After four seasons playing around in HBO’s Westworld, husband-and-wife producers Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have moved over to Amazon with another high-concept sci-fi property, a series adaptation of William Gibson’s 2014 novel The Peripheral. Rather than robots, this one’s about VR and time travel and…. well, yeah, some robots too, as it turns out.
Despite combining a number of very familiar elements, including large chunks of Ready Player One and brother Christopher Nolan’s Inception, the premiere of The Peripheral is very sleekly and stylishly made, and seems to set up an intriguing story. However, the same could be said about the early episodes of Westworld, only for that show to quickly get lost in narrative drudgery and repetitive mind games. I can’t help fearing that something similar may happen here. Unfortunately, with the Nolans involved, my skepticism outweighs my optimism.
|Episodes:||1.01 – Pilot|
1.02 – Empathy Bonus
|Release Date:||Oct. 21, 2022|
|Watched On:||Amazon Prime Video|
The story begins in the near future of 2032, a time when even poor white trash in rural Appalachia have high-tech Virtual Reality gaming rigs set up in their trailer homes. Chloe Grace Moretz stars as Flynne (is that a Tron reference, perhaps?), a girl struggling to make ends meet and pay for her dying mother’s pain meds. She and her brother, Burton (Jack Reynor), make side money playing games in VR cyberspace, where other players pay them to take over game avatars and advance to the next level of whatever sim they can’t get through on their own. Both are talented and clever gamers, more so Flynne.
When Burton is offered a great deal of money to beta-test a mysterious new headset gizmo, he asks Flynne to do it for him. Donning the apparatus, she finds herself in what appears to be a hyper-realistic simulation of an even more futuristic London. Piloting an avatar of Burton’s body, everything around her looks and even feels startlingly real. A voice inside her head guides her on what she believes is a game mission to kidnap a corporate executive and fight a robot inside a moving car.
While her first experience is fun and exciting, things take a sour turn on her return visit and leave Flynne with countless questions about what the point of this sim is and who made it, if it’s really a sim at all. She’s left with a nagging feeling that everything she went through was all somehow real, as improbable as that may be. Worse, her actions in the supposed game put Flynne and her family in real danger when a hit squad of contract killers comes gunning for them at her home.
By her third trip, Flynne acquires a more suitable avatar of her own body. Once again in future London, she’s introduced to a trio of bizarre characters – Wilf Netherton (Gary Carr), Lev (JJ Feild), and Ash (Katie Leung), who explain to her that she’s not in a sim. Rather, her consciousness has been transported to the year 2100 via “quantum tunneling” and is operating a robotic body called a Peripheral. They leave a lot of the details vague, but Flynne picks up a sense that something very bad happened to the world in between their two timelines. Now they need her help to find a woman named Aelita West (Charlotte Riley), whom Flynne better knows as the voice from her head that brought her into this world in the first place.
In addition to the Nolans, the series was adapted by author Scott B. Smith (A Simple Plan, The Ruins), who serves as show-runner. The first two episodes were directed by Vincenzo Natali, of Cube (1997) and Splice (2009), as well as a number of episodes of NBC’s brilliant Hannibal. The show has a lot of talent both in front of and behind the camera. It’s a very polished offering, with high production values and strong visual effects. It also has engaging characters, mostly good performances (though Feild may be a little too out-there), and a compelling premise. That’s enough to get me to watch the rest of the season’s eight episodes. I’m on board.
Yet I’m still left with a nagging feeling that the story isn’t going to amount to anything, that this will just be another frustrating exercise in recycled sci-fi tropes and narrative wheel-spinning, like Westworld turned out to be. Perhaps that’s unfair. Perhaps the Nolan’s have a clearer plan and endgame for this one – or Smith does. I think I’ll need more episodes to be convinced of that.
Amazon streams The Peripheral in 4K HDR but only Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, no Atmos. The 2.00:1 aspect ratio image has acceptable sharpness and modest use of HDR. Both are adequate but neither will knock your socks off. The sim scenes (the ones we know to be true game simulations) have oversaturated colors and exaggerated, blown-out contrast for effect.
The opening theme music is decidedly lacking in bass, but the very next scene in the pilot episode cuts to a VR sim of old-fashioned naval ships doing battle with booming cannon fire. The score in later scenes also improves moderately in dynamic range. This may not be a reference grade soundtrack, but it’s decent enough by streaming standards.