RELEASE DATE: AUGUST 3RD
Director Paul Hyett follows possession horror The Convent with this paranoid tech sci-fi penned by Doghouse scribe Dan Schaffer. The UK-set story sees twenty-something, financially struggling novelist Bobbi Johnson (Hannah Arterton) tackling writer's block and hallucinatory terrors after her provocative debut novel Bite the Hand spawned protests, riots, and a decade of austerity in dystopian London. To break her block, Bobbi's agent Jordan (Belinda Stewart-Wilson) suggests she substitute her trusty old typewriter with a ‘state of the art, intelligent writing assistant’ to secure an advance for a second novel. Being a luddite, Bobbi reluctantly agrees but regrets her decision when the software evolves from editorial/tech support system into psychotic collaborator.
Where recent tech horrors like Cam and Apparition centred on specific supernatural software/tools, Peripheral tackles technological ethics and the evolution/utilisation of AI to ‘assist’. Rogue AI growing self-aware is hardly new ground but it’s reliably adaptable genre fodder that's forever becoming more relevant. Peripheral subverts the subgenre slightly (has the tech gone rogue?) and studies society where the advancement of software to assist with art/creation could be considered as collaborative and less from a single source; making one question where the art stops and auto-construction starts.
Ironically, the script disperses such notions via dazed and cryptic philosophies as ‘profound’ sounding insights relayed as though gospel by ominous supporting characters, but they just feel so jarringly jimmied-in and trite. Editor Jordan, pops up like a bot on Bobbi's monitor during her creative crisis while drug dealing fuck buddy Dylan (Elliot James Langridge) and the appliance delivery man/installer (Connor Byrne) all halt plot progression with their metaphysical pennies' worth. Fear of facial recognition software and identity fraud make Peripheral timely along with a ‘technology as addiction’ adage. Bobbi is branded as being part of the ‘surveillance generation’ while the system itself takes the guise of a touch-sensitive, interactive flat-screen set-up with a HAL-like red cam eye, arriving in a series of Monolith-sized boxes.
Yet, despite its relevance, Peripheral's aesthetics recall classic ‘90s trash cyber sci-fi-like Split Second, Freejack, Hackers, and Timebomb. A techno-laden drug trip seems like a clip of The Lawnmower Man's malfunctioning screensaver while exhausted pulsing synth stabs, the type of which has been relentlessly overused in modern horror/sci-fi, recall classic John Carpenter. This retro vibe is also adorned during a subplot that sees Bobbi receive a series of numbered video cassettes from a hooded prowler, but she can't play the tapes as she has no VCR. Who does apart from us cult film/format freaks?
The script shimmies into Cronenberg/Raimi terrain throughout the second act and momentarily improves, but instead of running fearlessly in this exciting new direction, it backtracks onto a more budget-friendly path veering to a slighter yet still quite satisfying finale. Peripheral feels (cyber) punk by way of its retaliation against templates/software bolstered by an ‘establishment is enemy’ stance. Sadly, the story stalls severely, but stammers through a few interesting scenes via structural blunders, shaky performances, and a massively unlikeable protagonist. These ultimately cripple Peripheral and kill what could have been a courageous, Cronenbergian socio-tech commentary and batshit body horror. Instead, it just lumbers under defective dead-weights and jumbled, preachy aphorisms.