With the elegance of being hit over the head by a mallet, this film fails to do anything with subtlety.

Directed by Paul Hyett, Peripheral follows Bobbi Johnson (Hannah Arterton), as she struggles with the follow up to her explosive debut novel. After giving into her publisher’s request for the use of new writing technology, she begins to feel her writing, and potentially her entire life, is becoming controlled by a malevolent force.

Unfortunately, Bobbi Johnson is possibly one of the most unlikeable characters seen in a film for some time. She’s presented as an individualistic writer, nostalgic for the days of Vonnegut and Kerouac, a point made painfully clear by the large iconographic posters scattered across her walls, but is actually more like the pretentious philosophy student you meet at a party throwing around quotes in an attempt to appear mysterious. Bobbi is filled with stereotypical writer clichés, from having an addiction in order to fuel her creative process, to her incredibly obvious writing heroes. Her interactions with publicist, Jordan (Belinda Stewart-Wilson) are painful in how they overtly evoke the dynamic of ‘independent writer vs. soulless corporation’ – and that’s just the start of endless streams of clunky dialogue spoken by walking clichés rather than actual real-life characters.

One of the worst interactions comes in the brief conversation between Bobbi and her technology installer – they both randomly decide to get high together and then he casually explains rules of thermodynamics. There is a strong vein of pseudo-philosophical intellectualism that plagues the entire script, forcing you to lose complete interest in anything the characters are saying. It’s as though writer Dan Schaffer has introduced the ‘show-don’t-tell’ rule in reverse, and feels the need to continually outline the themes he’s attempting to explore, rather than creating nuance viewers can pick up.

Thankfully, not every character is unbearably two-dimensional – Bobbi’s junkie ex-boyfriend, Dylan (Elliot James Langridge) is a delightfully human foil to Bobbi, which is a strange sentence to write considering Bobbi’s character is supposedly this hero-of-the-people everyman. The relationship between them feels real, and there’s clear chemistry between Langridge and Arterton that works to make you feel as though there is a genuine history to the two.

The world these characters occupy is also a very confused and cliched mess. The opening scene depicts a dystopia-like London, where some kind of vague New World Order government has been installed. Any advanced technology used within the film is meant to further this idea of a dystopian future – but the normality of Bobbi’s flat makes for a strange contrast that contradicts this idea. It’s as though Schaffer started to build the world and decided a montage at the beginning alongside a peppering of future tech would be enough. And yet it may not even be the future – the exact period remaining a mystery as we’re given little indication of a time frame.

The most disappointing thing is there are moments of interest within the script, and scraps of a potentially fantastic film contained within. Shelly, played by Rosie Day, is a fanatic of Bobbi, and in a desperate plea for her attention sends self-harming videotapes begging to be noticed. The complex relationship between these two characters would be better served at the heart of the narrative, as a horror-thriller exploration of para-social relationships within our current social climate would thrive. Day steals every scene she’s in, portraying a fanatic lodged somewhere between unhinged insanity and desperate loneliness, causing the viewer to constantly question how, if at all, Bobbi can respond to someone like this, and ultimately, what Shelly could be capable of. Without venturing into spoilers there are some truly horrifying moments involving Shelly that reaffirm how the writer/fanatic relationship could’ve been the bedrock of the film.

Instead, we are subjected to what feels like a horribly bloated Black Mirror episode without the finesse of Charlie Brooker’s writing – with some truly shocking moments that feel as though their sole aim is to push boundaries and cause controversy. Attempts at social commentary are so bluntly obvious it feels insulting. For example, the idea of corporations ruling over the arts and using it for mass control – this is one of the most basic in science-fiction, as is the cliché political overlord who sees life as a game. Even when Schaffer plays with something a little more metaphorical, such as Bobbi’s hands being turned black by ink, you immediately recognize it as a sign of her increasing corruption before the film even gets a chance to frame it as a concept. It makes you wonder if Schaffer was aware of the blandness of his world and thus over-compensated by offering moments of questionably controversial horror to appease those looking for more.

Ultimately, Peripheral leaves you asking questions it has no answers to. Why is any of this happening? Why do these characters speak as though they are not human? Why does the ending execute a tabula rasa as though it makes any sense in the context of Bobbi’s relationship with her publishers? It invites you to swim in a paddling pool and pretend it is an ocean, and just when you realise it’s only as deep as your outstretched arm, it attempts to drown you in shallow controversy.

Peripheral is released digitally in the UK from August 3.

Sabastian Astley

Updated: Jul 31, 2020

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