The greatest opening salvo for the Best New Show of 2015 has come from the USA Network. Who knew? The forgotten cable channel is putting its mark on the television landscape in a big way this Summer with Mr. Robot, a technically-savvy character study/hacker procedural that follows a vigilante named Elliot (the fantastic Rami Malek) as he hides in plain sight while playing cyber superhero.
Created by Sam Esmail, Mr. Robot is distinctive for a number of reasons. What has struck critics most is its devotion to hacker accuracy, but film geeks have likely also noticed the show bears a striking resemblance to many films, most notably Fight Club and the work of director David Fincher. Here's a breakdown of all Mr. Robot's Fight Club and Fincher connections:
1. The Unreliable Narrator - Fight Club rocked audiences in 1999 with a killer ending that destroys the veracity of everything The Narrator (Edward Norton) tells us up to that point. Mr. Robot takes a similar approach. We can't fully commit to Elliot as unreliable until the season is over. But here's what we do know: Elliot is a morphine addict who wonders if he might be schizophrenic. He talks to an "imaginary friend" (i.e the audience). If Fight Club taught us anything, it's that you can't trust a character like this. His motives may be pure, but his mind may betray him. Could Mr. Robot and fsociety be a fragmentation of his personality, like Tyler Durden was to the Narrator in Fight Club? Time will tell. (Side note: Fincher also adapted one of the great unreliable narrator novels of the past decade: Gone Girl.)
2. Breaking the Fourth Wall - Both Fight Club and Mr. Robot's narrators address the audience directly in voice-over and they both break the fourth wall by looking at the camera. The Narrator does it a lot in Fight Club, a clever mimic of the source novel's narrative and a way to hint at the film's big reveal. (Fincher uses the same trick on House of Cards, as Frank Underwood addresses the audience directly.) The decision adheres us to the characters, placing us firmly on their side despite whatever moral objections we may have to their behavior. Mr. Robot does the same thing. Elliot's actions are largely illegal, but we're by his side cheering him on.
3. Rebels with Causes - "I dream of saving the world, saving everyone from the Invisible Hand." Mr. Robot's hero has a different philosophy than Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), who wants to burn the world to wake people up from lives of apathy and advertising. But they're both marginalized by their respective causes. Elliot lives a life of solitude because he doesn't understand society and doesn't know how to fit in. He doesn't do Facebook, Instagram, or anything of the sort and he exposes the lies people tell every day by discovering the worst in them. In Fight Club, Tyler Durden helps the Narrator discover the truth about himself by cutting through the static. His message is one of controlled demolition and it materializes in the form of Project Mayhem. "The things you own end up owning you." Both Fight Club and Mr. Robot want to save us from what the characters have determined is wrong with the world.
4. Exposition - Many directors and writers abhor exposition as a shortcut to thinking, but Fincher often provides background by having his characters burst into information-laden soliloquies. That's how we know, in Fight Club, that "the best fat for soap comes from humans" and "you can swallow a pint of blood before you get sick." Mr. Robot does the same. The use of voice-over, especially in the pilot, is expository. And the key to Elliot's existence on the show is his "smartest guy in the room" reputation. When he discovers the root kit, he explains it to his less tech-savvy colleagues (i.e. the audience surrogates). Elliot does this, not because it's story-essential, but because it enriches the experience for the audience by teaching them something complicated in layman's terms. You can't simply watch a hacker and understand what's happening if you don't know that world.
5. The Dragon Tattoo Connection - Niels Arden Oplev, the director of the Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo helmed the Mr. Robot pilot. And Fincher remade The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in 2011. What's the connection? None really, aside from the fact both the Dragon Tattoo directors have now made exceptional television pilots in recent years (Fincher directed the first two episodes of House of Cards, in addition to executive producing). Are they just showing off? I'd like to think these guys are more interested in storytelling than anything else. Both directors saw something in Dragon Tattoo, and both made excellent and similar versions of that story. They're kindred spirits in a way.
6. The Music - Mr. Robot's music, by Mac Quayle, is grounded solidly in the computer-based genre. From the arcade-inspired boops and beeps of '80s movies (War Games) and TV shows (Doogie Howser M.D.), music programming has evolved into what we see on Mr. Robot and on shows like Halt and Catch Fire. Fincher has embraced this style himself, most notably in The Social Network, another project about a computer genius.
7. Technical Ability - David Fincher is well-regarded in the Industry for being a technically-sound filmmaker. He's not immune to style, as his opening credit sequences suggest, but once the film starts, you'll find the camera in fixed positions. Fincher rarely uses handhelds. He prefers an omniscient point of view as if what's happening is doomed to happen. Mr. Robot is filmed similarly. Oplev's pilot is full of fixed cam shots, adding to the professional look of the show, and adding stability to Elliot's character. He might be lonely and rebellious, but he's at home when he's hacking and the camera reflects that. Mr. Robot's creator Esmail directed the second episode and he adds a few more stylistic flourishes than Oplev. You'll find characters off to the sides of frames, or down in a corner. But he's proving to be a technically-sound director as well.
Esmail has seemingly come out of nowhere with Mr. Robot. He might be the most interesting showrunner working today. He comes from cinema. His 2014 romance, Comet, starring Justin Long and the writer's girlfriend, Emmy Rossum, wasn't well-regarded by critics. But the movie does suggest an intellectual mind behind the lens. It's an ambitious movie, but it does nothing to prepare you for the excellence of Mr. Robot. This suggests Esmail's mind may be better suited for the television medium, where his ideas can be massaged through 10 episodes of 40 minutes. Fincher started in a restrictive medium also: music videos. It may be a bit of a reach, but artists need to find the medium that fits them best. For Fincher, it was film, and for Esmail, it surely seems to be television.