Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) is a Hollywood dream of a genius, a young man who’s tormented and introverted in a sexily photogenic fashion that invites the audience’s self-flattering identification—the kind of guy who women are usually thinking of when they claim to be attracted to nerds or bookish loner types. Elliot is insane, but that’s easy to overlook, as Mr. Robot frequently does, until its acknowledgement is necessary for springing twists that are intentionally discernable from the first episode.
Our hero unreliably narrates Mr. Robot, speaking directly to us as if we’re another of his hallucinations. It’s a witty touch, though it’d be wittier if it weren’t so nakedly cribbed from Fight Club. Elliot explains to us his job as a fix-it drone at a digital security firm, Allsafe, whose existence is dependent on the patronage of an über-conglomerate called Evil Corporation, which stands in for all the real companies that trash the environment, bribe mercenary congressmen and women, employ global slave labor, and all-around profit from flushing the world down the toilet.
But Elliot has a secret identity: He’s a brilliant hacker extraordinaire who plays Robin Hood in his spare time, exposing exploiters to the public for who they truly are. Elliot’s masterpiece is intended to be the destruction of Evil Corp.’s financial records, which are so vast as to comprise a significant portion of the world’s constraining debt system. We’re told that this act of sabotage could hit a restart button on social inequality. Elliot’s collaborators are a group of spunky techno-wizards who’re led by Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), the Morpheus to Elliot’s Neo, the Tyler Durden to his narrator.
Mr. Robot dutifully namechecks the hot topics necessary for fashioning a hip, relevant takedown of the contemporary surveillance state, which is presided over by a barely obscured oligarchy that relies on debt and media distraction as means for keeping the exploited dazed and marginalized. Julian Assange is referenced early on, as is the principle of the “one percent.” Apple, Google, and Occupation Wall Street receive their respective condemnations or shout-outs.
The season’s climax rues the corporatization of Times Square (ripping off Vanilla Sky in the process), and, by extension, much of the civilized world. There’s a post-coital lament over the disappearance of the middle class, as lovers look down upon a vast NYC cityscape from a wealthy high-rise. A character is mocked for liking “George Bush’s decision points” on Facebook. Most anyone who fails to embrace poverty as a religious rejection of The Man and his baubles is equated to a cipher.
Mr. Robot’s patchwork edginess, so belabored and desperate, is awfully eager to please. Like Fight Club, or other self-pleased fantasies spun from a place of self-conscious privilege, the series also resents “the common man” nearly as much as the overruling entities it villainizes do. It’s beyond the program to exhibit much empathy for the intense terror and need that poorness breeds (thusly yielding complacency), because it’s preoccupied with fetishizing poverty as a no-stakes fashion statement.
Elliot is broke and lives in an empty hovel of an apartment, but the setting is so relentlessly art-directed (abounding in rich Fincher-ish greens and blacks) as to evade a visceral impression of squalor. This is the sort of sprawling domicile that wannabe aspiring artists, who have never actually wanted for a meal, dream of living in upon their arrival in a big city. And it comes complete with an obliging gorgeous neighbor, Shayla (Frankie Shaw), who is, of course, in love with Elliot, batting him pixie eyes while selling him designer drugs at a reasonable price.
Elliot’s unoriginal alienation, complete with hacker hoodie, signifies that he Gets It. His insanity is a tired metaphor for the hangover that springs from a disengagement from consumptive mass culture. The possibility that Elliot and his rebels might merely subscribe to a different form of obsolescence isn’t broached until the promising season finale. Until then, creator Sam Esmail is only occasionally willing to interrogate this irony, most distinctively when Elliot breaks into one of Evil Corp.’s compounds, humiliating a tour guide for the sake of his mission. The guide (Tom Riis Farrell) is so palpably hurt as to deny the audience its enjoyment of Elliot’s charade.
But Esmail often pulls back from emotional risk, reveling in clichés at a stultifying clip. Every character is a thin type, whether it’s the hacker with sensitive eyes, the tolerant lifelong best friend with pouty lips, or the white-collar sociopaths who are eventually revealed to reside atop Evil Corp.’s food chain. When an exec (Bruce Altman) is asked about his involvement in a toxic waste scandal, he chides the questioner for assuming that his kind are master villains cackling and smoking cigars, though he subsequently tells a story that’s equally reductive. (Altman, though, has a good moment when he says that grudges don’t exist in the corporate world because money’s money.)
Mr. Robot does go down easily as derivative designer art, especially as Esmail gradually backgrounds the Fincher hero-worship, settling into a corporate espionage melodrama that’s steeped in nostalgia for the pop culture of the 1980s, ’90s, and the early aughts as represented by Tangerine Dream, the Cure, Pump Up the Volume, Quentin Tarantino, The Matrix, The Sopranos, and Requiem for a Dream. Mac Quayle’s score has lonely, ostentatiously synth-y vibrancy. Characters are often crowded into the bottom corners of the frame, appearing to regard the audience, rather than one another, in a blunt but effective metaphor for estrangement. A drug deal that’s pointless to the overarching narrative steals from, and tops, the famed tracking shot from True Detective’s equally over-praised first season.
And that chic office-noir imagery is awfully easy on the eyes, and wittily orchestrated by cinematographer Tod Campbell so as to feature as few humans as possible in any given setup, fostering an impression of insidious sleekness that emulates the “social” devices being peddled by the corporate bad guys, in this series as well as in real life. But one wonders if this resonance is even intentional, as the shots might exist simply because they look cool. Coolness is ultimately what Mr. Robot’s peddling.
Mr. Robot’s first season looks and sounds wonderful on Blu-ray. The noir colors are operatically menacing, with the greens, blacks, silvers, and blues standing out. Skin, clothing, and set textures are richly detailed, particularly the neon lights of the abandoned arcade that serves as a pivotal backdrop. The crisply expensive suits are another visual highlight. The soundtrack’s dominated by Mac Quayle’s synth-ish score, and complemented by a variety of pop classics, all of which have been mixed with nuance and muscle. The diegetic effects are exhilaratingly immersive, from the sounds of bustling city streets and fast-food joints to the tranquil aural realms enjoyed by the show’s evil rich and famous. This is a show pony that’s designed to be played loud, in keeping with Mr. Robot’s thunderous sense of heartbreak.
A few deleted scenes, a gag reel, and a short featurette about the making of the series. Nothing special.
Mr. Robot’s uneven first season evolves from a preachy David Fincher rip-off into an engagingly trashy soap opera. This Blu-ray transfer, however, is consistently gorgeous.