I’m gonna wager that you’re tired of hearing or reading sentiments like this, but it’s hard to imagine a more frightening time for a movie like Peripheral to come out. Permeated with paranoid cyberpunk theories about deep-state “thought control,” Hannah Arterton (Safe) stars as Bobbi Johnson, a young upstart author whose first novel set off a series of riots. Under the pressure of a deadline for her second book, Bobbi’s publisher, played by Jenny Seagrove (The Guardian), convinces her to accept a state-of-the-art computer that will edit her writing on the fly.
A sort of ‘retrophile,’ Bobbi adapts to most conveniences of modern technology, but prefers to work with her mechanical typewriter. Unable to pay her light bill, Bobbi agrees to embrace the new technology following an amusing exchange when the publisher suggests she doesn’t really need electricity to use her typewriter—something modern authors will undoubtedly find relatable. Meanwhile, a mysterious fan continues to drop off VHS tapes that Bobbi stacks on a shelf, unable to watch.
In fact, Bobbi’s publisher encourages her not to engage with this mystery girl at all, representing an increased isolation between author and fanbase. Toss in a junkie ex-boyfriend who convinces Bobbi to hang on to his stash of pills, and the script from writer Dan Schaffer (The Scribbler, Doghouse) provides the perfect prescription for director Paul Hyett (Howl) to spin into a spine-tingling tempest of techno-terror.
Reviewers have thrown a lot of comparisons around, like Ex Machina and Videodrome, but I actually would venture an even more off-the-wall comparison: 2018’s Cam by Isa Mazzei. However, where Cam saw a cam girl battle a mysterious cyber entity seeking to take over her life and relationships, Peripheral sees a similarly mysterious entity threaten to alter Bobbi’s very identity as a writer. Besides just her words, she begins to experience physical changes the further along she gets. Copious amounts of black goo and old-school mechanical effects torment your senses as Bobbi descends a technological rabbit hole of increasing chaos.
Any complaints I have are relatively minor. While the story is engaging, a little more detail on what, specifically, the computer is doing to alter Bobbi’s writing would have been illuminating. Other than changing her protagonist from female to male—which turns out to be frustratingly easy to overcome—we aren’t given many specifics. However, the emotions of the situation and their effect on Bobbi and her world come through loud and clear. Bobbi’s life spirals out of control at an accelerated pace, ultimately culminating in a cloying climax right out of a Cronenberg film.
The resolution is yet another area that may leave viewers with more questions than answers, particularly in how certain characters end up in possession of certain objects by the end of the movie. As with most movies with a fantasy element, the answer is, most likely, don’t think about it. Perhaps it’s meant as a metaphor for the author’s message getting through despite interference, or the ability in today’s world of reaching fans directly. I’ll let people much smarter than myself worry about that. The slick visual style, body horror, and Arterton’s performance are enough to carry this movie, making it an easy recommendation.
Peripheral will be available digitally in the UK and Ireland on August 3, 2020.