decent (which almost never happens with regard to our part of the country). The London setting and storyline is less relatable, not because it’s set in the future (I’m a science fiction fan, after all; I can put myself there), but because the worldbuilding and characters are less defined so far. I’ll reserve judgment on that part of the story until I see more.
Now there were a few distractions in the first episode, as I mentioned. As science fiction writers, we can all testify to how hard it is to write near-future SF. Mind you, I don’t think this is a problem William Gibson had; I think it’s a problem his adapters (writer Scott B. Smith, executive producers Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan of Westworld, the series) are having. In the near-future, technology is always outrunning the average writer’s imagination. Things are just moving too fast.
For example, in The Peripheral, the show’s creators have Flynne’s lower class family using a beat-up Roomba to clean their house. Remember, this is only ten years in the future. But theirs is not a ten-year-old Roomba, which any self-respecting poor family might pick up at a yard sale and keep together with duct tape and ingenuity. No, this is a futuristic Roomba that hovers! A hovering Roomba wouldn’t pick up a damn thing—it’s a vacuum cleaner, not a flying saucer for cats! And the disabled Conner uses a unicycle that connects with a motorcycle to make a motorized trike. Why? When four wheels are so much more stable and can even now be engineered to climb stairs. This is what happens when visually oriented filmmakers write SF. The actual science fiction ideas get lost in the desire to look cool and “science fiction-y.”
Still, there is much to like about The Peripheral
beyond the fact that it’s set in my hometown. Look past the bloopers and the
flawed first episode to give it chance. (New episodes of The Peripheral air Fridays on Amazon Prime Video.)