If a hit television show is dependent on a likable hero whom you might want for a buddy in real life, then Mr. Robot is going about it all kinds of wrong. Meet Elliot (Rami Malek), a socially stunted morphine-snorting hoodie-headed misfit with saucer eyes and pale gray skin—a cybersecurity whiz by day, hacktivist vigilante by night. He’s good for busting kiddie-porn moguls and protecting his therapist (Gloria Reuben) from her bad taste in men, but his digital-dark-knight do-gooding is rooted in the cynical belief that everyone is turdy at heart. Even you. His internal monologue is a mix of anti-capitalist invective, tragedy-forged paranoia, and romantic mope, and Mr. Robot constantly fills your ears with it, as each episode is narrated by Elliot to the imaginary friend inside his head. He hates Josh Groban. Who hates Josh Groban? Hoodie-headed misanthropes with E.T. faces, that’s who! Who wants to spend a summer suffering suffocating cynicism like this?
Well, I do. Mr. Robot is a worldview-challenging psychological thriller that’s steeped in new-century punk politics, nervy with digital-age anxiety, and made with slick, smart panache. The series tracks Elliot’s conflicted alliance with a collective of Anonymous-esque techno-anarchists (allegedly) questing to liberate us from “economic slavery” by obliterating all record of global debt. Maybe. They’re a shifty, scuzzy bunch, led by the titular Mr. Robot (a well-used Christian Slater), the hobo Morpheus to Elliot’s Neo. Their target is E Corp, the all-pervasive tech giant Elliot is employed to protect. He’s drawn to their cause and promise of community, though their tactics make him queasy, and joining their subversions means sabotaging his colleague and only friend, Angela (Portia Doubleday). He’s a rebel hero. He’s a compromised hypocrite. He’s us? Discuss.
Malek is riveting as Elliot. He finds the vulnerable humanity in his prickly character without sentimentalizing him. He fixes you with those mesmerizing orbs, sucks you in with that intimate drone of a voice, and never lets go. Filmmaking purists often dismiss voice-over as a storytelling cheat. Here, it’s invaluable and artful, a performance piece unto itself. The crisp editing maintains a lively pace, the electronic score keeps a sinister beat, and curious compositional choices create gripping, meaningful unease. Unreliable Narrator Alert! How much of Elliot’s reality is delusion? (Note how Elliot’s private derisive term for E Corp—“Evil Corp”—starts spreading into the world around him like a viral meme.) Mr. Robot echoes Fight Club in its interest in how we live within ourselves—and live with ourselves—as people of conscience, and negotiate our relationship to society’s flawed, corrupt operating systems. The show may not click with everyone, but it left me electrified. A