One of my favorite periods of film is the urban decay, crime-ridden, and dystopian films of the 1970s. It is hard to describe that moment in time to kids nowadays. The Vietnam War and Richard Nixon had put the country into a malaise. The economy was transitioning from manufacturing to service with all sorts of disruptions. The racism and disruption of the 60s had metastasized into some truly ugly street situations in the major cities of the Northeast. Hope was gone, cynicism and fear was in. The films of the day like Taxi Driver, Midnight Cowboy, Death Wish, and my personal favorite The Warriors caught the seedy grime, grunge, and despair of street life. It was real and visceral in a way a lot of modern cinema isn’t. David Fincher’s films (Seven, Fight Club and The Game) capture the same vibe but few other people come close – I think you had to live through the time to really capture it.
At least I thought that way till I watched USA’s Mr. Robot.
Mr. Robot, a really odd title until you find out the in-show reason for it, is a show about a young hacker – Rami Malek in a career-launching role as Elliot Anderson – and a collective of anarchists and misfits which he ends up hooking up. They are gearing up for the huge hack and need his particular skills. There are a couple of side storylines, one involving a friend of Elliot’s and her career travails as a PR specialist and the other involving an uber-ruthless Corporate shark who isn’t above getting his hands dirty American Psycho style.
The first star of the show is Rami Malek. I don’t think I have ever seen a character like him on television. On one hand, he is a profoundly damaged young man. He is a completely unreliable narrator who is plagued by social anxiety disorder, depression, delusions and a drug addict to boot – you don’t know if what you’re seeing on the screen is ever really happening the way he is telling it and the show isn’t afraid to mess with you on that point. On the other hand, he is a preternaturally gifted hacker, possesses a skewed but real moral code, and he is intensely loyal to his few friends. Malek’s performance is the most mesmerizing role on screen since Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal a few years back.
The second star of the show is the setting itself. The story is set in the modern day with the big bad villain being a fictitious megacorporation – But there is patina of decay which covers everything in the show from the streets to corporate boardrooms. Sometimes it is a physical thing like a broken down Midway at an amusement park. More often than not it is a moral decay which casts a deep pall over everything it touches. When I watch the show, it really reminds me of those favorite 70s films I watched except the decay isn’t violent street crime, it is the deep corruption of unconstrained capitalism and the wreckage it can cause. Agree with it or not, it is Occupy Wall Street meets Midnight Cowboy meets Travis Bickle – and I love it.
There are plenty of others things to love about the show – the realistic portrayal of hacking, the riveting performance of a grungy Christian Slater playing a grown up version of his character from Pump up the Volume, the weird and kooky personalities of the anarchist and their sub-culture – there is a reason this show is critically acclaimed and cleaning up the awards shows. If you want to see a grown up show full of interesting characters doing interesting things, this is one is worth the watch.