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THE WRITING IS ON THE WALL
Director: Paul Hyett
Screenplay: Dan Schaffer
Review: RJ Bland
'AI is likely to be the best or worst thing to happen to the human race'. You know who said that? Stephen Hawking and correct us if we're wrong, but he was a pretty smart dude. He's right too. Along with political upheaval, disease and climate change, artificial intelligence is one of the biggest threats facing the human race in the 21st century. Of course, these fears have been around since the information technology revolution began in the 70s and we've had numerous techno-horrors in the ensuing decades. Whilst Terminator and The Matrix look at the possibility of AI turning on us, Ex-Machina takes a more sympathetic approach and questions the ethics of what we are doing. Spike Jonze's Her takes a different angle completely and asks us how AI may affect (or replace) human relationships in the future. The beauty of this subject is that it's vast and the potential ramifications are multiple and at this stage, unknown. However, what's certain is that more and more of this is going to feel less like science fiction and more like science in the coming years. One very real and current topic is how our behaviour is being affected and how technology is changing how we live, how we relate to other people and our output. Paul Hyett's Peripheral is a film that tackles these questions head on.
Bobbi Johnson (Hannah Arterton) is a London based author whose first novel, 'Bite the Hand', has propelled her to literary fame, caused nationwide riots and protests and has earned her a nice little cult following amongst the disaffected. Every author's dream, right? Wrong! Bobbi is suffering a bad case of writer's block you see. To compound the problem, she's running out of money, her junkie ex-boyfriend keeps showing up and some strange woman keeps pushing VHS tapes through her letterbox (Bobbi just keeps piling them up without watching them). Her publisher tries to persuade her to use a new bit of kit that will help her with her new book. But Bobbi is a bit of a Luddite and is reluctant to give up her trusty old typewriter. However there's only so long you can hold out and rather than face eviction, she begrudgingly accepts her publisher's offer of help.
However, instead of it being a downloadable bit of software or an app, it's a huge piece of kit that is delivered to her and installed in her living room. Bobbi may have been expecting something that refined her writing a little or helped with developing a writing schedule but this thing is much more than that. It demands that she works, it edits what she writes in real time and it changes entire sections at will. Soon, Bobbi begins to suspect something sinister is going on...
Director Paul Hyett has worked as a make-up effects artist on some of the best British horror films of the last couple of decades, including The Descent and Attack the Block. He's also helmed three features himself. His debut, The Seasoning House is a better film than both his subsequent features (Howl and The Convent) – however all three films have one thing in common; they are all pretty brutal and violent. Peripheral perhaps marks a new chapter in his film-making career. It feels more controlled and considered. It's less brawn and more brains and is without doubt his best film to date. It may involve far less horror than his other features but it's no less troubling in its core message. Humanity and creativity is at risk of being diluted and standardised. In an age where so much is about self-image and personal branding, technology is actually eroding our identities and what's more, we're apparently happy to go along with it. We're willing to sell our souls just to be recognised, to stand out. Regardless of whether or not the end product is of any merit. Or even genuine. Peripheral acts as a marker in time; a study of all this before things get really bad. And whilst it's a bit heavy handed in its methods and some of the dialogue is a bit too blunt, for the most part it works.
A TV show that most genre fans will be familiar with is Black Mirror, which also has an intense focus on how technology could impact our lives going forward. Peripheral could easily be a feature length Black Mirror episode, both in terms of content and tone. It may not be nerve jangling, edge of your seat horror but there's more than enough here to make you feel rather uncomfortable. We do get some Cronenbergian body horror too and the whole thing feels rather suffocating and claustrophobic, with the vast majority of the film being set in Bobbi's flat. However, Hyett injects some visual flourishes and there is enough surreality for everything to feel stuffy. The electro score from Si Begg is a winner too.
Hannah Arterton gives a solid turn as the reclusive central protagonist. She's basically in every scene. It's not a character that is particularly easy to warm to and for some, this may prove to be a bit of a stumbling block. If moody creative types get on your nerves then she'll begin to grate on you quite quickly. The ending may fall a little flat for some people too. Peripheral is staunchly loyal to its central theme and whilst the climax rounds this all off rather neatly, it admittedly feels like it lacks a bit of punch. For those who have enioyed everything that has come before however, it's not a fatal blow. A pensive, contemplative conclusion to a subject as deep and complicated as this is rather fitting truth be told.
Although it may lack subtlety at times, Peripheral is an intriguing introspective on human creativity and identity. Arterton's central performance and Hyett's visual style add some gloss to it all too.
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