Review by C.J. Bunce
Amazon Studio’s adaptation of William Gibson’s The Peripheral pulls together some great sci-fi tropes into a tightly written, action-filled gamer’s paradise. It starts like Ready Player One, but leaves that novel and movie in its wake quickly, amping up the stakes as it blends two worlds. The first is an only slightly future-world Blue Ridge Mountains family struggling to get by–but this 2030 setting already has advanced cybernetics. The second is a future that may or may not happen, filled with agents a la The Matrix and Looper trying to alter the past. Two episodes in and The Peripheral has left The Matrix and Looper in the dust, too. And that’s only a starting point.
Chloe Moretz plays Flynne Fisher, a young woman trying to hold her family together: a blind mother with some terminal illness requiring a thousand dollar pill per day to survive, and an ex-military brother named Burton (Jack Reynor), who likes to play the latest first person shooter virtual reality game with with his veteran circle of friends. Sister Flynne is actually better at the gameplay, however, and racks up VR cred using Burton’s avatar.
When Burton is tapped The Last Starfighter style–based on sis’s high score on a game called Halcyon–to beta test a new game for big money (enough to buy mom’s pills for months), Flynne plays in his stead to ensure results. She realizes the VR is a little too real. The fact the production design doesn’t give us a Tron or Ready Player One is a good clue of what’s going on. The science they call “quantum tunneling data transfer”–this isn’t time travel, it’s Quantum Leap–more original Quantum Leap than the reboot. Enter Gary Carr as Wilf Netherton, a real world fixer of The Adjustment Bureau and Looper school of sci-fi. He comes to tell Flynne basically “come with me if you want to live.”
The action is first-person shooter game tie-in stuff, the music is Blade Runner 2049 mixed with James Bond. The science fiction is grounded in Philip K. Dick–something Prime Video proved it was good at with its The Man in the High Castle series. If only the Total Recall reboot had been this good–can writer Scott B. Smith keep up this momentum for eight episodes? Episode 2 has less going on than the first hour, so this may be just a good opener that fizzles out.
What is the agenda of these antagonists from the future? Is this 12 Monkeys? Or Counterpart? Are viewers getting the whole story in the right order, or are we being tricked somehow?
The contrast of the overdone, profanity-riddled, Southern twang dialogue of the “past” and the redesign of an empty, exquisite London of the future 70 years later somehow works, creating something like Waterworld or The Postman mixed with Altered Carbon. A squad of gamer ex-soldiers defending against a future kill team is a nice addition. Flynne is a good lead. Her brother isn’t a typical secondary character, but seems to be driving his own story.
Dutch production designer Jan Roelfs (Gattaca, Ghost in the Shell) and Stuart Howell (The Crown) deliver the right look here, more movie theater quality than television level visuals (even better than Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power). Mark Korven’s (The Black Phone) musical score may be the best component. Michele Clapton’s (Game of Thrones) future wardrobe is sleek and stylish.
What’s real? What’s just in Flynne’s mind? Hopefully it’s not all part of a very real Sim.
This is a series to keep an eye on. The Peripheral is streaming its first two episodes now on Prime Video, with new episodes weekly.