Of all the words that we reviewers misuse, perhaps ‘surreal’ is the worst offender. Too often it’s the first word we reach for whenever a film presents us with something bizarre, weird or ‘random’. Real surrealist film isn’t just disposable, pleasing nonsense designed to give a movie a quirky visual style. Surrealist films use the logic of dreams to expose the violence, inequality and injustice that underpins our everyday world. True surrealism should have teeth. Peripheral, a film by Paul Hyett, has a gobful.
Bobbi (Hannah Arterton) has a bestseller on her hands, a book so incendiary that it ignited a string of riots across England in 2011. Now she’s on the hook to a megalithic publishing powerhouse for the sequel, and she’s finding herself having to abandon creative control to them. When they insist she trade in her trusty typewriter for an absurdly hi-tech computer, complete with holograms and random glowing bits, she relents to keep them happy. Soon the machine is wrenching control away from her, burrowing into her brain and maybe, unless it’s all a drug and technology-induced hallucination, transforming her body.
You’d be forgiven, on first seeing the technological behemoth enter the story, for thinking that this film is going to go down the well-trodden route of ‘technology bad’. Thankfully, Hyett has a few more interesting points to make than this. Peripheral’s position isn’t a simplistic luddite distrust of technology, but an examination of how technology, power, capitalism, creativity and mental health intersect. If Guy Debord took acid and spent an hour or two on Reddit, this is probably where he’d end up.
Where these themes are explored with real blood-and-guts visual metaphors, which play like a low-budget Cronenberg adaptation of a cyberpunk novel, the film is at its best. Where it tends to lose momentum is in the scenes where characters more or less explicitly state the themes into the camera. These expositional dialogues can be clunky and awkward, and only become more so as the film progresses. You will care a lot more about Bobbi losing her sense of authentic self in the face of big business when her hands are turning black than when she tells you about it.
Visually, the film is able to do a great deal with its small budget. Bobbi’s grotty apartment slowly fills with neon purple and blue light, transforming into a psychedelic tableau. CG is used sparingly, mainly to showcase the machine itself, and the sense of artificiality and otherworldliness are pretty appropriate to the story rather than being distracting. The body horror is mild, and perhaps more could be made of Bobbi’s physical transformation. Nonetheless, the sense that the machine is intruding into her life and eroding her mental state is palpable.
Belinda Stewart-Wilson puts in a memorable performance as Jordan, the face of the publisher, who appears on Bobbi’s screen to remind her of her obligations and to offer sinister ‘upgrades’ to her computer. Arterton’s descent into delirium is believable and feels grounded.
There are a lot of ideas in Peripheral. Some come off well, such as the stalker character who is obsessed with Bobbi’s first book. Her scenes are great illustrations of how toxic parasocial relationships can become in the internet age. Others miss the mark a little, however. For example, it’s implied that Bobbi’s first book triggered the riots of 2011. Given that the actual 2011 riots were sparked by the police killing of a black man, this retcon feels a little problematic, especially in 2020. It’s inserting a white saviour into the story like Marty McFly teaching Chuck Berry guitar licks in Back To The Future.
Drawing easy comparison with Lynch and Cronenberg, Peripheral is an admirably ambitious film. Although it perhaps bites off a little more than it can chew thematically, it’s a great example of how an entire dystopia can be conjured with a narrow focus on minimal characters and locations. Troubling, timely, and featuring a real examination of the crisis of creativity in the age of the commodity, it’s truly surreal.