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Prime Video's The Peripheral is a Sci-fi Slog

Prime Video’s “The Peripheral” seems to have everything, except the intrigue to keep you watching. Its story plays with time travel, simulations and avatars, faceless robots, secret missions, and something about the apocalypse. But there’s also American veterans protecting their own in backwoods shootouts, a 21st century version of Boss Hogg, and invisible cars. There’s imagination in this story, with a budget to support it, but this sci-fi slog always finds a way to make these pieces cancel out each other when it comes to telling a curious story. 

Describing “The Peripheral” is its own exhausting task: based on the book by William Gibson, the series imagines a future (2090) in which people in the real world can be controlled by someone using a headset. In this case, it’s Flynne (Chloe Grace Moretz), back in 2030s North Carolina, who gets the headset from her brother Burton (Jack Reynor) courtesy of a mysterious Colombian company that wants him to try it out. Flynn works at a shop that 3D prints anything needed and has a bike that quietly cuts through the quiet Blue Ridge Mountain roads. Those are about the most intriguing facets about her, which is more than other fictional beings lost in the plotting’s gobbledygook. 

When Flynn puts on this headset, she enters into a simulation (appearing as Burton), which is a lot like a video game tutorial. A voice in her head tells her where to go and teaches her commands like “I have arrived” to open doors, while a desolate but noir-ready London carries itself ominously. With arrows gently flashing on the road, guiding her vehicle like a game, Flynne arrives to a mission that includes seduction, kidnapping, and learning that she can rip her skin off to reveal a robot hand. But this is a different feeling than just Flynn wearing a headset for her virtual reality gaming; the pain is real, like getting a kick in the stomach while plugged into the matrix in “The Matrix.” 

“The Peripheral,” adapted by Scott B. Smith, isn’t content or focused enough with the intrigue of playing avatar inside sci-fi noir future. Instead it gets tangled up with an added conspiracy to have Flynn and Flynne killed back in the 2030s, which requires Burton to recruit his drinking and war buddies, including Connor (Eli Goree), who lost his legs and an arm, but rides around on a badass unicycle and gives cold glares when not disarmed by booze. A local drug lord and businessman named Corbell Pickett (Louis Herthum) is brought into the mix when some armed men with invisible SUVs and automatic weapons just don’t cut it. 

“The Peripheral” plays with two worlds, the present of North Carolina, where people drink beer while a dull yellow haze covers their daylight, and the future in cloudy London, where everyone looks as fancy as possible and casually use terms like “atavistic.” Neither world, despite the attention given to them by the production designers and costuming, feels more than a bit hollow, or anything other than an appeal to both the heady sci-fi fans at the same time as those who watch “Reacher,” “The Terminal List,” etc. And maybe worst of all, the series is full of gummy North Carolina and British accents, which gives little life to its reams of self-conscious exposition meant to make sense of what’s really going on. 

It’s all so cluttered, and so laborious by the writing and therefore even more laborious to keep up with. Worst yet, the emotional stakes are lost in the mess, despite the focus of a brother and sister relationship bonded by their care for their tumor-afflicted mother, and the respect the siblings have for each other. But it’s not until episode four that the series gives a sense of what’s really going on here, of what we should be afraid of, and does so with a flashy “museum” presentation that illustrates what catastrophic events happened before these stark 2090s. There’s repeated mention about Flynne’s first mission leading to the disappearance of a key figure from this future named Aelita West (Charlotte Riley), and a backstory with Flynne's mentor Wolf Netherton (Gary Carr), but it does not create the intrigue a mystery box like "The Peripheral" needs. 

The less dialogue-driven sequences don’t fare much better—“The Peripheral” inserts bits of action into the story, but they are continuously dull. Watching some men exchange bullets in the nighttime, with call-and-response editing, shares the same boring quality of when some hackers battle it out across different timelines, furiously typing on keyboards to a standard thriller’s score. It’s telling that the series wants to make a plea for being more exciting with these sequences but reveals how little else it has to offer when it comes to basic thrills. 

Despite being ambitious with its different pieces, if not overzealous in how it packs them all in, “The Peripheral” (with a backwards “R” in the title card, thanks very much) is wildly stuffy. The damage of this bland tone is far-reaching: performances become monotonous, the world-building doesn’t have a grandiose sense of growth, and the general wonder behind the time-jumping, body controlling premise of “The Peripheral” is lost. It’s as if the creators forgot that this is more or less all about a video game, and that we don’t play them for the cut scenes. 

Five episodes screened for review. "The Peripheral" premieres on Prime Video on October 21st.

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the Senior Editor at RogerEbert.com and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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